Contextualization in Missions
Contextualization is the effort to present my unique Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, through the eyes of those He seeks to save. In Scott Hildreth’s article, “Contextualization and Great Commission Faithfulness,” the author addresses the tension between making the gospel message for those in various contexts “both orthodox and understandable.” He cautions against obscurantism in which the missionary neglects the perspective of those he might reach and against syncretism which compromises the truth and power of the message for the sake of identifying with those same people. Hildreth’s observation is astute: “obedience to the Great Commission requires contextualizing the Christian message for and with the people in a ministry field” (emphasis mine). He develops this thought well, especially toward the end of the article where he suggests a specific process for contextualization.
Hildreth points out the two orientations for contextualized theology, but I would take the stance they should be a dual orientation. The first is “creation centered,” which is along the lines of general revelation—God revealing Himself in daily life. The second is “redemption centered,” which carries the conviction that all of life—including culture—needs transformed. This is more along the lines of special revelation in which God has revealed Himself historically in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in clear fulfillment of His Scriptures given throughout history,
which continued through the work of the apostles. According to Scripture such as Acts 17:22-28, these two orientations should be considered simultaneously. Paul addressed the people in Athens pointing out their altar “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD,” making the connection that the one true God revealed in Jesus is this God which they once did not know.
This is indeed along the lines with Hildreth’s citation of VanRheenen which states that “images, metaphors, rituals, and words that are current in the culture are used to make the message both understandable and impactful.” I did this when I preached for the first time at my church this past summer after being hired. Expositing 1 Peter 1:3-9, the Lord gave me a picture of an abandoned warehouse being transformed into a palace which would be meaningful to a community of many working-class individuals. What Hildreth describes next is simply good inductive Bible study in which the missionary helps people observe, interpret and apply Scripture: “Reaffirmation of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. [Re-articulation] of this faith with forms, symbols, and language that communicate the message as it was intended to be understood. Re-application of Christian living in a way that is culturally appropriate.” If the missionary who wants to not only teach but also train others to study and teach follows this general procedure, the truths in Scripture will be preserved and the people will have a real encounter with God by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Hildreth’s discussion of the Great Commission texts is helpful when considering how to accomplish this. He says, “the Great Commission is not only important in the historical development of missions; it is also a key text for biblical interpretation.” In the article, Hildreth emphasizes the Gospel of Matthew. Much like Matthew 28:19-20 helps us understand the message of Matthew as a whole, John 20:31 does the same for the Gospel of John, “...these have
been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” “LIFE IN HIS NAME” should be the goal of all missions efforts, as Scripture makes clear.
Certain sociological elements can be considered through the lens of scriptural truth when seeking to contextualize the gospel message. Hildreth discusses making cross-cultural workers, and I would like to take his ideas further, with perhaps a different thrust. He asks the question, “what should the outsider do in order to both participate in contextualization as part of making disciples while at the same time releasing nationals to do theology.” It is clear given Scripture and the Christian experience that it is important to develop and deploy locals so the missionary can move on. In the pastoral epistles to Titus and Timothy in particular, Paul instructs these men to set up elders in every city who can exercise ministry of the Word with the people in their given context. This is done through modeling a godly lifestyle and practice of spiritual disciplines, being a life imparted—not simply information imported. The authority of Scripture in the life of one submitted to the power of the Holy Spirit will accomplish much. Paul says, “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). Indeed, perhaps this is the only way to carry on God’s mission.
Still, Paul did approach the gospel message using the Corinthians’ terms—their pursuit of wisdom (1 Cor. 1:22-23).
Christ is supreme, and we know Him through Scripture. Hildreth cautions, “the missionary is fulfilling the mandate of the Great Commission in making disciples of Jesus, not Western culture or himself.” I would go further to add we should not make disciples of our denomination or particular doctrinal stances. God may choose to work differently in these bodies of believers in matters of spiritual gifts, for example. While some groups may be cessationist, and justifiably so if they are a homogenous group, God may still have people speak in “tongues” in the context of preaching the gospel to unreached people groups of different cultures and languages. The importance of local expression could not be understated. The Christian message is universal, and it is able to address local concerns for any person on Earth. This works to the end that all would commit to an “obedience of the faith” (Romans 1:5) and a “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). It is easy to teach our culture and have people copy us in our behaviors and rote knowledge. It is harder to impart a life in which we are modeling the obedience and simple, pure devotion to Christ. This takes time and relationship-building, the latter of which requires some contextualization.
Article cited: "Contextualization and Great Commission Faithfulness"
by Scott Hildreth
Pub. in the Contemporary Practice section www.globalmissiology.org, Oct. 2010
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This is the blog of Tyler Shepard, the Associate Pastor for Centre Union Church in Yeagertown, PA.
I hope you are encouraged and challenged to walk more closely with Jesus Christ!