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
The Great Commission: Comparing and Contrasting the Gospel Accounts to Set a Missional Trajectory for the Church
To understand the mission of the Church it is helpful to study Jesus’ last words in all four Gospels which together give a complete picture of Jesus’ expectations and empowering of the Church for its most important task. Even though only the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke give an explicit account of Jesus’ commission to his disciples, John’s account is just as instructive for understanding the Great Commission. Acts also gives a continuation of Luke’s account in particular.
Matthew 28:18-20 is the first statement of the Great Commission, given in canonical order. In Matthew’s account, the disciples went up to the mountain in Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection, as instructed. They worshiped Him, “but some were doubtful” (vs. 17). Undoubtedly in response to their doubt, Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (vs. 18). Jesus was indeed who he had told them he was. Because Jesus was the risen Messiah, the disciples were to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (vs. 19). Jesus is sharing His authority with the disciples which empowers them to make still more disciples who will learn “to observe all that [Jesus] commanded [them]” (vs. 20). The ultimate comfort and empowerment to overcome doubt is the fact that Jesus will always be with us (vs. 20).
Mark affirms this, though with different verbiage. Mark says, “And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed” (vs. 20). We see Mark take the narrative further along in history as the disciples had a present experience of Jesus’ presence in the time that followed after he ascended (vs. 19). The ascension is key to understanding the disciples overcoming their fear and doubt. That was even further proof that the resurrected Lord has the authority which he claimed in Matthew’s account! Mark’s account emphasizes the experience of the Lord through signs of the authority given (vs. 17-18) and the response to “preaching to all creation”—baptism of those who would believe (vs. 15-16). The new life accepted and the old life put to death, which baptism symbolizes, was to be clearly demonstrated in supernatural ways by the disciples. Mark also emphasizes the disciples overcoming their fear, as they had retreated to the safety of someone’s home (vs. 14).
Luke gives some insight about the exact source of the authority given and the sudden empowerment of the disciples. He also explains how the Lord could work in the midst of the disciples after the Ascension. After his resurrection, Jesus “explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). He also revealed Himself on the basis of His sincere fellowship with them—a sharing in His life (24:28-32). Luke takes this further in Acts on the basis of believers’ sincere fellowship with one another (Acts 2:41-47). It is on the basis of this fellowship that the Great Commission began to be carried out as those who came to believe as disciples (“learners”) “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). While Luke makes it clear that the aim of Christian fellowship should be devotion to living out Scripture, he also explains the power behind that fellowship—the Holy Spirit. What Jesus promised in Luke 24:49, that they would be “clothed with power from on high,” was fulfilled as described in Acts 2:4, “and they were filled by with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” This pattern of speaking in other languages as seen in Acts is always in the context of sharing the gospel with unreached people groups—clearly a fulfillment of the Great Commission. This is what Jesus meant in Acts 1:6-8, that they would be his witnesses in an increasingly larger geographical area—really in relation to the people groups themselves. Thus, we see the gospel being spread by the power of the Holy Spirit through translation of the Word of God, found in Scripture and experience of the risen Christ.
With this in mind, the Gospel of John is equally as instructive in understanding the Great Commission. Jesus was the original translation of God and His will. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). Jesus became a man—the Word of God in our midst. He lived a different life as the light in the midst of darkness to show us God’s glory (John 3:19). He showed us a way to have eternal life, really fellowship with our Creator (John 14:6). This ministry has continued by the power of the Holy Spirit, who has been given as our counselor and Helper to live according to God’s Word (John 14:15-17, 24). This is all to God’s glory (15:8) in which we will someday share (John 17:20-24).
Much like the consecutive Gospels went further back in time at the start of their accounts, each consecutive Gospel also carries the narrative farther along in the ministry of the Church as an extension of Christ himself. Jesus, as the Word of God who has always been preached (Rom. 1:20; 10:14-18), fulfilled all prophecy, to include Jeremiah 31:33, “ ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’ “ Jesus now “dwells in our hearts through faith,” which is a true experience and source of our mission to see many “made alive together with Him” (Ephesians 3:17; 2:4-5). The hope we have of dwelling with Him in His eternal kingdom should be the source of our joy (John 15:11) and what drives us to be faithful to God’s Word by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Action Steps. A missional trajectory for a Great Commission Church will be characterized by:
The Great “Co-Mission” is carried out with God through submission, directed by Him, empowered by him, and accomplished by Him!
After reading and reflecting on these verses, I read Ryan King’s article, “The Great Commission: Fulfilled by the Churches and for the Churches.” His initial observation that “a primarily individualistic application of this command is more a product of our Western culture than from a natural reading of the text” resonates with readings we have done the last few weeks. The emphasis on personal conversion and experience came about prominently with the Reformation, in due response to the Catholic Church’s centralization of power. Even so, perhaps the reformers were slightly misguided in this emphasis which a pure reading of the Scripture—particularly the book of Acts—might illuminate. It is clear just in the Great Commission texts that it is all about a corporate, shared life in Christ as disciples grow then share with the world. I read a book a while back by Alan Snyder, Community of the King, in which he said something to the effect of “the gospel is not just more clearly perceived in the context of Christian community, it is the basis for that community.”
What follows, then, is that each church should have a clear focus on missions in which everyone plays a part. King describes two pitfalls in the Western approach to a focus on missions. One is the idea that the rest of the world is dependent on us, and us alone, to “go.” In this, we forget our foreign brothers and sisters doing the work of the gospel. A missionary friend from India who plants indigenous house churches said once that what they pray for most is revival in America! The second pitfall King describes is more on the opposite end of the spectrum: that perhaps more workers are not needed because of all who are already out in the missions fields. His conclusion in this section is right on. The Universal Church’s mission has not ended; therefore, we should see active participation and cooperation between churches in both local and global contexts.
I could not agree more with King’s last section, as my conclusion just based on the texts above shows. Healthy churches multiply and split. The problem I see in America is a prevailing attractional model for churches who think we need to be bigger and better (which may or may not include giving to missions efforts) in order to see more souls saved. This focus on numbers also often forgets the second half of the Great Commission of intentional teaching and learning. Hopefully, some of the suggestions I made here are helpful.
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!