For the past few years the issue of "contextualization" has been intensely discussed and debated. Throughout the many discussions I have had, listened in on, and read, I have found some legitimate differences in perspective, but also some pretty serious misunderstandings concerning the nature of contextualization. I will spend several posts sharing my thoughts on the nature of contextualization and the need to contextualize. Today, we talk more about the danger and necessity of contextualization and engaging culture. One of the first issues has to be what is contextualized and what is not.
Evangelical Christians do not believe everything is culturally determined and formed, though we (humans) do perceive our world through a cultural lens.
There are some things that we consider eternal and unchanging, such as the nature of God and biblical revelation. Thus, the "gospel" is generally not something that most evangelicals want to contextualize (though they may say "contextualize the gospel," they tend to mean its communication rather than its content).
Evangelicals tend to believe that we don't change the gospel because we don't own the gospel. We don't change or alter the gospel because the gospel is history. The gospel is the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that rescues sinful humanity from eternal ruin.
Thus, evangelical believers don't need to say that they want to "make the Bible relevant" or "make God relevant." They already are (though I will address issues of Bible tranlastion in this series). Yet, contextualization matters because we are not eternal, timeless, and a-cultural. Some of the ways we worship, how we present eternal truths, and how we live in and relate to society all must be considered. We live in a culture. How we see things, understand them, and present them to others must take culture into account.
And, we encounter Christianity in cultures. Andrew F. Walls explains:
No one ever meets universal Christianity in itself: we only ever meet Christianity in a local form and that means a historically, culturally conditioned form. We need not fear this; when God became man he became historically, cultural conditioned man in a particular time and place. What he became, we need not fear to be. There is nothing wrong in having local forms of Christianity--provided that we remember that they are local. (A. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of the Faith (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1996), 235).
It is odd for me to hear people say we should not worry about culture. It seems like a fish saying we should not worry about water. You LIVE in that water. Thus, you have to redefine the term culture to say it must be avoided and not engaged (again, see the last entry to how evangelicals define culture).
The scriptures clearly teach us that there are things that are true and transcend particular cultures and times. Yet, the scripture also models for us the need to address cultural realities. In MissionShift: Mission Issues for the Third Millennium, I explain:
I suggest that we return to first-century thinking. What we find in the New Testament is that to be biblical requires contextualization. Dean Fleming developed this point in Contextualization in the New Testament. He argues, "Scripture itself can offer us a more adequate approach to the challenge of reappropriating the gospel," because "each book of the New Testament represents an attempt by the author to present the Christian message in a way that is targeted for a particular audience within a sociocultural environment."
Thus, we must acknowledge there are eternal and transcultural truths but also changing cultural realities to be considered. Sometimes these two tasks feel as if they are in opposition to one another, but it is wrestling through that very tension that will help to keep us sharp and effective in whatever mission field God has sent us.
There are different approaches. In MissionShift, Paul Hiebert (in his last word on contextualization before his death), spoke of levels of contextualization:
...we see the gospel as acultural and ahistorical. It is unchanging and universal, can be codified in abstract rational terms, and communicated in all languages without loss of meaning. Neither the sociocultural contexts of the listeners nor the messengers need be taken into account.
The more we live with and study the people we serve, the more we become aware of the depth and power of the people's culture, and the need to contextualize both the messenger and the message for them to understand and live the gospel; but we are afraid that this can distort the gospel, so it must be done minimally. We realize that we must speak and translate the Bible into their language and that we must organize their services and churches in ways the people understand, but we equate Christianity with our beliefs and practices.
He also speaks of Uncritical Contextualization, which I will address later. (It seems that many critics of contextualization are actually referring to this approach.)
As an alternative, Hiebert points us toward Critical Contextualization, where:
The Bible is seen as divine revelation, not simply as humanly constructed beliefs. In contextualization the heart of the gospel must be kept as it is encoded in forms that are understood by the people, without making the gospel captive to the contexts. This is an ongoing process of embodying the gospel in an ever-changing world. Here cultures are seen as both good and evil, not simply as neutral vehicles for understanding the world. No culture is absolute or privileged. We are all relativized by the gospel.
Contextualization matters to those concerned about clear gospel proclamation. Yes, contextualization is a dangerous thing. It is also a necessary thing. Without contextual considerations, we do not transmit the gospel, but we transmit more of our cultural adaptation of that gospel.
As Dean Gilliland explained,
Contextualization [is] a delicate enterprise if ever there was one . . . the evangelist and mission strategist stand on a razor's edge, aware that to fall off on either side has terrible consequences . . . Fall to the right and you end in obscurantism, so attached to your conventional ways of practicing and teaching the faith that you veil its truth and power from those who are trying to see it through very different eyes. Slip to the left and you tumble into syncretism, so vulnerable to the impact of paganism in its multiplicity of forms that you compromise the uniqueness of Christ and concoct "another gospel which is not a gospel" (Dean S. Gilliand, "Contextual Theology as Incarnational Mission," in The Word Among Us, ed. Dean S. Gilliland (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1989), 10-11.).
Thus, contextualization is a tool. Clear gospel proclamation is the goal. We must not confuse the two.
I often explain this using two terms: contending and contextualizing. (The terms came from a lunch discussion with my friend Jim Millirons a few years ago.) The call to "contend and contextualize" seems to have "caught on" in some circles as a helpful way to consider the issue.
The need to contend is clearly commanded in Jude 3. It says that we are to "contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints." In other words, central to our mission and our ministry is to faithfully proclaim and defend the Gospel given to us and to people in culture. But, it seems we are also commanded to contextualize in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 where Paul says, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some."
On the one hand we must contend, and on the other hand we need to contextualize. In fact, contending for the faith demands contextualization because in articulating and advancing the truth we are responding to culturally created idols and false doctrine.
Feel free to weigh in and discuss.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.