Archive for November, 2012


Musings on Missions and Evangelism: On Syncretism


Despite variations in methods and models, there is one common idea found in the various books and articles on contextualization—beware of syncretism. The discussion always leads to the proverbial slippery slope of going too far with contextualization. The argument typically goes something like the following.

Missionaries must utilize appropriate cultural forms and practices so that the audience can understand the gospel in its own terms. Although it is advantageous to use “cultural” symbols, missionaries should avoid using “religious” symbols. The result would be a syncretistic, thus an invalid, expression of Christian faith. Therefore, the role of the missionary, and other church leaders, is to safeguard against the church losing its distinctiveness by incorporating religious forms and practices from the surrounding context.

Although I am sympathetic to the motivation for this common argument, I believe this train of thought stems from a misunderstanding of culture/religion and, ironically, produces the very thing—that is, a distorted gospel— it seeks to avoid. Let me explain.

The notion that a clear boundary between cultural and religious symbols exists is incontrovertibly false. This distinction assumes a narrow understanding of religion and falsely purports that the missionary, or any person, has the ability to designate forms and practices that do not have “religious” significance. Therefore, contextual theology is not about deciding whether the Christian community should engage in “religious” practices in an effort to uphold its distinct boundaries. The crux of the matter is how the community uses and negotiates the meaning of the relevant symbols and forms in light of its faith in the triune God. Kathryn Tanner explains:

“Differences between ways of life are often therefore established by differences of use and not by the distribution of entirely discrete cultural forms to one side or the other of a cultural boundary. . . The distinctiveness of a way of life emerges out of tension-filled relations with what other ways of life do with much the same cultural stuff.”[1]

The fact that the community is in a culture means that it will employ symbols and practices that are loaded with previously constructed cultural-religious meanings.  Therefore,

“The distinctiveness of a Christian way of life is not so much formed by the boundary as at it; Christian distinctiveness is something that emerges in the very cultural processes occurring at the boundary, processes that construct a distinctive identity for Christian social practices through the distinctive use of cultural materials shared with others.”[2]

Another way to frame this is that the issue is not so much if the church should use a particular symbol or practice but to whom the symbol or practice is in service. The truth is that syncretism (defined as the blending of symbols from more than one religious domain) is inevitable. Therefore, the potential threat is less a matter of which symbols and practices we utilize in worshiping, loving and serving God and more about whether it is the God revealed in Jesus Christ who is the object of those symbols and practices.

It undoubtedly takes wisdom, diligence and humility when discerning which specific symbols and practices to actually employ in each particular community of faith. Not every form or ritual is well suited or appropriate for the local church to re-appropriate. For example, a young church might not have the resources to incorporate some symbols. Or, more significantly, some practices must be avoided because of their ethical implications. (I will hopefully say more about the process and criteria for choosing specific symbols and practices in a future post.) However, the point here is that the fear of using symbols from the “religious” sphere is misplaced. And, in fact, the real danger comes when any “sphere” (i.e., religious, political, economic, etc.) within the culture remains outside the purview of the Christian community.

I think an example from the American context will help illustrate this.

The Enlightenment produced numerous ideas that affect our understanding of religion. There was an emphasis on the separation of church and state. There was the tendency to segregate religious affairs to one’s private life. And, the separation of the body and soul became the accepted view of biological anthropology, especially in the church. These ideas produced a fascinating effect on the church in America. The gospel was relegated to the realm of securing the destination of one’s soul after death. The church was concerned with getting people saved. This meant that the church did not have much to say about political affairs or concerns of the nation-state. (I realize there are exceptions to this like Christian abolitionists, the Social Gospel, and the Civil Rights Movement, but I do think it is generally true, particularly in non-mainline churches.)

The result of this was that the church eagerly incorporated numerous cultural symbols and practices (i.e., Christmas traditions, new music styles in worship, etc.), re-appropriating them in light of the gospel, while simultaneously avoiding the symbols and practices of the nation-state because such things were not related to saving souls. This trajectory has come to a head in recent decades. Because churches did not feel the need to bring the gospel into direct contact with the symbols and practices of the nation-state, many Christians were able to develop a robust Christian identity alongside a robust national identity without much conflict or tension. Therefore, it is not problematic for churches in recent years to have an American flag next to the pulpit, sing the national anthem after “Amazing Grace”, or recite the Pledge of Allegiance before the Eucharist. They feel it is appropriate because some practices are “Christian” while others are “patriotic.”

This example illustrates what happens when the church decides, whether consciously or unconsciously, to leave some spheres of life, and their related symbols and practices, unchecked and unchallenged by the gospel. The issue here is that the rituals of the nation-state are extremely formative and highly emotive. Engaging in these practices and behaviors, such as reciting the Pledge every day at school, creates a sense of devotion and solidarity. If the Christian community is not intentional with how it negotiates these symbols and practices, then the church can easily experience a bifurcation in its mission and identity. The same is true if the church fails to contest the significance of “religious” symbols as well. Those forms and practices, if left untouched, will continue to have power and value for the larger community and will be used in devotion for something other than the One who deserves all devotion.

Therefore, the danger of syncretism is not due to the use of “religious” forms and practices. In fact, there is no way, even if one desires it, to avoid such symbols. Ironically, a distortion of the gospel (or should I say idolatry) is more likely when religious (or political or economic or . . .) symbols and practices are left unchecked.

I will conclude with an example from our community. Our church has borrowed practices from the surrounding culture for the sake of worshiping God. On Sundays we light incense (which is done at Buddhist temples, at spirit houses, and in various ceremonies), and we all bow down (grapwai) to the ground (which is done before monks, idols, and the king). We have had a few (I do mean only a few) people express concern that we are treading close to syncretism, particularly because of the practices that resemble “Buddhist” practices. I understand their concern. But, our concern is that churches in Thailand, in an effort to avoid “non-Christian” forms and practices, have failed to sufficiently connect all parts of the Thai psyche and identity to the life of the triune God. For example, there is something deep and formative, in a way a foreigner cannot fully comprehend, that happens when a Thai bows down. If the Thai church does not have the opportunity to bow before Jesus Christ, then there is a deep part of its devotional life that never gets expressed in relation to its lord and king. The potential danger, at this point, for the Christian community is that the emotions and values connected to bowing down, which are at the core of their identity, will either stay connected to another object or fail to be fully realized in relation to Jesus Christ, thus establishing an unnecessary obstacle in their love and devotion to God.

Thus, our belief is that missionaries and church leaders are called to reorient symbols and practices towards the triune God. The issue is not whether lighting incense is an acceptable Christian action. It is, instead, whether or not that action is done in submission to God and God alone. Therefore, utilizing “religious” symbols and practices is actually beneficial because it puts the emphasis in the right place. It forces people to choose not which practice they will engage in but which god they will call “Lord.” And thus the gospel will be proclaimed.

[1] Tanner, Theories of Culture, 112.

[2] Ibid., 114.


Musings on Missions and Evangelism: Contextualizing the Gospel (part 2)


“Culture is the outcome and product of social interaction.  Consequently, people are active creators, rather than passive receivers, of culture.”[1]

This idea is key to understanding how cultures function, and thus how contextualization occurs. Symbols (i.e., language, rituals, behaviors, etc.) within a particular context do not have fixed meanings nor do they merely “symbolize” some universal meaning. Cultural symbols and their meanings are constantly contested, nuanced, and diversified as particular communities within the culture employ them in various situations and contexts. For example, what does the word “bad” mean? Most people would answer “not good.” However, if you are a big Michael Jackson fan, you might answer “awesome.” The linguistic symbol “bad” changes its meaning depending on the particular context in which it is used. Therefore, it is not accurate to think of contextualization as finding equivalent symbols from two cultures that refer to the same universal meaning. Cultural symbols, forms, and practices are always being contested and recreated in light of new experiences and circumstances.

Furthermore, cultural symbols are latent with layers of meaning and associations that vary between particular communities and individuals. Imagine two people meet together to talk about “peace.” One of them spent years in the Middle East as a U. N. peacekeeper and the other spent the majority of his young adult life in the 70’s listening to Jimi Hendrix and driving around in a VW van. They both may be using the symbol “peace” in the their conversation, but there is no way, at least in the initial stages, they mean the exact same thing. Their particular experiences and contexts shape the meaning and significance of the word, and only after lots of interaction and shared experiences does the meaning for each of them converge.

The point is that the meanings of symbols within a culture are always being negotiated. Thus, contextualization is not an act of finding two equivalent symbols in the respective cultures that refer to the same meaning, or universal. The missionary does have to start somewhere, so it is important to find words and forms that resemble the same meaning. But, we are being naïve if we think that the symbol we employ means exactly the same thing we intend.

In order for this to be clearer, let me use an example from my context. In the past when missionaries arrived in Thailand, one of the first things they had to decide was what Thai word to use for “God.” This might seem odd, but Thai-Buddhist cosmology does not have a “god” in the same sense as that of a Christian or Jew. Thus, missionaries had some work to do. They tried a few variations over the years, but, eventually, prajaow became the most common term used. The issue for contextualization is that prajaow can be used in a variety of spheres in Thai culture. It is used in reference to Buddha, the king, and feudal lords to name a few. Therefore, when a missionary says in Thai, “God bless you,” it is unlikely a Thai person conceives of a divine figure like Yahweh, the Creator God. When Thai non-Christians hear the word prajaow, they are most likely drawing from various parts of their imaginations as they try to make sense of the way in which we are using it. The result is that the manner in which a Thai conceives and relates to God, even as they learn more about this God, is necessarily going to differ from that of the missionary. This is inevitable. This is contextualization.

The point of this example is to show that contextualization is not a one-time act of translation from one set of cultural symbols to another. It is, instead, an ongoing process undertaken by the community of faith as it struggles to differentiate itself from the larger community by its particular, gospel-shaped use of commonly shared symbols and practices. Contextual theology means that the church gives a nuanced meaning, in light of the gospel, to the cultural symbols used in the surrounding society.  This is not only true in theory, but it is the way theology and Christian practices have always developed.  Or as Kathryn Tanner explains, “Christian practices. . . create meaning through a process of consumption. . . A Christian way of life is, then, essentially parasitic; it has to establish relations with other ways of life, it has to take from them, in order to be one itself.”  In other words, “Christian practices are always the practices of others made odd.”[2]  Theological meaning, thus, develops when the gospel joins the contest of establishing the meaning of cultural symbols.

The task of the missionary, therefore, is to encourage, enable and empower local Christians to produce new and fresh meanings for common symbols and practices as their lives intersect with the narrative of God in scripture, the transformative power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the activity of the Holy Spirit in their midst. This implies that a primary responsibility of the missionary is to immerse one’s self into the cultural symbols and practices of those around him or her. And this means that the missionary must hold his or her own cultural assumptions and convictions about “right” forms and practices with a very loose grip. But, if carried out with humility and wisdom, the result will be, by the grace of God, communities of disciples who “own” the meanings of their symbols and practices because they have done the hard work of negotiating and contesting in light of their encounter with the living God.

In my next post I will address the ever-present concern about the “threat” of syncretism in contextualization.

[1] Stanley J. Grenz, and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 135.

[2] Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 112-3.


Musings on Missions and Evangelism: Contextualizing the Gospel (part 1)


One of the key areas of study in missions during the past few decades is the issue of contextualization. There are numerous books and articles which analyze and propose various models and methods for contextualizing the gospel, particularly in cross-cultural situations. While I am thankful for the efforts of many missionaries to engage in contextualization, particularly as a corrective to colonialism and ethnocentrism, I continue to read about and see that inadequate models and practices of contextualization are the norm. Although I am confident God does great things through these efforts, I hope that the conversation can continue in order to better understand and practice contextualization.

The root of the problem is a false perception of “culture” and the ways language, symbols and practices operate within a particular context. This is evident in the various models, such as “translation theory,” “bridge theory,” and “dynamic equivalence,” that continue to be the modus operandi in mission circles. The common factor between these methods is the notion that contextualization is the act of extracting “the gospel” or “truth” from one’s own cultural symbols and then utilizing symbols from the host culture that are “equivalent.” In other words, the job of the missionary is to find congruent symbols in the respective cultures that refer to the “supra-cultural” gospel. Thus, contextualization is fundamentally an attempt at good translation. (Though I am critiquing this view of contextualization, it is far better than missionaries depending on translators because they don’t feel the need to learn the local language, or other similar practices that reveal a lack of cultural sensitivity.)

These models are based on a particular understanding of “culture” comprised of the following characteristics. 1) Cultures are bounded, self-contained, and distinct systems. Thus, we can talk about “American” or “Thai” or “Mexican” cultures as if these are clearly defined and separate networks. 2) Cultures, and thus the symbols and practices within, are static realities. 3) Cultures are monolithic, thus a particular symbol has the same meaning for all people within that culture.

This modern view of culture has been sufficiently discounted by more recent developments in cultural anthropology. Cultures do not, in fact, function in these ways. Cultures are much more interconnected, fluid and diverse than these models allow for. (The implication of this is that even those who are doing “domestic” missions and ministry must be intentionally engaged in contextualization.)

Besides these inadequate understandings of culture, there are two other significant aspects to these models of contextualization that need to be revised. First, the assumption behind these models is that we have the ability to delineate what is a cultural form or symbol from its “universal” or “supra-cultural” referent. This presupposes a high level of objectivity with no regard for the subjective nature of knowledge. In other words, these models falsely presume that a missionary can access a “pure” or “supra-cultural” gospel independent of his or her own cultural vantage point. The reality is that the only way I can know of and speak about the gospel is intrinsically shaped by my own experience and interpreted through particular cultural symbols. (I realize there are apophatic ways to experience reality, but I can only do so much epistemology in one paragraph.) Therefore, contextualization methods that stem from the idea that a missionary can access and transport an objective view of the gospel are, in fact, misleading.

Second, the common understanding is that contextualization means appropriating cultural forms and symbols as long as they do not derive from the religious spheres of the local context. The fear is that utilizing “religious” symbols and practices will lead to syncretism. The problem is that it is impossible to completely or adequately delineate “religious” symbols from “cultural” symbols. This is a false distinction that developed during the modern period. The reality is that our lives and cultures are not bracketed into distinct spheres (i.e., religious, political, familial, etc.). We are holistic beings living in fluid and interwoven networks of cultural symbols, forms and practices.

In light of these criticisms, missionaries (and Christians in general) need to continue the pursuit of contextualized theology but find better ways to conceive of the process. And I think this pursuit holds great potential for the future of mission work, as well as for Christian theology and praxis in general.

While this post was primarily deconstructive, my next post will be a constructive proposal for how missionaries should perceive and engage in contextualizing the gospel.


Musings on Missions and Evangelism: Setting Goals


I am planning on writing a few posts about missions and evangelism on our blog. (No promises on frequency or follow through.) It will in no way be systematic or comprehensive. These are reflections in light of my own experience and my perceptions of trends in the larger Christian world. (Side note: I would rather read someone else’s thoughts on missions and evangelism, but these topics are rarely the subject matters of books these days. I hope that changes soon.)

I have to admit I have conflicting reactions when I hear about a church, or missions organization, setting a numerical goal for conversions/church growth. One part of me is excited and grateful that these churches want to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and are intentional about leading others into the life of God. A desire to connect people to the God of love, mercy and justice is praiseworthy. So, I want to encourage churches to proclaim the good news of Jesus and invite others into the good life that is found in him.

However, there is also a big part of me that cringes when I hear this rhetoric, specifically the idea of setting a numerical goal. I want to suggest that this practice, while possibly derived from good intentions, is unhealthy for a variety of reasons.

First, the notion of setting goals implies that the objective is attainable and the person setting the goal has the ability or means to achieve it. Thus, this is the crux of the problem. The ability to convict someone’s heart and draw her/him into the life of Jesus Christ belongs solely to the Holy Spirit. This is at the heart of the Christian tradition. Therefore, we place ourselves in the wrong part of the equation when we set goals for ourselves that only the Spirit can accomplish.

Second, the practice of setting goals is indicative of the larger concern that churches often function more like businesses than communities. I am not saying that churches shouldn’t adopt some business practices that are helpful for fulfilling their purpose, but the scale is often tipped way too far on that side. A business necessarily has to have goals, methods for achieving those goals, and mechanisms in place to measure its success. On the other hand, success for the church is not decided by its degree of productivity but by its faithfulness to the way of Christ. Thus, the only “goal” the church has is to be like Christ and glorify God.

Third, a potential pitfall in setting goals is that people often make achievement of those goals the ultimate good. The church has set the goal, so we must make sure it happens. And the temptation at this point, often in subtle ways, is to use manipulative methods to ensure success. The end becomes more important than the means. But, for the church, the end (being like Christ and glorifying God) is the means.

Fourth, the situation can easily arise where visitors and new Christians begin to feel like stats in the church’s agenda. While this is not the intention when setting goals, the reality is that our language makes this a likely outcome.

Finally, setting goals for church growth fails to give proper weight to the fact that, as Bonhoeffer wrote, when Jesus calls us, he calls us to “come and die.” This is not a very marketable idea. This isn’t trendy. The reality is that, in certain contexts, the more we evangelize, the more the gospel will be rejected. We can have a desire to proclaim the gospel to more and more people and a hope that they will give their lives to Christ, but it is the Spirit who will enable them to take up their crosses and follow him.

In conclusion, I want to encourage churches and missions organizations towards passionate and intentional evangelism. I hope that we can be bold in how we proclaim and embody the gospel for the sake of friends and strangers. However, I think it is critical to put the emphasis in the right place. Our role is to proclaim the kingdom of God and invite people into the way of Jesus. May we be faithful in that call and pray that the Spirit will, as only she can, draw people into the life of the triune God.