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

11/14/2012

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.

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5 comments

  1. I really enjoyed the parts of this post that I understood – Joe Don


  2. what JD said. 🙂


  3. that last comment was from Pops Ridgell


  4. Solid thoughts my friend. Have you developed anything specifically directed at Thai culture? I’d like to hear your ideas. They may be applicable to China.


    • I wrote a seminar paper in grad school about contextualization in Thailand. The first part is a philosophical defense of the notion that contextualization is inevitable, thus we must think differently about how to do intentional contextualization. I then take some examples from Thai missions history to show how contextualization is, in fact, inevitable and happening all the time. Not sure if it will be helpful to you, but you are welcome to look at it. In practice, we are currently trying a variety of ways to do contextualization. Most of our attention has gone towards contextualizing worship (i. e., incorporating practices from the temple experience, traditional Thai art, etc.), though we are continually trying to be more contextual with other parts of our ministry.



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