Before I came to NEGST, I looked through the description of all the classes they offered, and three classes especially stood out: power encounter, contextualization, and introduction to urban mission. As I looked through the classes offered during registration for my first term, I was delighted to see that contextualization was an option and did not conflict with any of my required classes. Taking it required an overload of 20 credit hours, which at times seemed too much, especially during my first term. Some weeks it seemed that I spent as much time on contextualization as my other 5 classes combined, but it was definitely worth it.
It is a complex process that defies simplistic definitions, like most, but basically contextualization is the discipline of translating the gospel into another culture. Everything we have experienced in Christianity is culturally conditioned. All theology is contextual theology. This does not mean there are no universals, or that nothing applies across cultures, but it does mean that our experience of Christianity comes culturally packaged. This is not in itself bad or wrong, but when undertaking missions in other cultures this becomes very important.
Contextualization is a relatively recent field, and has been fraught with controversy. Especially until more recently, most missionaries have operated without any understanding of their cultural assumptions, and when coming to Africa transform their convertees to a white, Western version of Christianity. Obviously this is what Christianity is, and all the old pagan African ways must be discarded. This has resulted in a myriad of problems, not the least of which is the practice of Christianity as a foreign religion that does not pertain to many core issues facing African Christians: the treatment of ancestors, protection from evil spirits and witches, polygamy, issues of sickness and healing, etc. As missions scholars began to think through this situation, the need for a holistic, contextualized gospel became apparent. I was pleased to find that Wheaton College was one of the pioneering institutions in this field.
The broad contours I’ve sketched above did not come as a shock to me, but many of the specific questions we wrestled with during the class I found very difficult. What do you do as a pastor when a mother in your congregation accuses the widow who sits in the back row of cursing her child using witchcraft? What is the relationship between form and meaning? For example, when you enter a culture can you appropriate their old places of worship for Christ, or must you start fresh? What word do you use for God? If you are in a Muslim context, can you use Allah, which is simply the Arabic word for God, or does that have too much religious baggage? How do you explain sin in a culture with 20 different terms for wrongdoing or evil when all of them differ in subtle ways from the broadly encompassing connotations of the English word “sin”? Can you explain Jesus as the greatest ancestor, or will that lead to more confusion? What parts of traditional African religion can be understood as a preparation for the gospels, and which parts must be rejected as antithetical to Christianity?
I’ll try to return to some of these issues in a future post, but for now I’d like to focus on how contextualization has changed my thinking. Contextualization has dramatically shifted the way I think about so many things. It really is incorporated into how I approach the Bible, thinking about churches, historical events, etc. I’ll look at each of these in turn.
The entire Bible is really one continuous example of contextualization. Calvin uses the term “accommodation” to explain how God lowers himself to our language and concepts. The Old Testament is a prime example of this. The ancient Jews believed that the sky was a solid dome, with little holes where the rain came through, and tracks for the stars to roll around in. The earth is flat and held up by pillars, and sheol is the abode of the dead below the earth. The Bible does not correct any of these beliefs, but rather operates within their paradigm. God used their cultural views to transmit His revelation. The book of Acts is a testament to the cultural shifts the gospel underwent as it spread beyond Judaism to the Gentiles. Moving beyond circumcision, sacrifices and other Jewish regulations was a difficult transition, but necessary for any of us who are not Jewish to be accepted into the Christian faith. All of the epistles are an example of the contextualized form the gospel takes on in each area. Every context is different, with its own concerns and questions, and our theology must reflect that.
A local church body is also a reflection of contextualization. This may be a good or a bad example, but it will be an example. Willow Creek was held up in some of the articles we read as a great example of contextualizing the faith to postmodern suburban middle class Americans. You may not like what they are doing, but that is their foundation. I despise many characteristics of smaller African churches I have visited, but they are undoubtedly well contextualized for their environment. Any church can be examined in terms of what they have done to incorporate their setting and reach the people around them. Most churches today, for example, are held in the local language (or the language of their target group), which is an excellent contextually sensitive choice.
Church history can also be understood in those terms. Once in class, our professor made the point that the Reformation is more than a theological movement, it is a contextual movement. The mass was conducted in Latin, and none of the people knew Latin, so when Luther decided that German services should be done in German, this revolutionized the church. The people could understand what was going on!! He translated the Bible in German, wrote songs in German, encouraged Sunday school education, and made the church incredibly more relevant to people’s lives. Dr. Rasmussen said that there is a trend that the regions with Latin-based language stayed Roman Catholic, and those with other languages switched. One of the big factors was language: many people were not making a theology choice in the various disputes raised by the Reformation, but they wanted to go to a church where they understood the service. The entire history of missions can be seen as the journey of the Christian faith from an entirely Jewish religion to a dazzling variety of languages and cultures across the world.
There is much more I could say, but I’ll wind down at this point. The most practical take-away for me was the necessity of knowing my context. When I preach in Kibera, I must try to adjust my message to their comprehension level and address the issues they face. This past week when I was preaching in Kibera, I used the story of the rich young ruler to illustrate a point, and it suddenly struck me: this story does not apply to them at all. It applies to me. I am the rich one, and they are the ones who are poor. It was a strange moment. So wherever you are: know your context. Understand how to communicate. Location, location, location. It applies more widely than you may think…