Contextualization Can Be Risky Business
The opening scene of the movie, The African Queen, depicts a white missionary couple leading a worship service for residents of an African village. If you’ve seen the movie, you may or may not have noticed the oddities about this scene. This worship service takes place in a building, the music is being led by a conductor and a woman playing an organ, they are singing in English, congregants are sitting in rows, and some are using hymnals.
These details may not seem unusual but it’s likely because this is exactly how you worship every Sunday (perhaps without the hymnal, though). However, if you watch the scene from the movie again, notice how none of the congregants are fully participating in worship. Most of them look miserable. While this is a hypothetical situation, a typical worship service in their culture likely would not use an organ or hymnals. They wouldn’t be singing in English and they may be more likely to sit in a circle than rows. This is a work of fiction, but this scene is a great example of contextualization done poorly. Instead of letting the African culture determine the forms used in the worship service, the missionaries simply applied their own cultural norms to the situation without considering the new culture around them.
As I mentioned in my last post, contextualization is not something we can choose to do or not. Contextualization can be as simple as translating the gospel into another language, but it is usually more involved than that. And it should be more involved, because culture is not just what language we speak. Culture includes a myriad of qualities: our worship style preferences, how we relate to our leaders, what music we like, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, etc. Contextualization touches many aspects of culture. It is unavoidable and essential. There are significant benefits to doing it well—affirming culture, helping people understand the gospel in a way that makes sense to them, and giving us a broader perspective of the faith—but there are also some serious risks to avoid. To be clear, we won’t get contextualization right the first time nor every time, and the Lord will give us grace when we make mistakes. However, these are three things to be cautious of when doing contextualization.
Contextualization does not give a pass to all aspects of culture.
Contextualization is what we do to make the gospel at home in a culture. It does not give a pass to all aspects of a culture, however. Done well, it illustrates how the gospel transforms any culture. Contextualization done poorly will accept sinful aspects of a culture instead of allowing the Bible to correct them. For example, the American culture largely values individuality and independence. But the Scriptures clearly demonstrate the importance of community. The gospel should correct an overemphasis on individualism, and it causes us to see our need for the community of believers. Contextualizing to the individuality of our culture may result in a “just me and Jesus” attitude that is counter to the Bible’s teaching. Instead, when we contextualize the gospel, we should do so in a way that illustrates how the gospel transforms those things within a culture.
Contextualization is not an excuse to water down the gospel.
In a fallen world full of sinful people, the gospel is an offensive message. After all, the Bible is clear that we are all guilty, and the wages of this guilt are extremely severe. It calls us away from our former life, to put ourselves to death and embrace life in Christ. People do not always appreciate that message. The goal of contextualization is not to make the gospel comfortable but to make it clear. Contextualization does not mean we water down the gospel to make it less offensive. Done well, contextualization makes the gospel and all of its strong teaching understandable in a culture. Done poorly, crucial aspects of the gospel, such as the exclusivity of Christ or the sinfulness of all people, are diluted in order to make the message more palatable to people. The message of the gospel remains the same in all cultures and we need to keep its strength even as we make it at home in that culture.
Contextualization, gone wrong, will lead to syncretism.
Syncretism is what happens when you mix two religions together so that the essential nature of each is lost. When you lose the essential elements of the gospel, you lose Christianity. As I mentioned in my last post, when we contextualize to the worldview of a people, we allow for parts of their own worldview to mix with the Christian worldview. The result is syncretism. The solution is not to avoid contextualization, but to allow the gospel to both take deep root in the culture and speak against the worldview of other religions. Done poorly, contextualization will accommodate rather than counter aspects of other worldviews. For example, a common issue in evangelizing Hindus is that while they often “accept” Jesus, all they are really doing is adding Him to the shelf with the thousands of other gods they worship. Bad contextualization will accommodate this, losing an essential aspect of the gospel: Christ’s exclusivity.
Done well, contextualization will learn about opposing worldviews, seek points of contact within those worldviews, and illustrate how the gospel answers their questions far better than what they currently believe. For example, in Acts 17, Paul speaks to the Athenians, observing that they were very religious and pointing our their altar to an unknown god. He found a point of contact within their worldview that allowed him to share the God that can be known, the one who would save them from their sins if they believed in Christ.
Some risks in contextualization are easier to avoid than others. Because culture is constantly changing, the way we contextualize will need to adapt from time to time. There are a lot of gray areas in contextualizing the gospel but the good news is that we have the Bible to guide us and the church to both work alongside us and keep us accountable. Contextualization must follow the biblical story and communicate Christ to others. It must be done in community, especially with national believers from who understand both the culture and how the gospel speaks to those within that culture.