The Edges of Contextualization

Sharing a hookah. Smoking a peace pipe. Drinking to a toast. Dressing in ceremonial robes.

Missionaries constantly face the edges of contextualization. Incarnation requires that she constantly ask herself: “What should I do to minimize the difference between myself and those to whom I want to minister?” Every cultural difference hinders the communication of the message, and serves to emphasize the “foreign-ness” of the faith.

Of course, contextualization means looking for ways to say and to show, “I’m like you, but different.” I’m like you— in that I’m human, sinful, and in need of a savior, but I’m different— in that I’m in Christ and therefore have purpose, hope, peace, and salvation.

Some cultural adaptations may not be the most comfortable, but are expected for the missionary. These are rarely controversial. Most missionaries eat local food (in public, anyway), learn local language, follow social norms. In Europe, they greet with a kiss (or two, or three).  Western believers living in the Middle East often wear a burqa or head covering. In Asia, they avoid open conflict, show respect, and eat with chopsticks. These things say, “I want to join your culture.”

Other customs are avoided by most missionaries because participating in them would only validate the lies, idolatry, and sin within the culture. Missionaries do not participate in ancestor worship, sexual rituals, or pagan ceremonies. (Neither should they ride those little scooters through the dangerous streets of Bangkok, but that has more to do with sanity than contextualization.) Doing these things would undermine the vital differences between life in Christ and life apart from Him. Conspicuously abstaining shows what redemption within culture would look like.

Which brings us back to the edge.

The Bible isn’t silent about these “edge” issues. In  1 Corinthians 8, Paul teaches the church about the contextualization problem of eating food that has been sacrificed to idols. Though idols have no real power, he says, we should not eat food that has been offered to idols if it would cause someone else to think that by eating the food we were somehow honoring those idols.

The principle is the same for other “edge” practices that we may not have any particular conviction about. Though you have every “right” to kiss your wife in public, don’t do it if that’s considered sinful in your context.We can see pretty clearly that contextualization of the gospel is likely to require us to deny ourselves of some things that we otherwise would be free to do.

But contextualization works both ways. It sometimes (often?) requires us to do some things that we may not otherwise do. Some of those things, like eating rotten cabbage or growing a beard are simply matters of taste. Others, however, aren’t so cut-and-dried. Should a follower of Jesus prostrate himself alongside Tibetans? Bow toward the East during the call to prayer ? Pay a bribe? Does it matter how these things are interpreted by local society?

And this is where things get sticky: when someone presumes to know the cultural meanings and spiritual implications of particular actions in a context they know nothing about. The truth is, finding the edges of contextualization is a difficult, energy-intensive endeavor. It can be fun, scary, and dangerous. Some people do, in fact, fall over the edge of contextualization, and this is very unfortunate. But being a missionary is a dangerous thing. Jesus likened it to being lambs sent to the slaughterhouse.

4 thoughts on “The Edges of Contextualization

  1. Jeremy,
    I think that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are essential for the church, and should be retained (per scripture and tradition) in some recognizable form. As I read Acts, it seems to me that their practice has always been BOTH missiological and ecclesiological. In that regard, yes, I believe that there should be room in them for contextualization.

    For example, “mode” of baptism has been debated since John the Baptist (sprinkling, facing, lying back, etc.), but what about the place of baptism? I grew up on the coast, and our church frequently held baptism services on the beach in public. This allowed it to have a missional effect that would be greatly limited had we insisted on using the fiberglass tub we’d installed in our auditorium.

    There was recently some controversy over someone who suggested that we use Coca-cola and Doritos for communion. A recent user-generated Doritos commercial implied something similar. Outrage ensued. I’m not defending chips and soda for for communion, but it would be disingenuous to say that the Lord’s Supper hasn’t already been contextualized for Western Culture— the little crackers and individual plastic cups of grape juice bear little resemblance to the original meal Jesus shared with His disciples and instructed us to make into a regular occurrence. Contextualization needs to happen— substitute juice for wine in certain (Southern U.S.) cultures, unleavened bread in other cultures. Most churches routinely change it up to emphasize different things— take the elements individually (to make it solemn), serve the person to your right (servanthood), wait and partake together (unity). Some churches serve communion privately (the disciples did, after all, “close the door” to the upper room). Other churches invite anyone in attendance to participate (“We’d like to invite you to the Lord’s table…”).

    Great question.

  2. It’s all relative, and the quick answer is discernment from the Holy Spirit. We’re in a post-Catholic environment, and our native evangelicals are so fearful of resembling Catholicism that they won’t display the (bare) cross or a nativity scene in case someone thinks that they pray to Mary. Others take it so far as to not have candles in the service. This was never an issue in West Coast America.
    –C. Holland

  3. C. Holland,
    I agree. In the ongoing discussion on Ed Stetzer’s blog about contextualization, Dr. Kieth Eitel shares a story of a missionary in Bali who was filmed by a documentary crew as he “bowed to Shiva” in a Hindu temple. Dr. Eitel claims this missionary was so concerned about contextualization that he lost the gospel and “worshiped idols.”

    I don’t claim to know anything about that culture, but I do know that we need to defer to a missionary’s insight in matters of culture. Was this guy worshiping an idol? Did the Hindus who were worshiping there consider the missionary’s participation to be worship? I don’t know. But I do know that “it looks like what I imagine idol worship to be” doesn’t make it so.

    Leaving out longstanding Christian traditions as not to appear Catholic would be very similar to the “meat sacrificed to idols” situation. In some cultures, lighting a candle is worship. In most of the U.S. in 2011, it’s not. I believe that particular act can be redeemed in an appropriate way.

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