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.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.