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Contextualization

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

John Piper has provided a very insightful reflection on the possible link between seeker-sensitive churches in the West and radical (over)contextualization on the mission field. Read Piper's blog post on "Minimizing the Bible?"

Contextualization is one of the big issues among missionaries because the way mission work has been done in the past tended to be too Western and did not take sufficient account of the need to adapt the way church, evangelism, discipleship, etc. is done in non-Western cultures. However, in some corners of the mission world today, the pendulum seems to have swung in the other direction. In the name of removing Western cultural barriers that would prevent people from coming to Christ, some missionaries (and local Christians) are allowing or even promoting practices that are actually a compromise of the Gospel. Let me give just a couple examples.

I've heard about a missionary in Northeast Thailand who is teaching converts to call themselves "New Buddhists" (new in the sense that they believe in Christ). Okay, so perhaps the offense of being perceived as converting to a Western religion is avoided by avoiding the label "Christian" but there is certainly an equal if not greater

problem which is created. Isn't the term "New Buddhist" disingenuous? Doesn't it create confusion and a lack of clarity? I'm all for hanging onto all aspects of culture that are not sinful but doesn't there have to be some break with the past as a person takes on a new identity in Christ? If I were from an secular humanistic atheistic background and I believed in Christ, could I legitimately stay in my cultural context in order to win my atheist friends and family to Christ by calling myself a "New Atheist"? People whom we are trying to share Christ with are smarter than that and Christians should be more honest than that.

Another example: My wife and I were eating with some Thai friends recently, a Christian couple who work with students. The husband told us that his brother, who is an elder at a well known church in Bangkok, was told by the pastor there that he shouldn't make a fuss about participating in the Buddhist part of his wedding ceremony as he got married to a Buddhist woman. I don't know the exact reason why this Thai pastor, who did a PhD on contextualization at a seminary in the West, advised this man in such a way. Our Thai friends who told us this certainly did not think that this was either appropriate or faithful to the Gospel. But I do wonder if this pastor gave such advice in the name of not causing offense that could impede eventual acceptance of the Gospel by the bride or her family.

I desperately want to see a truly indigenous church established in Thailand but as of right now it is probably not as indigenous / contextualized as it needs to be. I would also argue that it is, in many cases, not as Biblical as it needs to be. I don't say this as if the church in America has it all right. There are many many miserable examples of materialistic, showy, entertainment-oriented churches in America that may be truly indigenous to America but they are not Biblical (just read Slice of Laodicea for some examples). As a missionary, my goal is to think long and deep about what the Bible says and means, and to think long and deep about how that is to be fleshed out in Thai culture (about which I also need to think long and deep, in consultation and dependence on the Thai themselves who know Thai culture better than I do).

Proper contextualization is good and Biblical, but over-contextualization in the name of reaching people for the Gospel is syncretism and a compromise of the very Gospel that is supposedly being preached.

 

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