Thabiti Anyabwile|1:41 am CT

T4G Debrief: Questions about Contextualization

One of the panels at T4G focused on contextualization.  If you like, you can listen to the panel here.  It was one of the panels cut short due to time constraints.  As a consequence, we didn’t have time to develop important conversations about basic definitions and about current applications like “insider movements” and so on.  So, I think many people (myself included) were left hoping more conversation could have happened.

In this post, I want to debrief by offering a number of questions and statements about contextualization–not as a “final word” or even a complete word, but as a way of getting questions and thoughts out of my own head.  So, I’m thinking out loud here.  And I welcome your thoughts and interactions.  Let me offer these things in three sections: general agreements or stipulations, observations/questions about contextualization in a domestic context, and observations/questions about contextualization in predominantly Muslim or cross-cultural contexts.

General Agreements

It seems to me, as was the case on the panel, it’s useful to state a few basic things right up front to hopefully avoid confusion and unnecessary debate.  Among these general statements:

1.  On some level, everyone contextualizes their communication/message.  We all try to get information from one context to another in a way that the receiver can understand and receive.  In that sense, as I see it, contextualization is simply a subset of good communication where the first rule is “Know thy audience.”

2.  At least among the folks likely reading this blog or attending T4G, we all agree that our efforts at contextualization should not distort the gospel message or the necessary entailments of the gospel.  No one looks to fabricate a different message which is really no gospel at all; the intent is to transfer the truth about our Lord in a responsible and responsive way.

I’m sure there are other basic agreements, but these are the ones that seem to repeatedly come up in conversation and ought to be acknowledged at the start.  The real substantive conversation lies somewhere beyond these basic statements.  Especially when it comes to application, we begin to see diverging and sometimes competing points of view.  Which brings me to my observations and my hope that you’ll sharpen my thinking.

Observations Regarding Domestic (largely shared) Cultural Contexts

Of course, contextualization is not merely a communications issue.  Proponents really offer contextualization as a necessary missiological strategy.  The intent is to find ways to faithfully communicate the gospel message to other cultures (though not all missiologists and practitioners hold to this principle or are successful at its application).  In the domestic context, doing missions where we live, I have a few questions and thoughts I’m trying to flesh out:

1.  What limitations are created or ought to be acknowledged when one takes a principle developed for truly cross-cultural settings and applies them in settings where everyone shares the same basic cultural milieu and world view?  Is there anything that needs to be adjusted when you move from Western missionaries in tribal India to American pastors in rural Indiana?  The folks in rural Indiana or even in metro Washington, D.C. would by-and-large share the same cultural milieu and worldview even if they’re members of distinct subcultures.  Does the fact that different folks in rural Indiana or metro D.C. are closer in kind than the missionary from England and tribal member in Northern India matter for how the pastor in Indiana or D.C. thinks about and practices contextualization?  I suspect it might, but I haven’t seen anyone exploring these adjustments.  I think this is a really important thing to think through because I see a number of groups (campus ministries for example) that are placing major emphasis on contextualization in their evangelism strategy but they’re essentially reaching out to people just like them.  Aside from simply running the risk of over-emphasizing strategy and under-emphasizing doing, it seems this kind of situation fosters an unhealthy blindness to our own position in the culture.  Any good reads out there covering this?

2.  In the domestic context, does the increased similarities and the likelihood of substantially shared world and life views blur the distinctiveness of church v. world?  Let me try to explain because I’m still working on this thought.  It seems to me that good contextualization is like throwing a boomerang.  You send the message out on a particular arc, hoping to make contact with a cross-cultural recipient, and to bring that recipient out of an unregenerate state (inclusive of some fundamental world and life views) into a regenerate state and membership in the church.  This is the “I became… so that I might win some” trajectory I assume Paul to mean in 1 Cor. 9:19-23.  He flexes and communicates in order to bring people to where he is in Christ.  The messenger doesn’t move from his position in Christian world and life views; rather, the message goes out with the hopes of bringing others to where he/she is.  That arc and direction seems clear when the situation is clearly cross-cultural.  But what if we’re sharing the same cultural position?  Isn’t contextualization then a bit more like throwing a stone rather than a boomerang?  ”Contextualizing” in shared cultural space might simply be immersing ourselves more deeply in the culture we’re already in, which, I think, is another way of describing increased worldliness.  We’re not actually bringing people out of one position into a distinctively Christian identity and culture, but we’re actually joining them in a more entrenched worldliness.  Does that make sense?  What’s the strength and weakness in this thinking?

3.  It seems to me that a lot of the popular discussion of contextualization suffers from an incomplete statement of the goal.  Contextualizing isn’t the goal.  I think everyone who pauses to think about this even for a moment would agree with this.  But what’s missing is, imo, a robust statement of the goal.  What’s the end we ought to have in mind as we employ this strategy?  What does Paul have in mind when he says “so that I might win some”?  It’s not simply Christian profession.  Nor is it simply personal discipleship.  Neither is it simply church membership.  If Paul means to win people to the position he himself occupies, it also includes such a radical redefinition of personal identity that he and the convert can become all things to all men (a kind of loose grip on natural identity itself, or a radically enlarged notion of freedom in Christ).  If the goal isn’t adequately and repeatedly stated, then the great danger is goal displacement and a glacial drift into worldliness or sub-Christian identity, behavior, etc.  Does this make sense?  Surely there are folks who’ve thought this through.  Any recommendations for further reading?

4.  We really need a solid working definition of “culture.”  Personally, I don’t think the Evangelical world is anywhere near as sophisticated as it sometimes imagines itself to be when it comes to defining and “engaging” the culture.  This, too, can contribute to the church’s mission drift, to pastoral misdirection, and to creeping worldliness.  Many of the popular appeals to “engage the culture” and the defenses of contextualization that rely on “exegeting the culture” seem to me too simplistic and naive at points.  I enjoyed Crouch’s Culture Making, in part, because he clearly understands that though we “shape culture” the culture shapes back!  (though I find Crouch’s definition of”culture” as “things we make in/of the world” terribly reductionistic).   I’m a bit behind in getting to Hunter’s To Change the World, but I look forward to exploring his notion of “faithful presence” (which intuitively appeals to me).  I’m hoping Hunter’s book delves into notions of culture beyond the artifacts (Crouch) and the popular aesthetics (dress, etc.) to think about the “deep structure” of culture.  We need good work in this area; or better yet, perhaps I need to be made aware of good stuff on this topic.

Observations Regarding Cross-Cultural Contexts

I really regret we didn’t have opportunity to discuss this at greater length in the panel.  Apart from Al Mohler’s concluding comments, we didn’t touch this aspect at all and this is perhaps where the greatest challenges to gospel faithfulness, church vitality, and pastoral practice originates.  Perhaps the most hotly contested contextualization missions strategy right now is the so-called “insider movements” and even the viability of the C1-6 contextualization scale.  From where I sit, these forms of contextualization (by which I mean levels 4-6 as I understand them) misunderstand Islam in five critical ways.

1.  These views of contextualization seem to me to misunderstand the nature of cross-carrying, persecution-facing, costly conversion and the nature of the rewards promised to those who suffer for the Name of Christ.  In saying this, I am not making light of the potential or actual suffering and persecution of MBBs.  I’m simply saying that it seems to me that the C-scale has no place for radical costly discipleship in its conception of conversion and following Christ.  That’s a fatal omission and ultimately a fatal distortion of NT Christianity.  Scripture passages regarding suffering and reward abound.

2.  These views of contextualization seem to me to misunderstand the nature of the called-out, visible local church.  Without suggesting that wise strategies for safety ought to be thrown to the wind, it does seem to me that there’s a fundamental level of identification with the people of God as the people of God that must be maintained.  Strategies that intentionally hide the church ultimately place a blanket over what Christ means to be revealed.  They hide the light under the bushel.  Such strategies may prize individual “conversions” over the formation of local churches replete with qualified spiritual leadership, the sacraments, witness, and disciple-marking love.  C4 and beyond move in the wrong direction, toward hiding the church.

3.  These contextualization strategies seem to me to misunderstand the nature of Islam as a system that emphasizes outward obedience and forms combined with social and cultural expectations and pressure that form a steel shackle on the mind and heart.  I suspect this is difficult to understand unless you’ve been a Muslim.  But Islam is all about the forms, the ritual, and culture.  It’s difficult to know where Islam begins as a religion and where Muslim culture ends.  The culture carries the religion and the religion enforces the culture.  I doubt someone can ever be a healthy Christian while pretending to be a Muslim or engaging in the outward forms of Islam.  When we intentionally adopt strategies that leave MBBs inside Muslim contexts, we can do more damage to them than if we encouraged them to come out and face persecution.  They will be rewarded for their persecution, but may be damned for failing to name Christ among men!

4.  These contextualization strategies misunderstand the necessity of thinking about and pursuing a Christian identity with biblical entailments that sever the grip of ethnic and religious backgrounds.  This is a tough one because it’s bound up with so much bad mission practice and abuses among western missionaries who have confused Christianity with Western culture.  In some respects, it seems that some of the higher level contextualization strategies are reactions to these abuses.  But the answer to abuses is not to default to ethnic cultural forms and religious expression.  Those forms are not value neutral. They’re part of the “deep structure” of culture.  What’s needed instead is a movement from Muslim community to biblical community.  We need deeper identification with/in Christ, one that radically reorients us from our natural backgrounds to a primary identification with the new humanity in Christ.  What’s needed is an outworking of Gal. 3:28–”There is neither Jew nor Greek” nor Arab or European or American or African but we are all one in Christ.  I’m concerned we may unwittingly be teaching people to prize their ethnic and social location over their position in Christ, thus perpetuating the ethnocentric blemish that has haunted the church since Acts 6 and certainly in modern missionary contact between Whites and the two-thirds world.  This seems like a re-run of earlier episodes of situation tragedies on the mission field, only with different motivation.  We’re too concerned about letting people be “Arab” or “Paskistani” or “Indian” (which we can’t distinguish very well from being “Muslim”) and too concerned about exporting western ideals (which we can’t distinguish from biblical).  We need a tighter grip on what we’re trying to make people–Christ-ians–and less concern for cultural preservation (ours or theirs), as unpopular as that statement is likely to be.  The cost of souls is far greater than the cost of culture.

5.  It seems to me that these contextualization approaches misunderstand one of the core apologetic issues in Christian engagement with Islam–the inerrancy, inspiration, reliability and superiority of Christianity, including Christian purity and faithfulness to the Scripture.  I’ve yet to engage in a discussion with a Muslim apologist or before a Muslim audience where someone did not contend that Islam was superior to Christianity because it governs all of life.  That’s the party line.  The talking points in defense of that party line include Muslim perceptions about errors in the Bible, the insufficiency of the Bible for directing the lives of the faithful (no law), the lax moral lives of Christians, and the perceived injustice of the gospel (especially Christ’s substitutionary atonement for sinners).  I’m concerned that these views of contextualization effectively concede these points by adopting and validating Muslim forms and practice.  Aren’t C5 and C6 practices akin to Schleirmachian capitulation to the Muslim “cultured despisers of Christianity”?  It’s difficult to see how such contextualization isn’t completely subjectivizing and individualizing the faith in a way that ultimately abandons the faith rather than defend it–if need be with our lives.

In the end, the entire C-scale presents syncretism rather than faithful contextualization.  It blends Christianity and Islam in such a way that, if taken seriously, leaves neither Islam nor Christianity intact.  Such adherents will never be accepted among Muslims and radically misrepresent Christian faith and practice. We need strategies that foster faithfulness and distinctiveness in Christian life and obedience, not strategies that obscure the costly grace of following Christ.


So, I have questions and concerns as I start to learn more about contextualization as both a communication and missions strategy.  Honestly, I’m less concerned with superficial adaptations and adoption of cultural artifacts, styles and expressions (some clothing, some music, figures of speech, etc.).  I don’t think all adaptations and adoptions are harmless, but some level is inescapable.  My bigger concerns have mostly to do with “what’s the end game?”  Where are we really taking the church and taking converts once we’ve implemented our contextualization strategies?  Have we really thought through the boomerang or the rock and where either lands?

Categories: culture, evangelism, missions

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