Opinion – Contextualization, Personal Evangelism and Disciple Making

Opinion – Contextualization, Personal Evangelism and Disciple Making

One of the most polarizing issues in the missions world is contextualization.  I addressed this issue in a previous post, Church Planting Essentials – Exploring Contextualization and Deculturalization.  This is an extremely complex issue, but I think there are some basic elements that give rise to the problems faced by Believers in anti-Christian environments, and the solutions that have been adopted, including contextualization.

The root of this problem is the personal evangelism/conversion model of how people come to Christ and join the Church.  In this model a person makes a profession of faith, often after little or no contact with the Gospel or with Christians, and is immediately considered a Christian and expected to behave like a Christian as defined by Global Christian Culture, which is predominately Western in appearance.  This model requires a strong public confession of faith through oral confession, baptism, and church attendance that can cause severe reactions from family and community in many contexts.

To relieve the pressure on new Believers, the contextual model was developed.  This model allows Believers in anti-Christian environments to be Christians without adopting the Global Christian Culture, and without behaving in a fashion that would reveal themselves to a hostile-to-Christianity home culture.  Often, these Believers continue to live their lives as if they were still a part of their previous belief system, and then meet secretly with other Believers for Christian fellowship, discipleship and worship.  In “ideal” situations, they can meet more or less openly because the form of worship meetings fit within the norm of their home culture, and therefore they do not cause suspicion.  Regardless, this kind of contextualization requires people to live double lives, full of conflict, tension, and potential disaster.

The critics of contextualization charge that this is, in fact, denial of Christ.  I find it interesting that many of these critics, if not most, no longer live in their home cultures, or were never a part of an anti-Christian society to begin with, or live in countries where Christianity has a historical presence that allows them to take refuge in a historical church setting.  It’s easy to criticize when one’s life is not on the line, even when one’s decisions have led to alienation from family and friends.

As I said in the beginning, I think this whole situation is a result of a personal evangelism model of “getting people saved” or making converts to Western style Christianity, instead of making Disciples as was commanded and modeled by Jesus.  Somewhere along the way, Christianity became obsessed with making sure a person would go to heaven, and it would be obvious to anyone that this was the case.  This was particularly true for the children of Christians, and became a driving force in the modern revival and mission movements.  This led to a formula system, that when followed by an individual, would assure that they would go to heaven.  The formula requires a prayer of confession and acceptance of Christ as Savior, often called the Sinner’s Prayer, baptism into a local church, and discipleship classes to make sure new Believers know what other Christians know and act the way other Christians act.  Because this system is about an instantaneous conversion process from being lost to not being lost or being saved, discipleship is post conversion, but new converts are expected to adopt Christian ways and culture immediately.  This significantly raises the bar for becoming a Christian, from a cultural perspective; and this puts new Believers into direct conflict with family, friends, and birth culture.

This whole instant conversion process is substantially both more and less than what Jesus demanded of His Disciples.  By more, I mean that Jesus did not demand that His disciples make a profession of faith when they first were selected to follow Him.  That profession came much later, but they eventually and ultimately were asked, “Who do you say I am?” (See Matthew 16:13-20, Luke 9:18-27)  But this did not happen before the disciple-making process began.

By less, I mean that Jesus demanded obedience from His Disciples, and a commitment that would lead to death, even death on a cross.  (See Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 9; John 14)  As they grew, more was required of them.  The minimum standard is a commitment to Christ and an obedience that changes us continually as we grow in Christ and grow up in our cultures.  Words of confession do not necessarily make one a Christian.  It requires a changed mind and heart that results in a changed life demonstrated in a love for God and man that produces obedience to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit in every situation regardless of personal consequences.

Much of the contextualization argument goes away when we make Disciples instead of converts.  In disciple-making it is understood that there is a process from not knowing Jesus to falling in love with Jesus to confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior to becoming an obedient Follower of Jesus who makes more disciples.  We see this process with Jewish believers in the Bible.  In the beginning Peter was focused on Jews within a Jewish context.  Later, we see him in Rome in a non-Jewish context.  The shift is even more dramatic with Paul who started out as a devout Jew who would kill for his belief system, but later describes himself as an Apostle to the Gentiles who vigorously argues against forcing gentiles to act like Jews in order to become Christians.

I know many priests in various religions who are Jesus believing and full of faith.  Some stay in their religious context.  Some decide to come out of their religious context.  My stance is that this is a decision for the people to make on their own as they are obedient to the Word and listen to the Holy Spirit.  We should not be telling people what to do or how to do it, but we should be exhorting them to know and obey the Word of God and listen to the Holy Spirit.  My experience is that those who stay in their religious context do so as evangelists.  They see it as their responsibility to remain in their situations in order to reach others for Christ.  These religious leaders are much like the Jews who remained in the synagogue in order to reach Jews.  Other Jews felt compelled to leave the synagogue when they become Christians.  There was a lot of conflict over this issue in the first century.  I think there still is conflict over this as some feel compelled to leave their religions, while others feel compelled to stay in their religions for the sake of evangelism.  (See 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

When we present the Gospel without modern Christian-culture baggage; and when, as we are making disciples, we model and teach obedience out of love and respect for Christ; and when we recognize the work of the Holy Spirit and do not usurp that role; and when we have the relationship patience to let this process work – we will see people move from syncretistic worship forms and belief systems to locally flavored worship forms and biblical belief systems.  But this will only happen if we make disciples who love the Lord and obey Him in all matters; and if we give these new disciples the equipping, modeling, and encouragement to be all that Christ and His Spirit have called them to be.

Becoming a Disciple is not easy!  There is no formula that can make it happen.  Discipleship is not found in words only, but in actions that demonstrate a transformed mind, heart and life filled with the Holy Spirit.  When we make becoming a Disciple of Jesus Christ into a formula, we are guilty of syncretistic practices that are animistic in origin – say an incantation or use a charm to get the unseen spirits to do what we want them to do.

We cannot and do not control God.  We must be conformed to Him.  (See Romans 12:1-2)  To think that any words or prayers or any forms of baptism or worship will force God or convince Him to let us into his presence is to question His sovereignty and His Word. 

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23 NIV)

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?  I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice.  He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.  But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.” (Luke 6:46-49 NIV)


David Watson
Irving, Texas

14 Replies to “Opinion – Contextualization, Personal Evangelism and Disciple Making”

  1. Thanks for tackling a tough subject. This particular facet of contextualization is one with which I still wrestle. As I struggle, though, I can’t help but think that there is a difference between those who chose to stay within Judaism in the 1st century and those who choose to stay in, say, a Muslim or animistic context. Judaism is our “ancestor”, so to speak — same God, faith-based, yet not completed until the coming of the Messiah. (I hope that’s not taken as condemnatory — that’s certainly not my intent. It is my struggle with this.

    1. Hi, Bob. I also struggle. My point is that if we are struggling, what must it be like for the new believer? With a disciple-making model we can help them work through it instead of making demands. As they become obedient, they move towards where God wants them to be. If God calls them to stay within their context, we can help them prepare for work in very difficult situations.


      David Watson

      1. Are you the same David Watson who wrote Called and Committed? I've read this book many times when I was still in college. It had really helped shaped my understanding on discipleship.

  2. David, you would enjoy Andrew Wall's insights into this issue. Andrew Walls, in his book, The Missionary Movement In Christian History, suggests there are two impulses as the message of the gospel penetrates a culture, the Indigenous Principle and the Pilgrim Principle (Mary Knoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001, pp. 7-9). The gospel can and must become indigenous in every culture, finding a home in the culture. That’s the indigenous impulse. And it is inevitable. We all interpret the bible in terms of our existing worldview. Syncretism isn't unusual – it's normative.

    But at the same time, the gospel begins to produce a pilgrim mindset. It loosens people from their culture. It criticizes and corrects culture. It turns people into pilgrims and aliens and exiles in their own culture.

    Western culture, individualistic to the extreme, understands conversion and discipleship as an individual process, relatively independent of family or friends. Other cultures, far more collective, can't conceive of conversion or discipleship apart from their group.

  3. I agree that there are contextual issues in conversion, worship and other matters within the Christian faith. The question isn't so much whether it is the influence of a Western culture of Christianity, but conversion in a Biblical context.

    The early church faced persecution, opposition to their faith. Many suffered death for their belief system. The question is not whether then went underground (many did), but we cannont find biblical examples of "faking" their true allegance.

    I have worked in Nigeria (in the regions where the Muslim/Christian communities cross and their is violent conflict. Conversion is hard in this context, but it happens daily.

  4. I come from a tradition that interprets the scriptures about baptism rather fundamentally. What I mean is that it seems that Jesus, both in example and word, and the apostles promised the coming of the Spirit to those who made confessions and were baptized etc. This is just believing in promises laid out in scripture – not an attempt to usurp the sovereignty of the LORD. I believe that it is in fact the presence and work of the Spirit in peoples' lives that help them to interpret the word and put it into practice in their lives, i.e. to become disciples of Jesus Christ. So we have been very specific with the form of baptism. We are in a cultural context where ceremonies and forms are rich with meaning and there is no such thing as a change without ceremony. One of the first questions we receive in villages are, "Since I have had a baptism into 'Sitaana' or Satan, can I be baptized into Jesus." So baptism and confession are a natural fit for this context. There are plenty of other forms of modern / western Christianity that we in fact refuse to divulge to them in the process of encouraging them to develop doctrine for themselves that is culturally appropriate. We are in the process of relearning what it means to "lift a finger to help them" in this process. Thanks for a challenging article. I agree in letting the Spirit and word do it's work, but I also do not pretend that anyone has ever successfully interpreted the word without any access to Christian tradition.

  5. Hi. I am insider believer. Reading the article, and then comments, I would like to say first that we believe that Muslims worship the same God though with very low understanding of His grace. But that is true for all of us: who can say his knowledge of God is perfect?

    Also, there is a difference between contextualization movement and insider movement. Muslims do not have to change their culture and embrace churchianity when they embrace Jesus. And Muslim believers should NOT hide their faith in the Saviour. You say it is not possible? It is possible with Insiders.

    with kind regards

  6. By your definition a convert then is not a believer, but simply one who has started the path and must be discipled into obedience, which defines belief and discipleship. I don\’t see how this is helpful. The one time Jesus used the term \”convert\” is was negative and the covert would become a \”son of hell\”, and the ones who made the convert where \”sons of hell.\” See Matthew 23. Too many assumptions and doctrinal baggage in your argument to deal with them all in this context. Like, how can a non-believer become a disciple in a context where there are no believers or only people who call themselves Christian, but are not obedient lovers of Jesus? The Word is the example, and obedience to the Word addresses context. Live Disciples are certainly helpful, if they are obedient and live out their obedience in the context of their culture, redeeming that which is not of God and keeping that which is neutral or pleasing to God.


    David Watson
    San Jose, CA

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