Leadership Essentials – Contextualization Is Not What You Think It Is

Leadership Essentials – Contextualization Is Not What You Think It Is

There is an ongoing debate around the world regarding contextualization.  This is an extremely complex debate in which many very smart and dedicated people on all sides of the issue have taken interest.  I have mostly stayed out of the debate because I love everyone involved and did not want to alienate myself from the people or the debate.  My concern is that there is a rising tendency to categorize organizations and people by where they stand on contextualization.  This is a very disturbing trend that will cripple our global mission processes.

We have spent hundreds of years doing missions in an environment that stresses denominational/doctrinal adherence and/or differences.  This has led to rivalries, partitioning of countries along denominational lines, confusion, syncretism, and constant sniping at one another.  It is no wonder that those who are not Christian cannot understand us, especially if they are in areas where multiple denominational/doctrinal stances are present.  Now we are adding contextualization into the mix, and this is even more confusing and more detrimental to our Great Commission.

Where did denominationalism come from?  It came from good men who wanted to deal with certain parts of the Bible in their context in a way that would lessen confusion for their leaders and members in that context.  These arose out of conscience and a desire that practices would be uniform in their context.  The problem with this is that as the denominationalism expanded to new contexts it forced the old context solutions on the new Believers in a different context, instead of allowing the new Believers to develop their understanding and practices with the Bible as their guide rather than a doctrinal statement that was developed to address a different context.

What would Christianity look like today if loving, knowledgeable, experienced mentors had focused on making Disciples for Jesus who would obey His teachings in their clearest and simplest forms regardless of personal or corporate consequences?  We are so tied up in what Christianity looks like we have forgotten that it is only real in a deep abiding relationship with our Creator, Jesus Christ our Lord.  This relationship is personal and it is corporate!  Individuals and groups are held accountable to the Lord Jesus for our individual and corporate beliefs and practices.  The prophets and Jesus were harsh with religious leaders whose beliefs and practices did not agree.

I believe that Scripture has within it all we need to be obedient and pleasing to God in thought and practice.  I believe that each leader and each group has a responsibility to practice their faith in a way that best communicates their love and devotion for God through Jesus the Messiah in their own context, without the need for outsiders to tell them how to practice.

The role of the outsider is to introduce the Creator Christ and to demonstrate that our love response to God’s mercy is our consistent obedience to His Word in public and private, in all situations and circumstances, regardless of the personal consequences resulting from being obedient.  God demonstrates His love for us through His mercy (love/mercy).  We demonstrate our love for God through our obedience (love/obedience).

We cannot earn God’s love through obedience.  God’s love is absolute and one cannot have more of it or less of it at any given moment based on any legalistic adherence to a doctrine or the Bible.  God demonstrates His love for us through his mercy (love/mercy).  Those who love God demonstrate their love for God through obedience to His Word and the Holy Spirit speaking into their lives (love/obedience).  What the Holy Spirit reveals in our personal lives will be consistent with the revelation of His Word, the Bible.  We have a group responsibility to scripturally test the personal revelation of any individual before it is adopted as a personal or local group practice.

I appreciate what George Barna and Frank Viola were attempting with their book Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices.  However, I disagree with their fundamental premise.  Returning to First Century practices will not cure the ails of the modern church.  Our context is so much more complicated that those of the First Century.  Practices should flow out of Obedience to God in our current context, not out of some context that could not possibly understand the needs of the modern world and formulate practices that would be adequate for all times and places, and all seasons.  The Pagan Practices identified by Barna and Viola were contextual attempts to redeem local culture in obedience to the Word.  The problem came when the results of the process were passed on from generation to generation and from place to place, instead of passing on the process of redeeming local culture in the light of God’s Word.  Redeeming local pagan practices is a good thing.  Making those redeemed local practices the norm for the church in all times and places is not a good thing.  Instead, we should be mentoring leadership to redeem their context, not adopt a foreign expression of a redeemed foreign context.  We should be teaching process from leader to leader and generation to generation, not blind adherence to limited doctrinal responses from Scripture to address local and temporal issues.

We must resist passing on our solutions to our contexts to others as if our solutions are normative for Christianity and will work in every time and context.  What we must pass on is Scripture and a mentoring relationship that will develop leaders who can find the expressions of obedience to the Word in their own contexts in their own season.  Learning from others is a sign of maturity.  Copying others without thinking is immaturity.  The first leads to growth.  The second leads to destruction.

Our current educational processes seem to promote copying practices from the ages instead of learning from the Word of God and applying the principles to each new problem in each new generation in every different place.  Form is not universal.  If you don’t believe this simply look at the different kinds of brooms all over the planet.  Many forms, one function – clean the mess.  A single kind of broom is not suitable to all situations, nor is it suitable to every way different cultures prefer to sweep.  None of us would dream of forcing every person to use one kind of broom for every cleaning environment and every cultural style of sweeping.

Yet, this is exactly what we do with church and missions.  We insist that one form will suffice for all time in every situation.  This is absurd.  This is absurd whether we approach it from a doctrinal position, historical position, or cultural position.  Different times and different places and different contexts require different expressions of obedience to the Word of God.  Notice!  Not a different Word of God, but different expressions of obedience to the infallible and unchanging Word.

It is as wrong for us to contextualize practices for another culture as it is for us to foist our personal practices on another culture.  Contextualization is a local obedience response to the Word of God.  It is a local expression of love/obedience for God in response to God’s love/mercy for them.

I can introduce someone outside my context to the Word of God, assist them in understanding the Word of God, and ask them how they will obey the Word of God in their context; but I must not tell them how to obey.  The moment I move to telling “how”, I am teaching them to sweep the floor my way with my broom instead of allowing them to build from Scripture to Principle to Practice in a way that is relevant to their context.

In my opinion, there is no greater expression of faith in God and His Holy Spirit than to allow new Believers to read the Word, apply the Word, and then build their principles and practices through love/obedience to the Word and the Holy Spirit.  We say we believe in the Holy Spirit, but we act as if He is incompetent to do His part in the lives of new Believers and new churches.  When we have done our part (Show our love for God by being obedient to His Word and teaching other to be obedient to His Word), God does His part in the presence of the Holy Spirit who counsels, inspires, directs, convicts, emboldens us to obedience in the face of opposition and persecution, and grows our faith.

Contextualization by outsiders is not the issue!  Obedience to the Word of God and His Holy Spirit within each context is the issue.  I cannot formulate this for another context or time or place.  I cannot contextualize the Gospel for another.  I can only love, train, and mentor them to formulate their love response to God for themselves and thereby see true contextualization of the Gospel and the development of relevant local practices that demonstrate to the community their love for God and their obedience response to God’s love/mercy.  If I give anything beyond process I endanger the contextualization of the Gospel to a given people, context and time; and I hinder the spread of the Gospel.

My job is to give the Gospel as simply and purely as possible.  Train people to read and learn the Word and apply it to their context in their own ways; to teach them to obey by being obedient and expecting obedience from them to the simple Word of God; and depend on the Holy Spirit to do in them what He is doing in me.  Their job is to receive the Word of God, listen and learn the Word, apply the Word to their own lives, and contextualize the practices that come from the principles revealed in the Word by the Holy Spirit so that others in the context can see and respond to their transformed lives and culture.

I must deculturalize my expressions of obedience to the Gospel so that foreign practices (my practices) will not make it harder for people to hear the Gospel.  Local believers must contextualize their obedience to the Gospel and formulate practices that communicate their love/obedience for God in response to His Word and His Spirit to their context.

The contextualization debate is the wrong debate.  We need to be discussing why we think our peculiar brand of Christianity that was formulated for a particular time and context is relevant to any other time or context.  It is not!  It has become the barrier that is the most difficult to overcome in sharing the Gospel and teaching obedience to the commands of Jesus to new generations in new times and in different contexts.  Our personal preferences for worship, prayer, outreach, governance, clothing, and etc. are meaningless to anyone else.   The only thing that transcends time, space, and context is the Gospel and our love/obedience responses to God’s love/mercy.  Give the Gospel, teach love/obedience, and allow every obedient people to develop their own practices, not adopt peculiar outsider practices that are more barrier than help to those who do not know God.

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David Watson
Somewhere over the Atlantic

13 Replies to “Leadership Essentials – Contextualization Is Not What You Think It Is”

  1. I remember a story we heard soon after arriving in Kenya. Perhaps it’s apocryphal, but it still bears more than a bit of truth. When Scottish missionaries first went to Africa, they demanded an end to “demonically -inspired” tribal dances. Then, they offered, in their place, to teach them how to do a Highland jig. In other words, our cultural practices (by our definition) are good; yours (by definition) are bad.

    A few years ago, while we were living in England, an Indian pastor spoke at the very informal church we were attending. He commented how difficult it was to speak when not wearing his English-Anglicanism-inspired robes. His point was that the church in India was more English than the English who brought the gospel to his country. Bottom line? The unnecessarily high price paid by nations who hear the gospel from outsiders who leave behind not only the gospel, but their own cultural/denominational practices and doctrines as well. It’s called Imperialism, and we bear it’s ugly fruit in many places and in many ways.

    One of the saddest motivations for "missionary work" I've ever heard came from a certain denominational "worker" in Kenya. When asked why he was there, his response was that God had called him to plant churches in Kenya because there were no congregations from his very narrow, very particular sub-category denomination. The result? Now there are a string of small churches across Kenya who must follow and adhere to the dictates of a small group somewhere in Florida.

    Thanks for your powerful words.

  2. I guess the principle (of giving the Gospel and teaching obedience) applies to the differences between generations even within one same culture.

  3. So then, we must trust God's Spirit to speak to anyone in any age through His Word to make His church. That concept (what you address in your blog) is expressed by Paul's comments to the Corinthians regarding divisions encouraged in part by the different styles of the various "evangelists" ( Paul, Peter, Apollos, etc) because it is God who causes the increase and not the individuals with their competing styles (maybe a function of different gifts). However, later when Paul comments regarding practices that differ from the norm he states something to the effect that ".. we have no such custom, neither the churches of God. So it doesn't always seem so simple as your blog would be suggesting. Any comments?

    1. Nothing simple about it. We are linear learners and require years to understand all that is in the Bible. There are hundreds of principles we need to be aware of and obedient to in order to fulfill the love/obedience response to God. This takes time and requires commitment to learning, inspiration, and obedience in our love/obedience process. Leadership should be the vanguard in this process. We have the advantage of the whole council of Scripture that was not yet in the hands those to whom Paul was speaking. Definition was being developed by Paul and the other apostles, along with the teachings of the Prophets. We have the principles and the laws that God wants us to have in today's Scripture. This sets the boundaries, especially from a negative perspective; and this sets the beginning point from a positive perspective. Paul made it clear there are limits to negative/sinful behavior. The Scripture we have today sets those limits. If all this were easy there would be no need for leadership. The purpose of leadership is to educate in knowledge, train/coach in skills and behavior, inspire/exhort to love/obedience, and mentor others to do the same in service to the Body of Christ.

      So, bottom line, this is simple – if the Bible says to do it, we do it; if the Bible says to not do it, we don't do it; and we understand that it's about principles as much as it's about rules and laws. Digging a ditch is simple, but yet it's very hard work. Same for church. Basically, it's simple, but very hard work that requires dedicated leadership and committed Disciples.


      David Watson

      Irving, Texas

  4. I think that part of the problem is that we don't realize how many cultural trappings we have. It is easy to say that we must contextualize until something happens and we have a knee jerk response. Would North Americans be satisfied using a mediator to solve a problem? Probably not. They would go to Matt. 18 and say that face to face resolution was the Biblical response, forgetting that a mediator is another option presented in Scripture.

  5. This is my point. We should not contextualize because we always do so from our cultural perspective, even when we determine not do do so. As outsiders, we must deculturalize our presentation of the Gospel, and encourage/train local leaders to contextualize by obeying God's word in a way that makes sense in their context. We cannot learn a culture well enough to contextualize the Gospel for them.


    David Watson

    Irving, Texas

    1. I would agree that deculturalizing our Gospel presentation is the goal. However practically this is probably not attainable. It is probably not possible for us to do anything, much less present the Gospel, in an acultural way. It is important that we know ourselves well enough culturally to be able to explain our cultural bias.

      1. We present the Gospel in an acultural way on a regular basis around the world. It requires one to move from a teaching/presentation role to a coaching role that points people to the Bible and asks them to explain the passage in their own words and then to made decisions based on what they discover. Most people approach those who don't know Christ with a lot of answers. We approach those who don't know Christ with a lot of questions. The questions guide the discovery and the discussion, thus providing a good barrier to cultural overhang. The great thing about this process is that those who come to Christ through it are immediately able to lead others through the process with no further training. We have spontaneous replication in all our work. See Small Groups that have the DNA of a Gospel Planting Movement for a complete discussion of the process.


        David Watson

        Irving, Texas

  6. How do you deal with this contextualization when the locals are searching through various denominations or have been affiliated with various denominations? They are picking the doctrines they like and making them their own… like a nice big-ol' southern Bible-belt buffet.

    1. This is not an uncommon event. Either Christian Background Believers introduce practices, or outsiders join in to "correct" practices. Either can be very disturbing and cause DNA problems that make it more difficult for the church to reproduce. Obedience-based discipleship, well trained leadership, strong evaluation of all new practices, and high accountability can help attenuate the adoption of outside practices that may jeopardize growth in a specific context. But ultimately, the church decides and outsiders have to honor the choices of the church as long as they are not heretical. But even if practices are not heretical, they can become a serious barrier to the future development of the church because of foreign practices that put off locals.


      David Watson

      Irving, Texas

  7. My own limited experience in a USA simple church (for the last 2 years) is that adoption of people (rather than practices) is the key – realizing that every believer comes loaded with unique mixtures of culture and background – church or otherwise – especially in the USA's multicultural society. As an example, we've had believers come into our group who feel strongly one way or another about how to follow Jesus' Last Supper instructions. Essentially, the group encourages any participant to lead the rest of us in thanks and remembrance for Christ's Body and Blood in whatever ways they are led to do – as long as it doesn't violate Biblical principle as understood by the group. The net result is that we do it different ways in different meetings, which places the emphasis on Christ, not any one specific practice, ritual, or leader. There was one person who came for several meetings, who felt very strongly it had to be done a certain way, and was unable to accept or tolerate the existence of a wider range of perspectives in the group. Sadly in that case, the brother decided that his ritual trumped the importance of the relationships, and he stopped coming despite our pleas for him to stick around. However – the group was still spared from the trap of ritualism. I think this was a great example of the idea that open groups focused on Christ through Scripture are normally self-correcting.

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