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

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