Contextualizing the gospel--option or imperative?

The ongoing challenge of relating the gospel meaningfully to disparate cultures

Reinder Bruinsma, Ph.D., is the secretary of the Trans-European Division, St. Albans, Hertsfordshire, England.

The term contextualization is not universally accepted. In evangelical circles the word remains somewhat suspect because of its alleged liberal and sociopolitical overtones, and because it supposedly carries the smell of process thinking. 1

Many Roman Catholic missiologists would rather speak of inculturation, while many conservative Protestants prefer the term indigenization.

The word contextualization was first introduced in 1972 in a report of the Third Mandate of the Theological Education Fund, an agency of the World Council of Churches. Whereas indigenization was seen as a rather static concept, the term contextualization was coined to express a more dynamic relationship to cultures, suggesting that cultures are in a constant flux, that necessitates an ongoing process of relating to them.2

Contextualization is biblical

Biblical revelation was given within a given historical context. Old Testament students are aware of the parallels between the Old Testament and certain aspects of other cultures. The fact that Israel was allowed to share in many of the forms and elements of other cultures suggests that the deeper meaning of rites, ceremonies, architectural designs, etc., is primary, while the form, if not accidental, is of secondary importance.

Signs of contextualization are also apparent in the New Testament. The events that occurred in Palestine were soon re ported to a non-Jewish audience, and their meaning was expressed in Greek terms. Paul deliberately strove for contextualization. He did not ask his non-Jewish hearers to be come like him. He says, "I have become all things to all men" (1 Cor. 9:22, NIV).

And does not Incarnation itself stand out as proof that contextualization is essential to God's method of communication? Christ became man. He fully participated in the culture in which He allowed Himself to be born. "It is nothing short of amazing that the God of all the universe would choose our familiar turf, our way of life, our language, our total frame of reference rather than His own to be the context within which He interacts with us."3

The Bible leaves no doubt about God's communication strategy. His concern is not just to push a set of propositions, but rather to establish a relationship with human beings. He reaches out to us, to elicit a response upon which the whole relationship is based. He wants to be understood. Hence He chose to become one of us and to love us where we are.

"To love," states Kraft, "is to seek the best for the recipient at whatever expense to the source. To love communicationally is to put oneself to whatever inconvenience to assure that the receptors understand."4 Too often church leaders forget this principle and demand that the persons they seek to reach learn their language and their customs, appreciate their kind of music, come to their places of worship at their appointed times, and associate with their kind of people.

In Ellen White's days contextualization had not emerged in its present form. How ever, she repeatedly stressed the need for cultural adaptation in missionary work. Two statements will suffice:

"The servants of Christ should accommodate themselves to the varied conditions of the people. They cannot carry out exact rules if they meet the cases of all. Labor will have to be varied to meet the people where they are."5

"The people of every country have their own peculiar, distinctive characteristics, and it is necessary that men should be wise in order that they may know how to adapt themselves to the peculiar ideas of the people, and so introduce the truth that they may do them good. They must be able to understand and meet their wants."6

Contextualization is indispensable

We must appreciate the cultural diversity in the world as God's gift rather than see it as a problem to be solved! "In a globalized world, no particular expression of the church has the privilege of locking the gospel into one cultural expression and calling it biblical mission."7

Church history is full of examples of sincere, and often successful, attempts at contextualization. Where this was neglected, disaster was often the result. One good ex ample is the early history of Catholicism along the West African coast, in particular in the sixteenth-century kingdom of Congo. The early successes were not sustained, Christianity was not indigenized; it remained a foreign element and almost totally disappeared until in the nineteenth century a new beginning was made.8

The recent explosive growth of independent churches in Africa must, at least in part, be understood as an attempt to make "Christianity relevant to the totality of the African experience of life" and as a rejection of noncontextualized forms of Christianity.9

From about 1800 the belief of most missionaries in the superiority of Western culture led to a diminished emphasis on the need of adaptation. The 1800-1950 period has been referred to as the era of noncontextualization.10 In the past few decades, however, the situation has changed dramatically, even though there is still much to be desired. This is particularly true for many evangelical mission organizations that continue to operate as if the missionary's culture is "good," "advanced," and normative; whereas other cultures are "bad," "back ward" and "distorted." 11

Adventists and contextualization

The Adventist pioneers described their message as present truth; that is, a truth given for a particular time and relevant to people living in a particular historical context. "In some areas of the world that 'particular situation' still prevails.... In other areas, how ever, different situations have developed, and new contexts have emerged in which the same message in its traditional form has less appeal. It is still the truth, but not 'present truth,' that is, not relevant to the people's innermost longings and urgent needs." 12

Adventists to a large degree have shared (and continue to share) in the evangelical approach to missions, which regrettably is often very ethnocentric, or, more specifically, American. The Adventist missionary endeavor will have to take contextualization more seriously than it has done in the past if it wants to see more success in difficult fields and wants to ensure that the believers in non-Western countries will feel owner ship and find relevance in their church. 13

Contextualization--difficult but possible

Contextualization is, in fact, translation. Concepts, expressed in particular words, symbols, rites, etc., first in the culture of the Bible, and second, in the culture of the missionary, must be translated into dynamic equivalents in the culture of the evangelized. Words have different meanings and connotations in various cultures. In Nigeria only the very young and the insane tend sheep. Picturing Christ as the good shepherd may send the wrong message. The Sawis in Papua New Guinea admire treachery, a fact that needs to be kept in mind when speaking about Judas. The dragon is a much more positive symbol in the Chinese world than it is in the West. Many other examples could be added.

Having stated that contexualization re quires a translation of words and customs, we should immediately add a caution. All cultures are imperfect, and some are even hostile to the essence of Christianity. Yes, the gospel must be contextualized, but it must also remain prophetic it must stand in judgment on what is evil in the culture of the recipient of the message. 14 It can press into its service only those themes, values, institutions, and behavioral patterns that are consistent with the will of God.

Contextualization goes beyond a culturally sensitive translation of the Bible. It has an enormous bearing upon worship forms, rites, and ceremonies. It greatly affects theology. Most Christian theology, Adventist theology included, is decidedly Western. The Western way of thinking about the Christian faith and the doctrinal statements of the church betray a Greek rather than a biblical mode of thinking. If in the construction of Western theology we allow a Greek frame work, why should we view with suspicion if others want to do theology within the framework of their culture?

This aspect takes on added significance when we think of Christianity in its encounter with other religions. For example, much of the Christian terminology is unacceptable to Muslims. In a contextualized approach to the Bible and to the missionary task, these terms are not sacrosanct and the challenge ought to be accepted to find forms and symbols that will serve as (more) acceptable vehicles for the truth that needs to be conveyed.15

Contextualization demands great care. There is always the danger of syncretism, which occurs when basic elements of the gospel are lost and replaced by religious elements of the receiving culture. Contextualization must always be critical contextualization.

Contextualization: safeguarding principles

Jon Dybdahl lists six principles that may guide us to safeguard Contextualization from syncretism: 16

1. Maintain close connection with the Scriptures.

2. Pray for and trust in God's leading.

3. Check our motives and attitudes. Are we truly trying to give the gospel as clearly as possible, or are we merely following a missiological fashion?

4. Consult the community of believers. The church is a corporate entity; there is wisdom in hearing what the Spirit says to the whole body. Believers in the receivers' culture should lead in the process of Contextualization. But they must, on the other hand, be willing to learn from church history and from the con temporary church elsewhere. The danger of syncretism will be greatly reduced if many thinking and praying minds cooperate.

5. Realize that over time, truth surfaces. Wrong decisions can be rectified if we allow the Spirit to work.

6. Maintain concern for the weak. The Pauline principle in 1 Corinthians 9 still stands. The opinions and feelings of brothers and sisters who have fears and doubts about the exercise of Contextualization must be considered.

Because it is rooted in the example of the Lord, who entered a totally foreign culture and communicated His truth within that foreign context, critical Contextualization is not an option, but an imperative. Contextualization is not without risk: imperfect as we are, we are bound to make mistakes, but a refusal to contextualize will have much more serious consequences. In the immediate future it will almost certainly reduce our evangelistic success, while in the longer term it carries the grave danger that the church in non-Western countries will re main a Western institution in which the believers will never be really at home.

1 James M. Phillips and Robert T. Coot, eds., Toward
the 21st Century in Christian Mission
(Grand Rapids:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1993), p. 238.

2 Tite Tienou, "Forming Indigenous Theologies,"
in Phillips and Coot, p. 247.

3 Charles H. Kraft, Communication Theory for
Christian Witness
(Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books,
1991), p. 14.

4 Ibid., p. 14.

5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948),
vol. 2, p. 673.

6 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1962), p. 213.

7 Craig van Gelder, "Finding the Boundaries: The
Challenge of Re-visioning the Church in North
America for the Twenty-First Century," Missiology 22,
No. 3 (July 1994): 321.


8 J. Herbert Kane, A Concise History of the Christian
World Mission (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,
1991), pp. 69, 70.

9 Peter B. Clarke, West Africa and Christianity
(London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 1986), p. 163.

10 Paul G. Hiebert, "Critical Contextualization,"
International Bulletin of Missionary Research, July 1987,
p. 104.

11 Ibid., p. 106.

12 Gottfried Oosterwal,"The Seventh-day Adventist
Church in the World Today," in G. Oosterwal et al., eds.,
Servants for Christ: The Adventist Church Facing the '80s
(Berrien Springs, Midi.: Andrews University Press,
1980), pp. 12,13.

13 Interestingly enough, Ellen G. White warned
against duplicating American methods in the mission
fields. In Life Sketches (Mountain View, Calif: Pacific
Press Pub. Assn., 1943) she wrote about Avondale College
in Australia, "God designs that this place shall be
a center, an object lesson. Our school is not to pattern
after any school that has been established in America"
(p. 374). While in Europe she observed, "I have been
shown that we need to move with the greatest wis
dom that we shall not in any thing create prejudice by
giving the impression that Americans feel themselves
superior to people of other nations" (Manuscript Re
leases, vol. 8, p. 106).

14 Hiebert, p. 109.

15 See Phil Pashall, New Paths in Muslim Evangelism:
Evangelical Approaches to Contextualization

(Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992).

16 Jon Dybdahl, "Crosscultural Adaptation: How
to Contextualize the Gospel," Ministry, November
1992, p. 16.


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Reinder Bruinsma, Ph.D., is the secretary of the Trans-European Division, St. Albans, Hertsfordshire, England.

December 1997

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