By Sharon Tan
Papua New Guinea. Photo: Lisa Vanden Berg, ©Wycliffe Global Alliance
From its infancy, the early church faced the issue of contextualisation – how to help new believers apply their Christian faith to their daily lives. Paul’s missionary work among the Gentiles raised the question of whether these no-Jewish believers should be required to conform to Jewish practices and culture. Acts 15 provides an account of how leaders of the New Testament church dealt with this issue. Eventually it was decided that, barring a few issues regarded as crucial, the new believers should not be required keep the Jewish law.
Ultimately, the goal of contextualization is to create indigenous churches which are able to express their worship of God in their own cultures and languages. There has to be an understanding that no culture is either wholly evil or wholly good; every culture will have both positive as well as negative features.
The question of how far to contextualise is faced most acutely when Christians seek to communicate the gospel in a culturally relevant way to those from another culture, whether on the mission field or at home. New believers have to be guided in evaluating the customs, rituals and values of their own culture in the light of their new faith. Even those who may have been Christians for years daily face questions of how much of contemporary culture to accept or reject.
Like the Pharisees in Acts 15, some missionaries or evangelists choose to import wholesale their own “Christian” culture, replacing much of the new believer’s own culture. This communicates the message to new believers that the only way to be a Christian is to adopt a foreign “Christian” culture. It confuses the outward practices of dress, musical styles, rites of passage, etc. with Christian beliefs and values. Such practices in the past have caused missionaries to be accused of cultural imperialism and destroying ethnic cultures. Failure to contextualise may also drive believers to guiltily practise the old customs and rituals in parallel or in secret.
At the other end of the spectrum, simply adding a few “Christian” practices while retaining much of the new believers’ original culture and worldview risks distorting the gospel message by blending it with non-Christian elements, and often results in an unacceptable level of syncretism.
So how can Christians communicate the gospel in a culturally sensitive manner, without distorting or undermining the truths of the Christian gospel?
Paul Hiebert, a missiological anthropologist, recommends the practice of critical contextualization as a way to communicate the gospel message with the minimum of distortion. Under the guidance of the missionary or evangelist, new believers should first seek to understand and analyse both the underlying beliefs of the traditional rituals and customs of their own culture, and also biblical truths. They should then evaluate their cultural practices in the light of Scripture, and decide which may be retained as compatible with their new faith. Other practices may be rejected outright as unbiblical. There will also be some practices that could be adapted or modified.
For example, they may decide that most traditional food and clothing are perfectly compatible with their new faith. However, they may conclude that food involved in some rituals should be considered off-limits to Christians, and that they should cease participating in certain practices that have spiritual significance. They may decide that traditional musical styles and instruments can be used in worship, with new lyrics. It may be necessary for the missionary or evangelist to help the new believers devise or adapt new rituals to replace discarded ones, especially those which mark important rites of passage (e.g. marriages or funerals).
Hiebert stresses that these decisions should not be simply imposed on new believers by the missionary or evangelist; the new believers should be involved in the process for a number of reasons. First, they are better able than a foreigner to discern the deep and hidden meanings in their cultural practices. On the other hand, an outsider’s perspective can be helpful in highlighting aspects of their own culture they may be blind to. Note that this does require that the missionary spend the time and effort to gain a significant level of understanding of the new believers’ culture. Secondly, it helps new believers grow spiritually and learn discernment as they practise applying Scripture to their own lives. Ideally, this process should be a communal one, so that new Christians can learn to put into practice the priesthood of believers.
In any cross-cultural setting, there is always the risk of contextualising too much or too little, or in the wrong way. But by the grace of God and the Spirit’s guidance, these mistakes can be rectified over time. What we must not do is ignore the challenge of contextualization. If we do, the gospel will continue to remain “foreign” to many who are still unreached.
Wycliffe Singapore is holding a “Culture Meets Scripture” workshop in March 2020. The workshops will be led by Ms Jo Shetler and Dr Amy West, both of whom have many years of experience in this field. Click here more information about future events.