Monday, April 26, 2010

Contextualizing the Gospel

The topic of contextualizing the Gospel is a hot one today. While some seem to be arguing for it and some against it, few seem willing to admit that we ALL will contextualize the gospel, even as we received it in a contextualized way. The Gospel, as it is presented in Scripture itself, is contextualized to a first century audience. So the question is not whether we should or should not contextualize. The fact is we will contextualize the gospel. To me the bigger issue is HOW we contextualize the gospel. In his excellent book Understanding Folk Religion, Paul Hiebert argues for "critical contextualization," and it is this "critical" element that seems so lacking in many efforts to contextualize today.

In preparing for a lecture on World Religions, I came across the following in Winfried Corduan's book Neighboring Faiths:

"The process of contextualizing the gospel is tricky. Ideally speaking, missionaries should be able to extract the pure gospel message from the biblical message and pass it on untouched by their own culture to the converts, who then incorporate the gospel into their culture without polluting it. In practice this is impossible. The gospel message comes to us embedded in the culture of biblical times. Missionaries can try their best to separate true Christianity from its expression in their own culture, but no one can do so perfectly. The gap between the missionaries' and the hearers' cultures will cause misconceptions. The only way to avoid 'cultural pollution' would be to stop sharing the gospel altogether."

All of us are agreed that the cessation of sharing the gospel is not an option, so what are we to do? Here is where critical contextualization needs to be exercised. It is the task of the proclaimer of the gospel to determine where elements of his or her own culture must be maintained for the sake of keeping the gospel from being contaminated by the non-Christian's culture, and where the elements of his or her own culture need to be shed so as to not contaminate the gospel as it is being shared. Corduan cites a study of some churches in Africa where contextualization has been implemented with no critical evaluation whatsoever. While the attempt was to "establish an African Christianity that combines the Christian message with African culture," (a noble goal to which no mission-minded believer would object), the actual outcome was far different. Corduan notes that in many cases, "the result has been syncretistic." He supplies the conclusions from research done by Professor Murikwa, who found that the independent churches of Kenya were typically holding to doctrines which were more in keeping with their traditional beliefs than with biblical Christianity. These included belief in a remote and capricious God; reverence for ancestors as mediators between God and man; Christ as a moral example to the exclusion of reference to the atonement; and a view of healing and dream interpretation that simply replaced the tribal medicine man with the church's clergy. Sadly, Corduan concludes, "One looks in vain for the gospel message. In most cases the embodiment of the gospel in traditional African culture has swallowed up Christian doctrine and the gospel itself."

None of us should be so bold as to suggest that we have arrived at THE answer for the problem of gospel contextualization. But perhaps we should all take a step back from the contemporary rhetoric and ask ourselves some hard questions about our efforts to contextualize the gospel. The case study that Corduan cites suggests to me that a good question to consider when trying to assimilate the Gospel into what we will call "Culture X" is this: "If all things were to remain as they are, in 20 years, will this movement look more like the Gospel, or more like Culture X?" But things do not remain as they are, do they? Countless examples could be cited that demonstrate that movements tend to downgrade over time. Rather than trying to couch the gospel in the clothing of the culture, perhaps we need to confront the culture with the gospel and be very clear that the gospel does not need adornment, from our culture or from theirs. That would be easier said than done. But through dialogue, cultural trappings on both sides could be identified, evaluated, and isolated from the core of the gospel so that it comes through unscathed and undefiled. That seems to be what was happening at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and this passage should be one that we allow to inform all of our efforts to carry the Gospel across cultural borders.

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