Audio Transcript:

Welcome to Missions on Point, the Propempo perspective on church and missions. Welcome to episode 104 of Missions on Point. Just a little footnote, 104 means that we have been doing this podcast exactly two years every Friday.

This is the third episode of 14 on contemporary issues in missions. Today's topic deals with contextualization, historic, and hijacked. Contextualization, in its most basic sense, is expressing something or putting something into a context that is natural and understood by those recipients. So contextualization generally helps the recipients understand what is being communicated in their culture, in their language, in their understanding. The most basic use of contextualization is simply in terms of the gospel using the language of the hearer. It's well proven that people understand things more clearly and readily grasp and accept them if it is expressed in their language and culture in a way that they understand.

Contextualization is a huge and broad topic, and from the very beginning of gospel ministry through the church has been a point of controversy, particularly in missions, although we find really good examples of some specific contextualization communication of truth in the Bible. In modern times, this has been expanded to mean everything from, say, music styles in the Western Christian world and the forms of worship.

The key thing to keep in mind is, good contextualization means that we are expressing biblical truth without watering it down in the context of the hearer. The dangerous end of the spectrum of contextualization is syncretism that is adapting local beliefs, whether or not they are biblical, into the understanding of the Christian gospel and the church. It's pretty obvious that leaders in contextualization in the modern missionary era have been people like William Carey from history, and Hudson Taylor, who adopted local culture to integrate into the local culture and then have a better platform of acceptance for the teaching of the Bible that they were bringing.

Missionaries have not always understood contextualization in a healthy way. Many of the early missionaries imported Western behavior, western styles, and imposed Western culture on the early Christians of their target missionary field. So how does a good concept like contextualization that is helping the local listeners understand Bible truth diverge into practically heresy and be hijacked by people who mean well, but are actually communicating the wrong things?

Here are a couple of examples. Then we'll go back and look at how it got that way. Well-meaning people who hijack contextualization cross the line when they say that other holy writings from the host culture can be regarded by new believers on the same level as the Bible. Or if they say that there exists some extra biblical prophet that can be regarded in any way as a messenger of the same God that we know from the Bible. Or they equivocate on the deity of Christ in some way, or they reinterpret a biblical definition of the church to be something really very different than that. Or they say it's okay to keep all the former religion's forms, just Jesus-ize it. Or they knowingly permit new believers to retain all of their old superstitious beliefs, black magic, shamanism, and just add a veneer of Bible and Jesus to it.

These kinds of things are sycretism. They're not healthy, they're not good, they're not biblical. In fact, they lean heavily into heresy. In recent years, these kinds of things have been called the C five or C six level of contextualization. They also are called the insider movement or common ground method. Some of these methods are intentionally deceptive to Muslims, Buddhist, and Hindus.

Two key markers that are going to be helpful in understanding and applying just a few key biblical principles. One is the basic understanding of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, nothing added, nothing subtracted. Another key is understanding a biblical definition of a local church, and we'll have to revisit this in some upcoming episodes as well. It's basically this: a biblical functioning local church is a mutually committed body of local believers worshiping regularly together around the teaching of the word of God in prayer, observing the ordinances of baptism and communion under the leadership of biblically qualified shepherds while being active witnesses of the gospel.

And the third key is to understand where we draw the line on contextualization. What is the boundary? Here's where we draw the line. It works for ministry in Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu context. It works in Catholic, Mormon, and animist context. Also, here's this simple statement. We do not allow mature Christians or expatriate workers like missionaries to teach converts to intentionally mislead observers to view them as adherents to their former religion from which they were converted. What does that mean practically? It means that a mature believer never asks a new convert to just continue in their same context and keep going to the mosque, keep going to the temple, keep doing exactly the same kind of things and appear to observers as if they have never changed at all, when in fact, if they're genuine believers, they are a new creature, they have changed. They shouldn't pretend to be something else just to try to escape some level of persecution or ostracization.

Now, they may need to be cautious about how they explain that they have become a Christian or what a Christian really is, because there are a lot of misunderstandings about what Christianity is and what a Christian is. But having done so, the new believer should not hesitate to actually live a different life. Not completely different. They don't adapt the dress and the language of some foreign entity. They don't completely change where they live, how they eat, but their spiritual life is going to be different.

A new convert might innocently, without having teaching otherwise, continue in some of the religious cultural forms of habit and culture that they're in. But a sincere growing disciple will inevitably come to a point at which they understand they cannot live a double life and intentionally deceiving those who are onlookers as to their true allegiances to Christ. And if this new believer ever asks an expatriate worker or a mature convert from his or her own cultural background, that worker or mature Christian would never coach or encourage or otherwise express ambivalent support for the convert, continuing to intentionally mislead onlookers to think that they had never left the faith of their upbringing.

Let's just mention the C1 to C6 spectrum, developed by John Travis and popularized in a number of books since the popularization of a course called Perspectives in the World, Christian Movement and other missions journals' articles from the late 1990s forward. Here's how it goes.

The C1 level, is there's no language learning or contextualization. It's just English-speaking churches in other countries on military bases, hospitals or embassies that have no outreach to the Muslim majority culture. Little footnote here, it can apply in other cultures as well, but John Travis came from an Asian Muslim context.

C2 is evangelicals who start speaking the Muslim majority language and begin to have some kind of outreach and discipleship and church services in the Muslim majority language. Even though there are many churches like this scattered through the Middle East, very few have any direct contact with the Muslim community.

C3 is evangelicals who use the Muslim language in neutral cultural forms, and all of the C1, C 2, C3 Christians would call themselves Christians.

C4 churches would use the Muslims' local language, whatever that is, and yet be very adapted to the local culture. Things like no eating of pork, or taking off their shoes at the door, or men growing beards depending on the context. Praying with open hands and perhaps a believer calling himself a follower of Jesus and using the word [foreign language 00:09:40] for Jesus.

C5 is encouraging and striving to keep Muslim background believers connected to their people and family and friends, so that they can share the gospel with them. Social connections are emphasized. They probably keep going to the mosque, and while they may say they are a follower of Jesus, they don't really announce that to their friends and family.

The C6 level is a secret believer and nobody wants that. They stay completely silent about their faith. They totally stay in the Muslim culture and family, or whichever culture they're in. An appropriate contextualization makes no compromise whatsoever about the singular authority of the inspired word of God, the Bible, the deity and humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the sufficiency of his death and resurrection for our salvation.

A clear biblical definition of what a local church is, the local assembly of believers meeting regularly and teaching God's word. So while we want to express biblical truth and the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that is understandable in its context, we don't want to water it down or change the meaning or the gravity of the truth that we're teaching. It is important that we contextualize our communication without compromising our message. I just want to encourage you to be very careful and discerning, because so many missionaries and missions and leaders out there are going to try to persuade you that having a highly contextualized ministry methodology is going to produce more results, and they'll even throw in some Bible verses to try to convince you that this is okay. Their arguments will make you feel guilty that you're somehow imposing Western style church and Western culture on non-Western recipients.

And it's scary, because there is some truth to that. But when they expand it to be the whole viewpoint of their methodology, they begin exaggerating the results of the modern methods of contextualization versus more traditional methods. In fact, it is reported by people on the scene in Muslim contexts in Asia that John Travis's ministry itself, in a highly contextualized fashion, produced much less quality and quantity of actual results on the field compared to the more traditional methods of long-term teaching preaching in the local language and culture.

Another marker of effectiveness is not just what the missionary says his potential effectiveness has been, but have genuine converts, actually reproducing persistent quality of ongoing ministry among the nationals that meet good biblical definitions. Missionaries must study the language and culture so that they can accurately communicate the gospel and the truths of the Bible to their listeners.

But ministry that is shaped and conformed to local practices, which may or may not be biblical, are in great danger of being syncretistic, that is heretical or on the edge of heresy. Don't let well-meaning missionaries or leaders or mission agencies persuade you to move into a hijacked form of bad contextualization.

I don't want to leave you thinking that contextualization is a bad thing. It's not. It's a good thing. It's a necessary thing. However, the scope of the field of contextualization is filled with landmines. Pray and watch out. Thanks for joining us today on Missions on Point, the Propempo perspective on church and missions. I trust that you'll find more help and resources on the website, Please prayerfully consider supporting this ministry now to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Amen.

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