Audio Transcript:

Welcome to Missions on Point, the Propempo perspective on church and missions. Here we go. This is episode 82 of Missions on Point. It's five in a six part series on missiology you need to know. And this episode we're going to talk about the issues of contextualization and conversion. These issues are deep and wide. We will only be able to touch the tip of the iceberg on this and not see everything beneath the surface. There are long and heated discussions on these things out there in the world of media. Misunderstandings or confusion about the issues of contextualization and conversion, especially fueled by Western pragmatism, have created all kinds of unfortunate results and trends sweeping the globe. So let's first talk about contextualization. Contextualization is the process of considering something in relation to the context in which it happens or exists. When we talk about contextualization in missiology, we're generally talking about language and forms and practices that fit the local culture.

It's generally understood and accepted in the missions world that the missionary ought to use the language of the people. It's almost embarrassing to say that in many places, missionaries don't do that. Then you go back to some of the previous episodes, and I've talked about how important it is for the missionary to not only speak the language at a market level, but to have an understanding of how to verbalize and present intangible truths of the gospel and of theology from a biblical perspective in the language. That takes a higher level of language proficiency. So this element all by itself kind of obviates the reason behind having local dialect Bible translations so that the people can understand the Bible in their own language. I remember running into a missionary who thought that the King James version was the only version of the Bible that was acceptable and insisted that his tribal language group learned the King James Bible for their church services. That would be laughable if it was not so serious.

I had a dear astute Christian friend who had another friend who was a pastor that believed in the King James only. And he said, "I will not debate him because it's like having a dual with someone who has no weapon and no ammunition." It is an example of the height of Western arrogance to have that kind of stance. We need to express spiritual truths in the language of the hearers, that is the indigenous language, the language in its context. Yet, as we've said before, language in context doesn't mean that we change the message itself. It needs to accurately reflect, it needs to be an accurate translation of what the original biblical passage says and means. It is not acceptable to change the meaning of scripture to fit the cultural or contextual sensitivities of the audience. The gospel will be a stumbling block to those that hear it.

The gospel may be offensive to some. The scripture says so. One of the key scriptures regarding contextualization is found in first Corinthians chapter nine verses 19 through 23. It says this, this is Paul writing, "For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law. Though not being myself under the law, that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law. I became as one outside the law, not being outside the law of God, but under the law of Christ that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak that I might win the weak. I become all things to all people that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel that I may share with them in its blessings."

Paul says that you need to redefine yourself and the manner of your communication to fit the audience, but that does not mean that you change the content of the gospel itself. When you say this, let the stumbling block of the gospel be the message and not the messenger. Now, it's also true that as a foreigner, we are never fully contextualized into the context of our audience. People know that we're foreigners whether we dress like them and speak like them or not. We're always going to have a little bit of an accent or less understanding or carry ourselves in a way that's different than them. People recognize that we're not one of them. But let our message be the thing that points them to the Bible and to Christ and the cross and the gospel. Not letting our manner be any kind of impediment or stumbling block to their understanding of the clarity and exclusivity of that message.

The dark side of contextualization is accommodation or syncretism. That is accommodating oneself and the message in such a way that it actually changes the message or syncretism pulling in elements of a pagan religion or a human man-made religion or pagan institutionalized religion that is anti-Christian in such a way that it blends Christian doctrine and belief with the native or pagan or institutionalized religion that is anti-gospel and ultimately anti-Bible and anti-Christ. We certainly see these kinds of things in Western cults that integrate some man-made religion or some man-made insight or supposed vision to create a new religion that is actually not Christian religion at all and does not preach the true biblical gospel. And that's a danger on the mission field as well. We have heard of missionaries who go way beyond the limits of biblical contextualization to try to pose themselves as native religionists and ultimately get discovered for who they are and what they're doing and get kicked out of the country.

It's embarrassing on a missionary point of view, but is demeaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ to do those kinds of things. Let the stumbling block of the gospel be the message and not the messenger. This is true of some stuff out there that's called insider movement or common ground where particularly in the Muslim world, Christians and Christian institutions have gone way beyond the boundaries of legitimate contextualization. To say that other prophets are real prophets of God or other scriptures are inspired in some way by God and that there is value in virtue in those things, which biblically just is not true. Those who give special credence to the practices, traditions, writings, and beliefs of a foreign religion apart from the Bible, are actually weakening their claim to the gospel of Jesus Christ and his exclusivity and the exclusivity of the gospel message. So it starts with language, but it goes to cultural practices and to think otherwise actually blurs and demeans the definition of the gospel, the definition of conversion, the definition of local church.

This insider movement mentality produced a wave of missionary's telling new believers that they ought to pretend to still be in their old religion and do things like go to mosque or go to the temple and do the same kinds of practices that they had always been doing so. And it's created a lot of confusion. We hold to this principle. It is biblically and ethically inconsistent for a mature believer like a missionary, to encourage or enable a new believer to present themselves and their religious practices in such a way as to intentionally try to mislead onlookers to think that the new believer is still an adherent to their former religion. We assume that the practice of genuine disciples of Christ will express their faith and practice in culturally appropriate ways which are consistent with biblical principles. This does not rule out culturally appropriate discernment regarding tradition, vocabulary, attire, food, events, et cetera, but it does rule out mature believers coaching new believers to continue in their prior religious practices "for the sake of witness".

There are many movements out there like church planting movements, rapid disciple making movements, those kinds of things with several different names. Which claim to have a methodology that rapidly reproduces believers and churches. But in order to do so, they have watered down the definition of what it means to be a believer and end up being a legalistic, almost cultish kind of belief system. They've certainly watered down the definition of what a local church would be like because they don't have biblically qualified leaders, and how could they? Because they don't have biblically converted regenerate believers in their so-called church. Trying to create a western pragmatism driven methodology in order to generate more numbers only confuses people in the long term. Ultimately inoculates them from the truth of the gospel and what it means to be a genuine believer and what it means to have a genuine, biblical, healthy local church.

In the end, practitioners of those kinds of things have to water down their understanding and doctrine of the Bible and its inspiration. Christ and his saving work, God and his sovereignty, the church and its essential role in spirituality of believers. And we do well to ask ourselves these kinds of questions here in our churches in the West. What is conversion? It's not just attending meetings. It's not saying that you're a part of a church or even someone who has fulfilled whatever initiation rights of becoming a member of a church. So an understanding of biblical conversion, that is a person coming to a realization because of the regeneration of the Holy Spirit in their heart, that they cannot be saved through any works of their own. That God has provided a way of salvation through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ in his sacrificial death on the cross and resurrection. So that those who believe in Christ may be saved and God pours out his free grace not earned in any way by the believer, but the free grace of God granting salvation and adoption as a son of God into God's family.

It's not checking off on a list of dos and don'ts. It's not fulfilling a certain set of requirements and going to X number of Bible studies. It's not even being baptized and saying that I belong to Christ. It's no works of man whatsoever. The person understands that they are a sinner, that they cannot do anything to earn salvation, and they receive the free gift of God in Christ through faith. So these key ideas of contextualization and conversion are real, both for us here on the home side in asking these fair questions of our church and practices. But also asking our missionaries and the agencies that they're under, are you following methodologies that genuinely contextualize the gospel and the message of the Bible in such a way that hearers can understand it and respond? And do we have a right view of conversion so that we're not causing people to actually fulfill some legalistic idea of conversion, but they're regenerate believers?

And when that happens, then the foundation is set for further development of discipleship and growth of the local church and development of biblically qualified leaders into church planting by indigenous believers. Now, here's a word of caution. You are going to hear incredible reports in print and verbally on podcasts and testimonials of missionaries using "modern contextualization" and conversion types of methodologies for rapid deployment of disciple making movements and rapid development of local churches, cell churches or village churches that are multiplying so rapidly. And I beg of you to prayerfully take your time, don't throw your imagination and time and talent and treasure into those reports. Step back and ask some questions about how they define a local believer, how they define a local church. Who are the leaders of these churches and small groups that are so rapidly multiplying? Are they properly trained and qualified biblically to be classified as a church leader?

And it's a short circuit, but I'm telling you, they're not biblically qualified. Those believers are people that have followed through with a series of "Bible studies" in which they have been pushed to obey certain aspects of the expectations of the methodology and not given their heart and lives to Christ. In time, it will be proved whether or not the thing is from God. But by and large, the reports that I'm seeing and hearing across the world are that those that have claimed such huge numbers of responses are simply playing with the statistics. In three years time, in five years time, in 10 years time, most of those statistics will be vapor. You just will not be able to go back to those places and find active local bodies of believers meeting around God's word with biblically qualified leaders continuing to grow in Christ. And that's why this is missiology you need to know.

These kinds of things you need to be aware of so that you can be alert and prayerfully and respectfully ask questions of those whom you support and those agencies that you support, so that you can determine whether or not they're functioning in a biblically consistent manner with the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel. 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 preferably consider supporting this ministry. Now to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Amen.

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