Guest Blog by Central Asia RL: Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt 1)

Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt 1)

Editor’s Note: This guest blog is written by the IMB’s Regional Leader for Central Asia. It is a six part series, giving the biblical foundations and guidelines for contextualization, and making application to Christian ministry in the Muslim world. This series will appear as a chapter in the forthcoming book “Look What God is Doing in the Muslim World.”

Every Christian Contextualizes

Contextualization is one of the hottest topics in Missions today. Simply put, contextualization is the word we use for the process of making the Gospel and the church as much at home as possible in a given cultural context. American Christians have a tendency to think of contextualization as something missionaries and overseas Christians do “over there,” and many serious Christians in the Western world worry about how far non-Western churches go in their contextualization efforts. However, in reality, every Christian alive today is actively involved in contextualization. Every American Christian worships in a contextualized church. As much as we like to think of our churches as “New Testament churches,” there actually are no New Testament churches in existence today.

Contextualization in a Western Context

Our cultural context is dramatically different from the world of the New Testament, and as a result, any modern church would look bizarre and alien to a first-century Christian. This is true at every level. The first century church met on the Temple porch in Jerusalem, or in places like the school of Tyrannus in Ephesus, or most often in private homes. There were no specific church buildings during the New Testament period.

Our buildings, with their modern construction materials, their style and appearance, and their electronic gadgetry, would look like they had come down from outer space if they were plopped into a first century setting. Our seating arrangements, with people sitting on pews or chairs rather than on the floor, and with unrelated men and women sitting side by side, would seem strange (and perhaps a bit scandalous) to a first century Palestinian believer. The programs that make up so much of modern church life – Sunday School, Youth Group, RAs and GAs, Awanas – all came into being in recent centuries, and were unknown to the early church.

The music we sing is based on a totally different tonality from that of the ancient Mediterranean world, and it uses very different instruments. (The piano was not invented until the modern era, and the organ was originally a Roman circus instrument, considered unfit for Christian worship.) Our music would have sounded strange and unpleasant to them, and vice versa. (It should be noted that all Christian music, at some point, has been “contemporary Christian music,” and that even the most traditional songs today were probably regarded as risqué by somebody when they first came out!)

The language we speak did not even exist in Biblical times. English as we know it developed during the Middle Ages, centuries after the New Testament was completed. First century Christians worshiped in Aramaic, Koine Greek, or Latin. And the social customs and cultural practices of the first century church were much closer to the modern culture of the Middle East or Central Asia than to contemporary North America. Our culture is radically different from the culture of the New Testament, and as a result, our churches are radically different from New Testament churches.

In countless ways, every believer alive today, whether in North America or South Asia, contextualizes the Gospel and the church. The question is not whether or not we are going to do it. The question facing every believer and every church is whether or not they will contextualize well. Anyone who fails to realize that they are doing it, and who fails to think it through carefully and Biblically, simply guarantees that they will probably contextualize poorly. Syncretism can happen as easily in Indiana or Iowa as it can in Indonesia!

Contextualization in a Muslim Context

Those working in the Muslim world have taken a variety of approaches to contextualization. These approaches are typically classified along a spectrum designated C1 to C5 (or sometimes C6). C1 is the label given to those who simply reproduce their own (foreign) culture on the mission field. If a foreign worker were to reproduce First Baptist Church of Anywhere, USA somewhere overseas, complete with architecture, hymnal, order of service, style of worship and teaching, and church programs, this would be an example of C1 contextualization.

At the other end of the spectrum, C5 contextualization aims at a phenomenon sometimes referred to as an “insider movement.” In this approach, new believers in Jesus are encouraged to maintain a Muslim community identity and to continue Islamic practices. Often, such movements affirm that Islam, its prophet and its book are of divine origin, but simply need to be completed in Jesus. C2, C3 and C4 represent intermediate stages between these two extremes.

This classification system is widely used, and it provides a useful common language for the conversation about contextualization. However, there is a problem inherent in this approach. This system implies that we are the standard. It measures the distance from us, as though our cultural expression of Christianity is what God actually intended, and others are to be evaluated by how much they are like us or different from us.

We have to admit that every Christian everywhere instinctively tends to think this way. What we have always done feels to us like the “right” way to do things, and we have a hard time not reading our own experience into the Bible. However, given the fact that all of us practice contextualization, we need to remind ourselves constantly that Scripture, not our experience, is the standard by which all things are to be evaluated. Scripture is inerrant, authoritative and sufficient. Where Scripture gives a command, or a prohibition, or a binding model, the issue is settled. When Scripture sets a boundary, we may not cross it.

However, within those boundaries, there is nothing particularly sacred about our cultural ways of doing things. Throughout the ages and across the globe, there have been other cultural expressions of Christianity that are just as faithful to Scripture as our own. Indeed, in the case of the Muslim world, their culture is actually closer to the culture of the New Testament than is ours, so their churches may actually look more like New Testament churches than ours do. At the same time, every culture, including our own, has its besetting sins. In every setting, there are points where cultural orthodoxy contradicts the Word of God, resulting in cultural pressure toward compromise and syncretism. The key is to let the Bible be our judge, and for all of us to allow the global Body of Christ to speak the Word of God into our particular blind spots.