Guest Blog: Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt 4)
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.”
How do we apply these principles to the work of the Gospel in the Muslim world? Based on years of wrestling with the task under the authority of the word of God, here are guidelines for our work in the Muslim world, founded on these Biblical principles. The guidelines are grouped under three headings: The Messenger of the Good News, the Message of the Good News, and the Church.
The Messenger of the Good News (with primary focus on us, the foreign workers)
We must openly identify ourselves as followers of Jesus. Hiding our identity is out of bounds. Jesus made it clear that we must not deny Him before men. Security concerns are real, and we need to take them seriously. However, we must never let security concerns drive us into hiding our identity as disciples of Christ. To be known as His is worth getting kicked out a country, and even dying.
We should work hard to become part of the community we are trying to reach. We need to build relationships and put down roots among the unbelievers of our focus people group. We must beware of our team becoming our primary focus and primary community. Team is a means to an end, but it must never become an end in itself. In an age of email, SMS and Skype, we also need to beware of excessive communication with the US. It is simply too easy to move overseas and yet never bond with the people we are trying to reach, due to the possibility and comfort of maintaining our primary community with English-speaking loved ones. We must consciously invest in relationships in the community we are trying to reach, and that community needs to become our primary community, as much as possible.
We should be lifelong learners of language and culture. Those who know the language best are those who want to keep on learning. Beware of getting stuck at a survival language level, and beware also of getting stuck in initial, superficial impressions about the culture. We communicate most effectively when we communicate in their heart language, and when we understand what they think and how they hear what we say.
We should voluntarily give up freedoms that erect barriers to the Gospel.
We should choose our housing and decorate our homes in ways that are comfortable to those we are trying to reach, even if it is less comfortable for us.
We should dress in ways that show respect for our host culture. We need to be appropriately modest, even if the weather makes us uncomfortable in the process. At the same time, we should be attentive to changes in the culture. Our aim is to be unremarkable in our attire.
We should act in ways that show respect for our host culture. Find out what is and is not appropriate for anyone in that setting. Find out what is and is not appropriate for someone your age, gender, occupation and station in life. Dig deep, and do not be content with superficial answers or with exceptions made for you as a foreigner. Things that might never occur to you as significant can have great significance in another culture. Watch closely, listen carefully, ask lots of questions, and ask lots of different people.
We can, and should, distance ourselves from forms of cultural Christianity that dishonor God or that cause unnecessary stumbling blocks to our host culture. Christianity is often seen as a cultural or ethnic thing, and it is associated with colonial conquest and exploitation, or with the worship of images and drinking alcohol, or with the immoral behavior seen in movies and TV programs from the “Christian” west. It is perfectly appropriate that we NOT identify ourselves with that image! We should, instead, explain our identity in ways that point to Jesus and not to the unfortunate legacy of cultural Christianity.
In this context, the word “Christian” can be particularly problematic. To much of the Muslim world, America, Europe and Russia are “Christian” nations, and whatever is true for those countries is true of Christianity. Thus, when a Central Asian Muslim asks me if I am a Christian, what they mean by “Christian” is an alcohol-drinking, pornography-watching, sexually promiscuous, picture-worshipping Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic person who is part of the culture that has attempted to conquer and oppress them for centuries. Therefore, I never simply say yes. However, since Christian is a Biblical word, neither do I say no. I define who I am in Biblical terms apart from their historical experience.
We should serve our host community. We should look for ways to be a blessing, on their terms and according to their understanding of their needs.
At the same time:
We must never give the impression that we have converted to Islam.
We should not deny the label Christian – we may simply need to redefine it in a Biblical way.
We should not contextualize ourselves more than the host culture itself. We need to understand where a culture is going as well as where it is, and make sure that we don’t adapt ourselves to the past instead of the present.
We must not adopt any local cultural practice or attitude that violates Scripture. In this context, we need to especially be careful about attitudes. We can unconsciously pick up ungodly attitudes from our host culture (toward women, for example, or toward other ethnic groups).