Contextualization and Great Commission Faithfulness

Among evangelicals, one can usually win friends by speaking or writing about missions. After all, the label evangelicals means, at the very least, identifying with those convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only hope for the salvation of the nations and therefore the eternal destiny of the masses is dependent on hearing and receiving this gospel message. However, these same friends may quickly become critics when the conversation shifts to the importance of contextualization. Recently a colleague confided, I know that it is important to help national believers develop their own faith, but the risk is just too great. I have seen it go horribly wrong, so I choose to stick with what I know. It is safer. Another missionary remarked, My orthodoxy just isnt that generous

Who among us cant identify with these brothers? Every cross-cultural worker feels the pressure of communicating the gospel in a way that is both orthodox and understandable. Indeed, the risk is great. In the following quote, Dean Gilliland captures this tension quite well:

Contextualization [is] a delicate enterprise if there ever was one the mission strategists stands on a razors edge, aware that to fall off on either side has terrible consequences fall to the right and you end in obscurantism, so attached to your convention ways of practicing and teaching the faith that you veil its truth and power from those who are trying to see it through very different eyes. Slip to the left and you tumble into syncretism, so vulnerable to the impact of paganism in its multiplicity of forms that you compromise the uniqueness of Christ and concoct another gospel which is not a gospel.

The apostle Paul warned the Galatian Christians that preaching an altered gospel would leave the preacher accursed before God (Gal. 1:6-10). Who wants to struggle with the difficulties of learning languages, understanding culture, not to mention the daily struggles of living cross-culturally, and then allow careless evangelism to make twice as much a son of hell? (Matt. 23:15). This tension is enough to tempt the missionary to shrink into comfort and familiarity, choosing to preach from his own culture rather than working for a properly contextualized faith. However, in light of the commission given at the end of Matthews gospel, timidity is not an option. Rather, obedience to the Great Commission requires contextualizing the Christian message for and with the people in a ministry field.

Read the entire paper at Global Missiology.