In a recent interview, mission leader C. Douglas McConnell was asked to name the greatest challenge facing the global evangelical missions movement today. He responded, “There is a critical need for frontier mission types to develop an ecclesiology. We are church planters but in some cases we do not understand what a church is theologically and even to a lesser extent in practice.” The complexity of questions surrounding contextualization argues strongly for providing missionaries with the theological training that will give them the tools to analyze the issues adequately and develop a contextual, but biblical, ecclesiology.1
The act of speaking another language requires that you know two things: what you want to say in your own language, and how to say it in the target language. In order to plant healthy, biblical churches, you need to know both what the church means, and how to implement that in another culture. Too many missionaries take for granted that they know the first part.
But do they? What is worship? What are the prescribed elements of worship? What affections are fitting for the God of the Bible? What is Christian fellowship? What is discipleship? Unless the missionary has a clear picture of what these are, there is no way he will find equivalents in a culture whose forms have been developed apart from any Christian influence.
The second thing the missionary needs to understand is how cultural phenomena communicate. Most take up this task at the level of learning a language. But meaning is also communicated through music, poetry, stories, sculptures and religious rituals, social customs and the like. Too few cross-cultural missionaries are given any training in judging cultural phenomena. They are oblivious to how Western forms communicate, and they are oblivious to how non-Western forms communicate. Therefore, they either uncritically use American forms and traditions, or they uncritically embrace forms they find in the culture they go to.
Parsing another culture for its meaning is more difficult than ever before, because in one sense, folk cultures no longer exist. Certainly, there are different languages. Customs of marriage, manhood, funerals, food and family are still found in language groups and passed on. However, all these exist within the milieu of modern, secularized culture. Attitudes towards the world, expectations, sensibilities, and tastes are no longer shaped by living in a village. No such isolated villages exist any more. In South African shanty-towns where most houses are tin shacks, you will find many a television set (and even some satellite dishes!). Wind-up radios are found in the poorest and most technologically backward towns. Mass media long ago conquered and colonized whatever folk cultures may have existed.
One example of how this has happened is seen in that it is hard to identify a thoroughbred indigenous music. Sure, there are all kinds of ‘World’ music examples: Native American, Celtic, Maori, and so on. The problem is, most of these have been packaged into a commercial product, which makes them simply another artifact of popular culture. True folk culture exists within a particular people group, where the folk music has a social context and formative function.
Consider the ‘Gospel’ genre of music found in South Africa. ‘Gospel’ music is by far the biggest selling music genre in South Africa. A quick listen to this music will reveal that while it retains some of the choral sounds peculiar to Africans, its rhythms and sounds have been very clearly influenced by pop music. (Ironically, most of the rhythms of Western pop music were exported to America from Africa. I guess what goes around, comes around.) Here is ‘multiculturalism’ is all its confused glory: Western pop music, black languages, indigenous approaches to choral harmony, faintly biblical lyrics, all blended into “Gospel music”.
Contextualization becomes nigh impossible, when the target culture is a moving target. Using this definition of mass and folk culture, people no longer possess a clear folk culture that can be identified and to which Christianity can be translated. This is what makes contextualization so difficult, and in some senses, impossible. Meaningful ideas, disciplines, and forms cannot be properly contextualized for people totally devoid of ideas, discipline and forms. This is not merely a problem for people taking the gospel to unreached people, it’s a problem for those evangelizing in the West. Contextualization, put simply, is easier said than done in 2011.
Nevertheless, missionaries must do their best. How would a missionary translate Christian worship into a culture like this? He firstly needs to possess a thoroughly biblical (and nuanced) ecclesiology. Secondly, he needs to understand how this vision has been communicated successfully where Christianity took root and flourished– why certain forms, rituals, and other cultural artifacts like music and architecture were used the way they were.
He then needs to be able to understand what is being communicated by the existing forms in the culture he is going to. It’s to that we now turn in the next article.
- John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2005, 345. [↩]