It is the concept that stands behind names and movements that many of us know, from Calvary Chapel to The Vineyard movement, from Nadia Boltz-Weber to Andy Stanley, from Todd Hunter’s C4SO (Church for the Sake of Others) to the local hipster mega-church down the street. Some are explicit in claiming to be “missional” and “contextual”, while others have merely adopted the concept without adopting the name. The basic idea is that we present the Gospel in a culturally relevant manner, i.e that it is “contextual” in its presentation. “Missiology” (sometimes referenced as “missional”), of course, refers to the ongoing task of presenting the Gospel to those who have not heard, whether in a distant land or in the suburbs. Taken together, the goal is the presentation of the Gospel to certain groups and societies in a manner which both adopts from, and adapts to, a particular culture. That culture could be foreign, as on the Indian sub-continent, or local, as among urban millennials in American cites.
Currently, when one hears the phrase, “contextual missiology”, it is usually in regard to church plants, often of a certain type. In reality, the phrase has been around for some time. Historically, the concept actually goes back centuries. In the late 16th century, the Jesuit mission to China, led by Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci, sought to adapt classical Christianity to the dress, habits and intellectual life of Chinese society. The same was done in Japan by Francis Xavier during his two year sojourn and later by Alessandro Valignano who promoted an understanding of Japanese culture in his establishment of Christian communities in Japan. Later political developments led to the wide scale destruction of any Christian presence, but for some years Christian faith was taught and lived out within the context of traditional Japanese culture and mores.
In the modern era, the idea of contextual missiology arose in the 1970s as the result of several initiatives coming out the Lausanne Congress on Evangelism (1974) and a subsequent Lausanne Commission meeting in 1978. These meetings involved the likes of Billy Graham, John Stott, Francis Schaeffer, Carl Henry and a list of other evangelical luminaries. The issue of what we now call “contextual missiology” found concrete expression in the Lausanne Covenant under its section on “Evangelism and Culture”.
“The development of strategies for world evangelization calls for imaginative pioneering methods. Under God, the result will be the rise of churches deeply rooted in Christ and closely related to their culture. Culture must always be tested and judged by Scripture. Because men and women are God’s creatures, some of their culture is rich in beauty and goodness. Because they are fallen, all of it is tainted with sin and some of it is demonic. The gospel does not presuppose the superiority of any culture to another, but evaluates all cultures according to its own criteria of truth and righteousness, and insists on moral absolutes in every culture. Missions have, all too frequently, exported with the gospel an alien culture, and churches have sometimes been in bondage to culture rather than to Scripture. Christ’s evangelists must humbly seek to empty themselves of all but their personal authenticity in order to become the servants of others, and churches must seek to transform and enrich culture, all for the glory of God.”
I think, however, that much that is done today in the name of “contextual missiology” has missed the point.
What was imagined and practiced from the time of the Jesuit missions through to the Lausanne Congress rests upon a vital, but oft-overlooked assumption. It was assumed that those who took part in contextual missiology were firmly grounded in not only classical Christian theology, but that they were also wholly conversant and knowledgeable with regard to their own Christian tradition. The Jesuit missionaries to China and Japan had already spent years (in some cases, decades) in study and theological reflection. They knew who they were and, therefore, were prepared for their work. A simple overview of the names attached to the Lausanne Covenant will provide one with a “Who’s Who” of the leading evangelical scholars of the twentieth century. There were Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed and even Roman Catholics involved. They knew theology. They knew their own traditions. Like the early Jesuits, they also knew who they were.
You see, contextualization assumes, in the first instance, the actual existence of a body of truth and practice which one is contextualizing. It also assumes a somewhat profound knowledge of that body of truth and practice, as well a profound knowledge of the context into which that body of truth and practice is being placed. As with language translation, one is required to have an intimate knowledge of both languages in terms of vocabulary, grammar, nuance of meaning and, in some cases, even the slang and colloquialisms of each. In many cases, one must also have a historical knowledge of the time in which the texts were written, especially in the case of works written in the context of ancient societies. This is the reason why “word for word” translations are seldom successful. I believe that it is also the reason that contextual missiology is so fraught with difficulties.
All too often many of the proponents of contextual missiology lack a firm grasp on their own body of truth and practice. The mode or form of presentation quickly out paces that which is being presented. We then judge the form in terms of its success in the culture, not its content.
A good example of this can be seen in the use of contemporary Christian music and how it has morphed and changed through the years. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, contemporary Christian music emerged across the United States and in western Europe. It was relevant and spoke to the youth culture of the day. A standard pattern began to emerge. On Sunday mornings, in addition to hymns, acoustic musicians would lead worship choruses and, on some Sundays, a song or two might be shared as “special music”. On a Friday night or a Saturday night, a band or solo artist might present a concert that was intended to be evangelistic in tone. As CCM became a recognized brand, the evening concerts slowly morphed into Christian entertainment with its attendant commercialization and, it must be said, with a good measure of success. If this format was successful on a Friday night, why not import the idea into Sunday morning worship? Soon, most churches had a “praise band” on Sunday mornings and many rapidly moved to “worship” that carried with it the production values and entertainment aspects of the Friday night concert. In many cases, the form of being culturally relevant overtook the substance – all in the name of being “contextual” and “missional”.
Now, I am all for being both “contextual” and “missional”, but with a caveat. Those who wish to engage culture in this manner should first be firmly rooted and grounded in the body of truth they are wanting to share. The boiling cauldron of culture is not the place for “on the fly”, or “spur of the moment”, or “the last book I read” theology. They should have a firm grasp on Christian doctrine, on Scripture, on Church History. They should know their own tradition – Baptist, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Evangelical – thoroughly. Additionally, there must be the recognition that we are also called to “test and judge” culture in the light of Scripture and the Christian tradition.
Let’s be “missional”. Let’s be “contextual”. First, however, let’s know who we are.
Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD