by Phil Johnson
remarked in a message at the Shepherds' Conference two weeks ago that I'm not a fan of the word contextualization—or the set of ideas usually associated with that word. Although the message was generally well-received by the pastors who heard it in person, it unleashed an avalanche of forceful reactions from people in the blogosphereranging from shocked disbelief to angry derision. The former reaction came from people who gave me the benefit of the doubt. They were merely stunned at my astonishing naïveté. The latter brickbats came from less sympathetic folk, a couple of whom said that they have pretty much always thought of me as a fundamentalist cretin anyway.
My favorite response was from someone who basically said, Sure, the word contextualization is misunderstood and much-abused today, but so is justification. Rather than simply discarding these terms, we ought to fight for their biblical meaning.
See, the thing is, contextualization isn't a biblical word like justification is. Although lots of people now think of contextualization as one of the most essential and elementary terms in the theological and missiological lexicons, it's a word no one ever even heard of until 1972, when Shoki Coe used the term in a paper delivered to the World Council of Churches. (Prior to that, the favorite fad in missiology was indigenization, which was a little more passive approach to tweaking the gospel than contextualization, but a similar idea in some ways.)
Anyway, critics in the blogosphere are nothing if not predictable. They intoned the baby/bathwater cliché; they recited mantras selectively adapted from 1 Corinthians 9:19-23; and they suggested that whether I knew it or not, I myself employed a kind of contextualization when I compared the Athenian philosophers of Paul's day to people who surf the Web and watch YouTube for viral videos.
As if I hadn't already addressed all those "arguments."
So I intend to begin a series of blogposts which will contain the heart of that message (including, especially, a close look at Paul's Mars Hill strategy). But first let me reiterate a few crucial things I said at the very start in my session at the Shepherds' Conference:
- Definitions of the word contextualization tend to be murky and far too open-ended. It's one of those currently-popular jargon-words like missional that gets defined differently every time, depending on who is trying to explain it.
- People explaining contextualization usually start by making the (obvious) point that in order to cross linguistic and cultural boundaries effectively, we need to translate and illustrate our message in a way that is suited to the understanding of the people or people-group we want to reach. Quite true. And if contextualization entailed nothing more than translation and illustration, the word would be superfluous. It practically always means something more—and that "something more" is what I object to, not the translation and illustration of biblical truths.
- The idea of contextualization first gained traction among evangelicals in the realm of Bible translation, and it's easy to see why. Obviously, if you take the word of God to an Eskimo culture where they have no clue what sheep are, you need to find a way to explain all the pastoral references in terms that Eskimos can understand. Something like Psalm 100:3 ("We are His people and the sheep of His pasture") is naturally harder for an Eskimo to relate to than it is for a New Zealander. So in one famous instance, a group of Bible translators working in an Eskimo language translated the word "sheep" as "sea lions" throughout Scripture. (I can't imagine what that does to the 23rd psalm or why it wouldn't be a whole lot easier just to teach eskimos what sheep are, but there you have a classic example of verbal contextualization, showing how it can actually obscure more than it really clarifies.)
- In postmodern missional strategy contextualization always seems to involve embracing the values of the target culture. Listen to those who talk most about "contextualizing" the gospel and it becomes clear that their actual goal—sometimes deliberately and sometimes unwittingly—is to make Christianity seem more familiar and more comfortable and less counter-cultural.
- Many advocates of contextualization expressly state that proper contextualization involves temporarily adopting whatever worldview is held by the people we are trying to reach, so that we can speak to them as one of them, and not as outsiders and aliens.
- In the real world, therefore, contextualization usually goes far beyond translating and illustrating truths. It also goes far beyond adopting the language and the social conventions of polite culture while avoiding certain cultural taboos (which is what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 and 10:32-33). Today's contextualizers are trying to adapt the content of the gospel message as much as possible to the worldview of whatever subculture they see as their target audience. Not only do sea lions become an acceptable substitute for sheep; postmodern tolerance becomes an acceptable replacement for Christian charity.
- In fact, people who are enthralled with contextualization nowadays tend to turn the "give no offense" principle of 1 Corinthians 10:32-33 on its head. Rather than avoiding cultural taboos in order not to obscure the gospel unnecessarily, they sometimes purposely try to flout as many taboos as possible. Unlike Paul, who wanted to avoid anything considered impolite or uncouth so that the gospel could be heard without unnecessary distractions, they want to maximize the shock-and-awe effect, thinking that is going to gain them a better hearing with the South-Park generation.
To sum up: proper cross-cultural translation and illustration ought to aim at making the gospel clear. Listen closely to the typical missiologist or church planter who champions the idea of contextualization—and what you'll usually hear is someone trying desperately to make the gospel more palatable. Unbridled enthusiasm about this sort of contextualization has dramatically changed the evangelistic strategy so that the number one goal in contemporary evangelical outreach is for the church to assimilate into the world as much as possible—and above all, be cool—so that the world (or some offbeat subculture) will like us. That is actually the driving idea behind both seeker-sensitivity and the Emerging church approach.
The idea of "contextualization" by adjusting Christianity to existing beliefs, values, and traditions was probably the twentieth century's most significant contribution to ministry strategy—and it is not a good one. It has made the church indistinguishable from the world, indistinct in its message, and (frankly) ineffectual as an evangelistic force in an unbelieving culture.
But the whole idea is actually unbiblical, counter-productive, and contrary to the real strategy the apostle Paul modeled and advocated. That's what I'm planning to demonstrate in a short series of posts beginning later this week.