Contextualisation?  A 19th century church building in Malawi  (Source: Wikipedia)

Contextualisation? A 19th century church building in Malawi (Source: Wikipedia)

Most of us have heard stories of how mission workers of the past often took their native culture with them in the well-meant but misguided view that it was ‘Christian’ to wear clothes, worship in a certain style or meet in a building whose architecture reflected the mission workers’ culture more than the local one.  Sadly today we often make similar mistakes, although there is generally a greater awareness of the need to contextualise.

Contextualisation is the word we give to how we adapt our presentation of the gospel so that it is culturally relevant to the people we are talking to.  It involves understanding their location and culture so that we don’t say things they won’t understand or even worse be put off by.  So there’s no point in using the verse “Though your sins are scarlet they will be white as snow” in the tropics, where people haven’t seen snow.  Better to replace snow with cotton.  And don’t tell a Buddhist she must be born again – that’s the very thing she’s fed up with doing!

The early apostles – particularly Paul – used contextualisation in preaching the gospel.  When addressing Jews, Paul quoted extensively from Jewish scripture and tradition (e.g. Acts 13:16-41), yet in his famous address to the ruling council in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) he made no mention of either, but argued with them out of their own culture and tradition.  Yet at the same time he was committed to the unadulterated truth of the gospel – “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Contextualisation or blasphemy?

Contextualisation or blasphemy?

In recent years there has been an ongoing debate over what is optional and what is non-negotiable, as with the recent high-profile controversy about references to Father and Son when talking to people of a Moslem background.  Contextualisation affects our language, as in the case of one English church which has stopped using the word Father to describe God, since that word has such negative connotions in the minds of local non-christians.  It also affects cultural and self-identification issues: should a Moslem who comes to faith be called a Christian?  Or a Moslem-background believer?  A follower of Isa-al-Massi?  Should he be encouraged to leave the mosque and be part of a church?  Or continue being part of his community as a secret believer?

Challenges such as these affect mission to people of other beliefs, particularly in Asia where we come into contact with people of radically different worldviews, and in post-Christian Europe where many are ignorant of even the most basic Christian terminology like ‘sin’ and ‘redemption’.  Which is why many evangelists now use terms like ‘Do you want God to help you?’ in preference to the less accessible ‘You must repent!’

The European Evangelical Mission Association is holding a conference in September (in Majorca!) to discuss these issues.  Representatives of denominations and mission agencies will be there to debate the limits of contextualisation, the future of the insider movement and the relevance of the C1-C6 model.  The speakers will be renowned exponents on these topics: Rose Dowsett, Beat Jost, and John Travis.  To find out more go to http://www.europeanema.org/conference-2013/.  It promises to be a challenging debate!