In missionary circles today, a frequent topic of conversation is contextualization. Whether it is a particular way of evangelizing, teaching the Bible, or conducting worship, missionaries sometimes wonder whether the way they learned how to do these things is the best way to do them in their particular cross-cultural context. In this post, I want to briefly explore contextualization and, more specifically, contextual theology. Is contextual theology good or bad? Or can it be both?
Sometimes contextualization is a lot more clear cut than others. Western-looking church buildings and church organs are really easy examples of things that may be (or used to be) appropriate for North American or European contexts but are unnecessarily out-of-place in many places in the global south. Can you safely swap out the pipe organ for some other musical instrument if you are church planting in Africa, Asia, or South America? Sure. The bible doesn’t say you have to use a pipe organ even though it is traditional in the West. The question, however, becomes more complicated with something like preaching. Missionaries who are strongly conservative theologically might say that expositional preaching is essential and biblical but some more broadly evangelical missionaries, in the name of contextualization, might advocate for ditching or significantly modifying preaching in favor of facilitating small group discussion of the Bible or oral Bible storying. Personally, I am not convinced that all of these various approaches to biblical communication are mutually exclusive but when it comes to properly contextualizing our gospel communication, there is a wide spectrum of views within evangelicalism as to what is best and what is biblical.
Contextual theology might be best understood as a subset of contextualization more generally. Contextual theology (properly conceived and within biblical bounds) is the attempt to think about and present biblical truth in ways that are understandable to a certain culture/people and answer the questions that they bring to the biblical text. Contextual theology starts with simple adjustments of language used, along with idioms and illustrations. For example, use the mother tongue of your listeners rather than a trade language like English. For the American preacher, it might mean ditching comparisons and analogies that assume listeners understand American football, and using examples from the world of soccer instead. More importantly, however, contextual theology deals with questions in a particular cultural context that may not be relevant in other places. For example, in Europe and North America, atheism and a perceived conflict between science and religion are topics that need to be addressed. However, if you take an apologetics book on those issues and translate it for people in Thailand, for example, it would be met with a yawn by many because those are not live issues for most Thai people. Likewise, questions that arise in an animistic Buddhist context like Thailand are important for Thai Christians to address, but are less relevant to think about and address in a Western secular context. Examples include what parts of Buddhist funerals can Christian participate in, or in what ways is "karma" compatible or different from the biblical idea of sowing and reaping.
It is important to “do" contextual theology in the sense that you are answering from the Scriptures the questions that the culture is asking. How do Christians live faithfully and biblically in a very particular cultural context? How should biblical truth be presented in a particular place to a particular people so that it is as comprehensible as possible? Those are the key questions that should drive our theologizing, which is always done in a particular context. With that said, proper biblical contextual theology ends and syncretism and compromise begin when go beyond the question of comprehensibility and theologize with the goal of maximizing the acceptability of the Gospel in a certain context. Often the shift can be subtle because who doesn't want to present the Gospel in such a way that listeners clear see how attractive Christ and the Gospel are?
But in mission contexts (in the West and overseas) where there is a lot of hostility or opposition to the Gospel and conversions are coming very slowly, there is the temptation to go beyond the bounds of Scripture in making the Gospel attractive to listeners. In many cases, that involves ignoring or softening the parts of the Gospel that listeners find most objectionable in order to win greater acceptance of the Gospel among them.
In the U.S., we have the problem of softening the Biblical condemnation of homosexual desire and practice, and the immutability of gender, in order to win LGBT folks to Christ. That's American syncretism. Another example, would be the so-called prosperity gospel, whether it be the hard core version preached by folks like Benny Hinn or the soft core version promoted by Joel Osteen. Americans value wealth, comfort, self-reliance, and individualism (all of which have their place when limited and bound by other biblical priorities) but the prosperity preachers have tried to boost conversions and increase followers by turning the Gospel into just another way to satisfy people's desires, unmodified by the Gospel.
In the context of cross cultural missions, you sometimes get inappropriate syncretism too, such as missionaries who are okay with believers in Christ maintaining their identity as Muslims. Granted, if missionaries view such an identification as merely transitional as the person works through what it means to follow Christ, that is one thing and totally understandable. A person’s whole worldview rarely changes overnight. But if a missionary encourages long-term identification that straddles the fence between Christ and Islam, that is a problem. Similarly, sometimes contextual theology ends up being little more than liberation theology that seeks to make Christ more appealing by making the cause of Christ synonymous with the political (socialist? communist?) struggle of a particular group. Of course, inappropriate mixing of the cause of Christ with a particular political cause or party is hardly limited to the global south and there has been a lot of heated discussion in recent years about so-called “white Christian nationalism” in the U.S. That particular discussion is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I bring it up merely to make the point that Christian compromise with politics is a live issue around the world, not limited to either the global south or the West.
So is contextual theology a good thing or a bad thing? It all depends how it is done. When I hear about a book on "African theology" or "Asian theology”, I am intrigued because the author(s) might be indigenous Christians who have some really keen insights into how biblical truth relates to, and can be best presented in their certain cultural context. There is great potential for me to learn something really helpful about how to share the Gospel or disciple people. But on the other hand, my approach is “open but cautious” because there is also the potential for compromise or syncretism within those same pages. The same might be said, of course, for Western theology books which, for some reason, are often consider to be “just” theology rather than contextual theology.
In sum, any and all theologizing is contextual, whether we realize it or not so it is both unwarranted and unbiblical to disregard contextual theology per se. We are all theologians and we are all contextual theologians. The question is whether or not we are good ones. Are we aware that we are reading and thinking about the Bible and its implications within a particular time and place in history and in the world? The more that we understand the Bible and the history of biblical interpretation, and become aware of the strengths, weaknesses, and peculiar characteristics of our home culture and those of other cultures, the more we will be equipped to think biblical and do theology well in particular cultural contexts. Contextual theology is not something to shy away from but something to embrace and to commit to doing well, not compromising Scripture but committing to make all of God’s word understandable for the people(s) with whom we come in contact. Biblical truth, well-contextualized, may still be rejected, but not because it was misunderstood.