contextual (a missiology for the west)

September 30, 2008 | 5 Comments

(This post is part of a series reflecting on David Bosch’s six distinctives for a missiology of Western culture. See the introductory post for a little background.)

We have, at long last, come to the conviction that mission in the Third World must be contextual. We do not have an equally clear conviction about the need for contextualization in the West.

In the decade plus that I did youth ministry in a large church, I was blessed with many opportunities to do some short-term missions trips. I hold dear many memories of those experiences, but there is one lesson that stands above all…

I sat in a church service in a remote mountain village in Jamaica where the organ played while men wore white shirts and ties and women wore hats. It felt like I could be in a church in Alabama in the 50s, and I wondered where any Jamaican culture was reflected. I sat in the balcony at a national Christian convention in the Philippines and was troubled by how much it was like the conventions I had been to growing up in the US. I saw nothing that reflected the Filipino culture that I had been experiencing in the days prior.

From what I understand, missionary methods have changed, but much of the early push in Christian missions exported more American church culture than it did the Gospel. As Bosch affirms above, in recent decades, mission work has been more intent on engaging with a local culture with the Gospel.

Bosch goes on to say that the same needs to happen in the West: Somehow, we still believe that the gospel has already been (has always been?) properly indigenized and contextualized in the West. However, as we now know, the West has largely turned its back on the gospel. Was it perhaps because the gospel was never properly contextualized? Or perhaps overcontextualized, so much so that it has lost its distinctive character and challenge? What, indeed, will contextualization of the gospel in the West involve and look like? I submit that we do not really know. This makes it all the more necessary to reflect on this issue with the utmost urgency.

I am encouraged, and comforted, by these words. They reflect what I hope we are becoming in Austin. A few years ago, I grabbed a hold of the idea that we were not called here to plant a church, but to engage locally as missionaries. I believe that the divide between the church and the rest of our culture is greater than we know. Not all of our current church planting practices are bad, and I am trying to learn from many of them. But, rather than try to replicate church as we have experienced it elsewhere in Western culture, we are praying, learning, and listening in order to understand how we might shape a church that is engaged, that is contextualized, to the unique culture we are in.

We must reshape our thinking about church planting (and perhaps we just need to do away with the term althogether). Too many of our methods focus on creating a Sunday worship gathering out of the best, or at least our favored, practices we’ve seen in other Western churches. But what does it look like for us to patiently listen to our culture, and then begin to see how we can intersect the Kingdom of God with what we hear?

Let me return to Bosch’s words: What, indeed, will contextualization of the gospel in the West involve and look like? I submit that we do not really know.

I agree. And I sure hope I can be a part of helping to find some answers…at least for the context I’m in.

Next post: laity

  • gary

    john, when my parents were missionaries in Bolivia, a lot of the work my dad did was ministering to local pastors. Most of them had little or no pastoral training and had just sort of started doing the job alongside their current job. He was able to provide them with resources and teaching, be a sounding board when they were having difficulties. In other words…he wasn’t planting churches, but he was “helping to shape a [contextualized] church.” I wonder if this might be a possible direction for your family as you seek to understand how best to serve the city of Austin.

  • Gary,
    Thanks…that’s a lot of what I saw happening in more recent mission efforts, and I do think it’s a good analogy, at least for some of what I’m thinking about…

  • Bring it.

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