Contextualized Ministry

One of the tasks of planting churches in any cultural setting – Utah or otherwise – is discerning what forms worship and church activity should take within the context of that local culture. Here are some insights from Ed Stetzer, taken from Ed’s blog, that can profitably applied when considering ministry in Utah’s unique culture.

Ed writes:

One of the fundamental challenges with evangelistic cultural engagement is how far to go to engage culture. It is always easy for unengaged people to sit on the sidelines and throw rocks at people who seek to engage cultures. I see it every day. But, people who care about God’s mission also care about engaging culture.

The fact of the matter is this: in every missional cultural engagement, some go too far and some don’t go far enough. It is the nature of contextualization. It is hard. It takes a commitment to biblical principles. It takes wisdom. It takes listening to each other. And, those outside the culture need to listen to those inside. And, those inside the culture need to learn from those that have gone before them.

At the Madras missionary conference, way back in 1938, they explained that churches had to be “indigenous,” or be rooted and related to their own cultural context:

An indigenous church, young or old, in the East or in the West, is a church which, rooted in obedience to Christ, spontaneously uses forms of thought and modes of action natural and familiar in its own environment. Such a church arises in response to Christ’s own call. The younger churches will not be unmindful of the experiences and teachings which the older churches have recorded in their confessions and liturgy. But every younger church will seek further to bear witness to the same Gospel with new tongues” (International Missionary Council, “The Growing Church: The Madras Series,” Papers Based upon the Meeting of the International Missionary Council, at Tambaram, Madras, India, December 12-29, 1938. Vol. 2, (New York, International Missionary Council), 276.)

Such a value is not easy to uphold and there are dangers on both sides.

Dean Gilliland explains:

Contextualization [is] a delicate enterprise if ever there was one… the evangelist and mission strategist stand on a razor’s edge, aware that to fall off on either side has terrible consequences… Fall to the right and you end in obscurantism, so attached to your conventional ways of practicing and teaching the faith that you veil its truth and power from those who are trying to see it through very different eyes. Slip to the left and you tumble into syncretism, so vulnerable to the impact of paganism in its multiplicity of forms that you compromise the uniqueness of Christ and concoct “another gospel which is not a gospel.” (Dean S. Gilliland, ed., The Word Among Us (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1989), vii.)

An organization I serve recently put out some helpful guidelines on contextualization that are worth your time and consideration:

1. We affirm that the Bible is the only infallible text that exists. It is appropriate to evaluate all other books by the Bible. We encourage our personnel to search the Scriptures daily to see whether the principles presented by any text or teacher are true (Acts 17:11). Content that is in accord with biblical truth should be embraced. What is contrary to sound doctrine should be rejected.

2. We affirm that there is a biblical precedent for using “bridges” to reach out to others with the Gospel (Acts 17:22-23). The fact that Paul mentioned an aspect of the Athenians’ idolatrous worship was not a tacit approval of their entire religious system. He was merely utilizing a religious element of their setting (an altar to an unknown god) to connect with his hearers and bridge to the truth. Similarly, our personnel may use elements of their host culture’s worldview to bridge to the Gospel. This need not be construed as an embracing of that worldview. It should be noted that Paul not only used their system to connect, he also contrasted elements of it with the truth. Our evangelism must go beyond bridges to present the whole unvarnished truth of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

3. We affirm an incarnational approach to missions that is bound by biblical parameters. Following the example of Him who became flesh (John 1:14), it is appropriate that our personnel continue to tailor their ministry to their setting. The apostle Paul likewise embraced this approach, “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22b). We advocate the learning and appropriate utilization of language and culture. Constant vigilance is required lest contextualization degenerate into syncretism. Where linguistic categories and cultural mores are deficient, these must be challenged and corrected with biblical truth.

4. We affirm both the sufficiency and unique nature of biblical revelation (2 Timothy 3:14-17). We deny that any other purported sacred writing is on a par with the Bible. While reference to a target people group’s religious writings can be made as a part of bridge building, care should be exercised not to imply a wholesale acceptance of such.

5. We affirm the need to be ethically sound in our evangelistic methodology (2 Corinthians 4:2). Becoming all things to all men in an incarnational approach does not necessitate an ethical breach. Jesus instructed His disciples to be as “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). We are to be wise in our bridge building. We are to be harmless in our integrity as we hold forth the truth.

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