Sunday, December 16, 2007

Critical Contextualization: Balance for the "relevance" debate

Contextualization should not be the concern of only IMB missionaries and trustees. Wherever the gospel is preached, it must be done in a way that is both biblically sound and culturally understood. Whenever we take the gospel to the world around us, we face inherent dangers. On the one hand, the danger of watering down the gospel or falling down the slippery slope of heresy is real and should be taken seriously by those who wish to be culturally relevant. It is not enough to be contextual if the gospel message is compromised or is so unclear and imprecise that it no longer communicates saving faith. At the same time, the danger of being culturally irrelevant should not be taken lightly either. It is not enough to be faithful to the content of the message if we fail to communicate that content to the lost around us because we fail to remove unnecessary cultural barriers. A gospel which does not communicate is no gospel to the one who hears it.

Since both dangers are real and present, it is important that we face them with a communication of the gospel which is both critical and contextual. [1] Of course, this will require some diligence on our part. Critical contextualization is hard work. If one is to strike the proper balance biblical fidelity and cultural relevance it will demand the conscientious efforts of decision makers to do so. If we are lazy in this process we will err in favor of one extreme or the other. Some will uncritically adopt any method that suits their fancy. Others will reject any new idea (or any old one for that matter) or, more likely, reject valid biblical attempts at contextual methods because they share some similarities with bad ones. In other words, some will fail to be contextual, others will fail be critical in their contextualization. Critical contextualization is not for the fainthearted. In whatever context one serves, critical contextualization requires study of one’s cultural context, exegesis of Scripture that allows Bible to speak for itself, and a critical evaluation of cultural practices based on the Scripture before developing new contextualized methods, and evaluation and guarding against syncretism after.

Faithfulness to the Great Commission demands that Christians, churches and denominations faithfully proclaim the gospel in a way that both communicates to the world around us and remains faithful to biblical gospel. Let us commit to doing all we can to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to a lost world. That includes the hard work of critical contextualization.

[1]The concept and process of critical contextualization was introduced by Paul Hiebert, “Critical Contextualization.” Missiology 12 (July 1987): 287-96.

1 comment:

Chris Gustafson said...

You points are both true and correct. The task is hard but it must be done.