Context [Part 1]. Does it matter?
Ansel Adams in Edinburgh

Context [Part 2]: Between Mindlessess and Recklessness.

This Series on Contextualization:
[Part 1]: Does it Matter?
[Part 2]: Between Mindlessness and Recklessness
[Part 3]: Between Absolutism and Relativism

Phil Johnson puts forward a good response to my response. I had not previously read his thoughts on the subject of "contextualization" but I can now see that he has a few good points to make and is not naive about the subject at all. Sorry if my post did not do justice to Phil's argument.

Ev Zoolander messed up
Sorry if I was acting all messed up towards you.

"Phil Johnson’s current post on contextualization . . . should be read to get a clear picture of what Johnson and his supporters hear when they hear "context." Summary: the worst aspects of culture embraced at the most cost to the clarity of the gospel. Is that what missiologists and missional pastors mean by contextualization?" Read more from Phil on Context here.

What I hear Phil saying is that the word "contextualization" is suspect of being a cover for cultural accommodation and ethical compromise and we should consider losing it from our vocabulary.

Zoolander Face
Well, I guess I would have to answer your question with another question. If we dump the word "contextualization" what word do you suggest take its place? Catholics have called it "inculturation". Protestants have preferred "contextualization". The word "syncretism" fell out of favor a long time ago and is now shorthand for a compromising accommodation to the local culture. And will doing away with another word stop the abuse? Probably not.

Here are some initial responses to Phil's last post Coffee Klatch and some thoughts on why the subject is relevant to me.

- Yes, Phil, there is a connection between cultural contextualization and Biblical contextualization. I am not a Bible translator but friends who are tell me that contextualization is an important step in allowing the Scriptures to speak to each culture with clarity. Otherwise the Old Testament in English would tell us to love God with all our liver, rather than our heart.

- We do get very attached to the word "contextualization" and perhaps we have developed blind spots or an unwillingness to discuss its relevance or its pitfalls. Its a bit like when some people say that "penal substitution" is only one of the atonement theories and may not always be the best or first one to bring out. Fundamentalists hear that as an attack from people who have abandoned the idea or atonement theories altogether which may not the case at all. They just mean that if they were in a different context, ie, a shame-based non-litigational culture like Papua New Guinea, other atonement theories might create understanding faster and simpler and without introducing the home culture to show why it is relevant.

- There is nothing inherently in the word "contextualization" that points to boundaries and no go zones so I can understand Phil's fear that this word becomes a license for recklessness. And it already has on some occasions.. The negative examples we often point to are from the Jesuit missionaries and their attempt to syncretize local gods with saints but there are also plenty of emerging church experiments gone wrong. BUT the fullness of the gospel is also compromised by the lack of connection to context. And can be replaced by the traditions of men.
There is a danger in both
1. recklessless in cultural innovation and
2. mindlessness in understanding or underestimating both our cultural trappings on the gospel and their understanding of it.

- Highlighting the spiritual abuse of the Native Americans by the missionaries is only "historical revisionism" if I have not stated history correctly. If I have been misinformed, please let me know since this topic is of great importance to me and others seeking to carry out post-colonial mission overseas without falling into the traps of those who came before us.
- In Lystra, and in other places including Athens, I believe Paul tried to be contextually relevant AND counter-cultural. He was grieved at the idolatry and exposed their misconceptions of God but he also chose to communicate in a way that would create understanding. Both are possible.


Today is Friday. As I write this, a team of 15 young people are traveling 700 miles to come here for a weekend of mission and retreat. I don't know how much training they have had in cross-cultural sensitivity but I do hope they bless the work up here rather than damage it. They will be leading worship in a Baptist church, attending a charismatic prayer event, working alongside social enterprise volunteers and meeting our neighbors. They will have to learn to decrease so that others can increase, to be come under the cross and know experientially the crucified life.

I hope there are no Yosemite Sam's in the group, guns loaded and out to rebuke the locals for behavior unbecoming to someone from their home town, looking to start a truth war with local Christians who don't agree with them. I don't care if they have never even heard the word "contextualization" or not. What's important to me is that the attitude that was in Christ that caused him to lay aside his glory and come to earth to dwell with humans will characterize their ministry over the weekend. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

Can you imagine Yosemite Sam going on a short term mission to Turkey, where the witness and the lives of people are at stake?

Anyway, its a discussion that I am sure will continue and I think Phil and I are closer than it seems. He is coming with pastor/teacher concerns for purity and I am coming with the mission challenges to make the gospel clear in another context. Somewhere in the tension between mindlessness and recklessness is a healthy balance.


- C. Michael Patton has once again created a chart so we can all understand clearly this thing called contextualization.
- John MacArthur's "Nothing Must Change" Tour is just an April Fools joke by a crazy Mennonite so don't book your tickets just yet.
- Rhett Smith, home from a recent missions experience in Mexico, discusses the embarrassment of a non-contextualized blond Jesus.