Decontextualization—A Much Neglected Element of Mission

by Perry Shaw

Although we need to be sensitive to specific contexts, there is a time and a place for challenging the cultural context with countercultural values of the Kingdom of God.

The term “contextualization” has become a shibboleth in much of contemporary mission discussion, with the invaluable C1-C6 paradigm of John Travis (1998) standard grist for the mill of mission education. While most writers (including Travis himself) claim to recognize that many different approaches are needed to reach the world, the reality is that many new workers who arrive in the Middle East are (to paraphrase what I have heard repeatedly) “only interested in the contextualized approach of C5 church-planting ministry.” While this zeal for cultural sensitivity is laudable, the lack of critical reflection is at best naïve and at worst a recipe for long-term disaster. Yes, understanding the cultural context is important; however, unless we ultimately engage in what Paul Hiebert describes as “critical contextualization,” (1994, 75-92) or what I believe to be a more accurate term, “decontextualization,” we have failed in our missionary task.

There is no question about the importance for new workers entering a field to begin as learners with open hearts, minds, and wills to the context in which they serve. The great theological model of Jesus’ incarnation, and his incarnational commission to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me so send I you” (John 20:21), present a clear missional priority: both the gospel message and the gospel messenger must be thoroughly immersed in the culture for the good news of Jesus to be understood and embraced. In the steps of the Apostle Paul, we are to “become all things to all people that some might be saved” (1 Cor. 9:22).

Jesus profoundly contextualized the message of the kingdom in the dramatic act of incarnation. However, the missional model of Jesus did not end there. For while Jesus lived in, and responded to, a specific culture, he nonetheless lived a life that was unapologetically counter-cultural. His teachings, seen perhaps most vividly in the repeated “It has been said to you…but I say to you” of the Sermon on the Mount, were matched by a life of association with outcasts and “sinners” that invited the derision of the contemporary religious leadership. Our years of living in a Middle Eastern cultural context have shown remarkable similarities to the Middle East of the Gospels. This has led me to conclude that Jesus both contextualized and “decontextualized” the message of the Kingdom of God. But what exactly do I mean by “decontextualization”?

Decontextualization Defined
As most of us learned early in our theological training, there are four great movements of salvation history—creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. The implications of creation and fall are that in every person there is something good that reflects the image of God, but something evil that reflects the fall, and in every situation we do well to name both the good and the evil. Only in the naming of good and evil does there come the possibility of repentance and redemption, worked out in longing for the consummate perfection that will come at Christ’s return. But God also created us as social beings, and consequently, not only individuals but also societies and cultures reflect something of God’s image and something of the fall. Put simply, culture is not value-neutral. Yes, we do need to be sensitive to the context, but there is also a time and a place for challenging the cultural context with the countercultural values of the Kingdom of God—for “decontextualizing” the faith. Hiebert was very aware of this when he observed that:

…uncritical contextualization has a weak view of sin. It tends to affirm human social organizations and cultures as essentially good. Sin is confined largely to personal evil. But social systems and cul­tures are human creations marked by sin. In scripture, more than seventy-five percent of the occurrences of such Greek terms as arche and archon (organizational power), exousia (authority), dynamis (power), and thronos (throne) refer to human institutions. There is a need, there­fore, to take a stand against corporate evil as well as against individual sin. (1994, 86)

The problem with much of the language of contextualization is its idealistic understanding of culture. In our particular region there is a widespread uncritical belief that if only we distance ourselves from the established churches and develop “insider movements,” we will have none of the problems endemic in the established national churches. Unfortunately, when so-called “insider movement” communities develop, it is not long before many of the very same problems evident in the established churches rear their heads in the newly-developing groups. C5 faith communities are beset with many of the same cultural sins as C2 faith communities.

The school in which I am privileged to teach is extraordinary in the diversity of its student body, with students coming from all around the Middle East and from both Muslim and Christian backgrounds. Recognizing elemental cultural “sins” and seeking to “decontextualize” emerging leaders is an essential element in our training commission. Below are three specific examples I have encountered.

1. Cultural tendency toward autocratic “kingdom building.” An obvious example is the prevalent cultural tendency toward autocratic “kingdom building.” There is a saying: “In every Egyptian, there is a pharaoh.” This saying, however, can readily be generalized throughout the entire region. The societal norm in the Middle East is for organizational design that is centralized and bureaucratic, with organizational power and authority focused at the top, and decision making exclusively in the hands of the highest point of the pyramid (Shaw 2005, 6). This pattern is standard in the established churches with even the most “democratic” and “congregational” of churches ruled by their pastors, a pattern reinforced both from above by the pastors and from below in the expectations of the congregations.

While it is common for emerging house churches to embrace shared leadership initially, generally this is short-lived and church splits based upon power struggles are endemic. Too often, both nationals and expatriate workers accept this as an inevitable cultural pattern without acknowledging that it is contrary both to the theological ideal reflected in the Trinity and to the paradigmatic model presented in the life of the early Church (Shaw 2006, 122-123, 128-129). For the church to be all that it can be, a process of fundamental decontextualization needs to take place in the leadership structure. Significant steps in this direction have been taken in certain quarters (most notably, in Cairo’s famous Qasr al-Dubara church), with very positive results.

2. Leadership in an honor-shame society. A more complex issue is that of leadership in an honor-shame society. In the Middle East (as in much of the non-Western world), vulnerability is seen as a weakness (Lingenfelter and Mayers 2003, 101-102), and the cultural pressure on leaders is to maintain an impression of strength, even perfection. The confession of wrongdoing is tantamount to the acknowledgement of fundamental weakness, and is widely discouraged. I have struggled with this issue more than any other. While recognizing the biblical exhortation to respect and honor leaders, I also see in my reading of the Gospels the Middle Eastern Jesus reviling the image-conscious Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs”—an epithet sadly all-too-applicable to many Christian leaders in our region (and other regions as well!). The process of confession, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation is foundational to the Christian message. It is noteworthy that it was one of the most Semitic of all the New Testament writers who urged public confession of sin on the Middle Eastern believing community he served (James 5:16).

I am convinced of a particular need to decontextualize the cultural norm of “face-whitening” so that the gospel can become not just word, but about life. Consequently, I have made it a personal policy in my own relationships with students to strive toward open confession for even the slightest wrong I commit against them (even though I recognize the cultural inappropriateness of this action, particularly for a person in a position of power and authority). While some have seen this as a sign of weakness and tried to exploit it, more have thanked me. Several have even begun practicing the same habit in their own relationships with others.

3. Conflict resolution. A related and highly significant issue is that of conflict resolution. The standard, culturally-accepted approach to conflict resolution is through the use of a mediator who will shuttle between the two conflicting parties in an effort to bring an acceptable resolution through some sort of compromise. While the language of mediation is found in Christ’s own work between God and fallen humanity, it must be remembered that in the divine-human conflict of sin, there is only one guilty party. It is rare indeed for this to be the case in person-to-person conflict. While mediation can serve the purpose of face-saving, it rarely leads to genuine reconciliation. Reconciliation comes through repentance and forgiveness—not only between God and the individual, but also between people. This is the essence of Matthew 18:15-17, a passage delivered not in a Western context, but in a Middle Eastern one.

Matthew 18:15-17 has become a central passage in the teaching and training of the now worldwide Peacemakers movement (see Sande 2003). Initially, the concept of face-to-face conflict resolution was dismissed by non-Western audiences as a cultural impossibility. However, through the courage of a few Asian and African believers, the applicability and power of direct encounter and confession has been discovered. This countercultural (“decontextualized”) pattern of conflict resolution has been found to have evangelistic repercussions as people witness the gospel drama of God’s reconciliation with humanity lived out in the reconciliation between two believers.

Barriers to Decontextualization
Of course, there is a huge problem with any discussion of decontextualization, and that has to do with the readiness with which we see the goodness in our own culture and the fallenness in other cultures, while remaining blind to the fallenness in our own culture and the goodness in other cultures. It is all-too-common for missionaries to develop a highly critical attitude toward the culture of the people they have come to serve and claim to “love,” while being highly defensive when nationals attack Western cultural patterns.

For decontextualization to be an expression of love rather than judgment, new missionaries must thoroughly engage in serious contextualization before addressing issues of decontextualization. They must devote time to understanding and appreciating the different potential synergic contributions of one’s own culture and the cultures of others. Only when a profound appreciation and engagement with the host culture has taken place can the discipline of decontextualization truly be done, seeking to rise above the patterns of our own and other cultures through critical analysis in light of scripture. In the model of Christ, incarnational ministry implies sacrificial and even humiliating self-giving (Phil. 2:1-11), and fruitful decontextualization can only emerge through a heart of love and a spirit of humility.

It is right that contextualization be at the forefront of mission discussion and training. However, if we remain there, we have neglected an essential element of our missional mandate. For the work of mission will only be complete when emerging and existent Christian communities are challenged to decontextualize their faith and practice according to the principles and values of the Kingdom of God.

Hiebert, Paul G. 1994. Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.

Lingenfelter, Sherwood and Marvin Mayers. 2003. Ministering Cross-Culturally. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.

Sande, Ken. 2003. The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.

Shaw, Perry W. H. 2005. “Entrepreneurs and Tribal Leaders: A Phenomenological Approach to Leadership and Teamwork in the Middle East.” MEATE Journal 2(1):2-17.

______________.  2006. “Vulnerable Authority: A Theological Approach to Leadership and Teamwork.” Christian Education Journal, Series 3, 3(1):119-133.

Travis, John. 1998. “The C1 to C6 Spectrum: A Practical Tool for Defining Six Types of ‘Christ-centered Communities’ (‘C’) Found in the Muslim Context.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34(4):407-408.


Perry Shaw is chair of the department of ministerial studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. He has been serving in the Middle East with MECO International since 1990, and is involved in educating leaders from throughout the Middle East-North Africa region.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.   

Related Articles

Welcoming the Stranger

Presenter: Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief Description: Refugee and immigration issues have dominated headlines globally recently. While many American Christians view these…

Upcoming Events