Retro-Revolutionary Missiology

by Ted Esler

One of the dominant themes that emerged from from my doctoral research was that Jesus’ teaching went in two directions at the same time. By this, I mean that it was drawn from the deepest traditions of culture while simultaneously introducing something altogether new and treasonous to that same culture.

Jesus was thoroughly and completely Jewish. His teachings were drawn not only from Judaic law but were infused with Jewish worldview concepts. If there was such a thing as a Jewish “C-Scale,” Jesus would have been off the charts. His followers understood his message because it was placed in the center of their mental and spiritual framework. This is “retro” Jesus: he connected with tradition and history. The listener understood the inside jokes and snickered at the occasional double entendre. His teaching felt homey and comfortable.

At the same time, Jesus said (and practiced) things that were completely revolutionary to this same culture. He was offensively anti-Jewish. His crucifixion was ordered because he disobeyed his own culture’s worldview. He was outrageously critical of the societal power brokers. His concept of the Kingdom was strangely Jewish yet subversive. Even the cross, his ultimate achievement, took the most Jewish of festivals, Passover, and revolutionized it, making himself its central theme. He took what was Jewish and redeployed it a revolutionary message.

As we in missiology think about issues of contextualization I am reminded of Jesus’ retro-revolutionary teaching. We must strive to capture Jesus’ willingness to put the Gospel into the fabric of a local culture. At the same time, this contextualization must be matched with an equal striving to the revolutionary nature of that same message. If we fail to do so we fall short of the Gospel message that Jesus himself taught, modeled and became.

I find myself having many missiological discussions about contextualization but precious few moments on how the Gospel confronts culture. What it would look like for us to spend as much time and energy on the revolutionary as we do on the retro?

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