The Non-contextualization of the Gospel

by JdO

Non-contextualization is occurring in many cultural contexts—even in the ministry of those who promote the highest levels of contextualization—where new churches have been planted in the last few decades.

Samira is a Palestinian woman who converted to Christianity when she was twenty-two. For more than fifteen years she has not followed Islam. She does, however, still describe herself as a Palestinian and believes she doesn’t need to refuse her culture in order to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. She keeps some aspects of her cultural-religious context (e.g., wearing a veil, keeping a daily fast during Ramadan, and praying with her face on the ground).

In Samira’s experience, it seems that the word of God was assimilated in a simultaneous way, transforming and preserving the culture instead of annihilating it. However, many other Christians around the world have not experienced a similar pattern of contextualization.

From Cultural Insensibility to Contextualization  
Few doubt that mission history in past centuries was deeply marked by a strong reproduction of cultural models imported by missionaries to the mission field. Even today, one can notice the cultural inheritance left by Western missionaries in observing churches around the world. There are some surprising descriptions that we find in relation to that:

During the missionary expansion in the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was presupposed, in general, that the resulting churches of the missionary work would be molded like the churches from the missionaries’ country. The tendency was to reproduce almost perfect replicas. The Gothic architecture, the liturgy, the clerical garments, the musical instruments, hymns and music, processes of decision, synods and worldviews, superintendents and bishops; all this was exported and, without any imagination, introduced at the new churches founded by the missions (Serie Lausanne 1983, 34).

Fortunately, the world missionary movement recognized the cultural disrespect. The damages produced in the past in terms of cultural imposition were so harmful that they led to remorse and guilt and a strong emphasis on contextualization. The concern to present the gospel in a relevant manner has become a central aspect in modern missiology and, consequently, in the ministry of the majority of missionaries. The desire to reproduce Samira’s experience has become extremely popular. Today, the missionary who does not contextualize his or her missionary action will likely be under critical analysis by his or her colleagues, especially if he or she works among Muslims.

The Manifestation of a Phenomenon
As we observe many cultural contexts where new churches have been planted in the last few decades, we still notice a strange phenomenon happening on the mission field: non-contextualization, which continues appearing even in the ministry of those who promote the highest levels of contextualization (C4, C5).

The manifestation of this phenomenon can be observed in the experience of Paul Tanner, a missionary with AIM (Africa Inland Mission) in Tanzania. Sharing his effort to contextualize a new church he was planting in a Muslim community in Tanzania, he highlights:

With the desire to develop a contextualized ministry, I organized the first service among the MBBs (Muslim Background Believers). It happened in a lined living room, without pews and covered by a carpet. I also suggested that the shoes would be outside. It was a big surprise when the new believers came to me saying that they were unhappy and would prefer a place with seats where they could enter with their shoes. (Personal communication)

According to Tanner, the new believers preferred to distance themselves from everything related to Islam. “Now that we are free, we do not want to return to the slavery,” the new believers said.

Robert Dooley shares an interesting reaction of the Guarani, an indigenous people group from Brazil. He was working on a Bible translation into their mother tongue and was trying to make the message more comprehensible and contextualized. Dooley shares:

As we introduced Jesus’ talking about the camel passing through the eye of a needle, I suggested that it would be more comprehensive if we would use the word “cow” instead of “camel.” The idea was not accepted. The Guarani translators asked me: “Was Jesus talking about a camel or a cow?” “A camel,” I answered. “So, are we not able to understand what a camel is?” [they responded] (2005, 191)

Traditionally, whenever the gospel has not taken contextualized forms in the local culture, the missionary was blamed and accused of imposing his or her own cultural frames. Therefore, it was always thought that if the missionary work would change its posture of cultural insensibility in relation to the recipient cultures, then the result would be the appearance of contextualized churches. However, that was a false supposition. The missionary’s good attitude in relation to the local culture is not an assurance of contextualized churches.

Searching for Answers
A frequent question that arises is, “In areas where missionaries are absent of responsibility, what is behind the phenomenon of the non-contextualization of the gospel?” In the contemporary missionary movement, one factor has been preponderant for the non-contextualization of the Church or of Christianity in different cultures around the world: the converted people’s rejection of different aspects of their own culture or background religious system.

1. New meanings and old forms. In some cases, the converted people, as well as the missionary, face difficulties in identifying and separating between what is biblical and what is simply cultural. Often, this decoding process can take more time than the missionary desires. We need to realize that the contextualization process, preservation of the forms, and substitution of the meanings may take decades.

In Brazil, the gospel often arrived mixed with strong doses of foreign culture. It was difficult for us to recognize the difference between what was national culture and what was “evangelical” culture. Even among denominations or congregations founded by national workers, the phenomenon of non-contextualization existed.

Due to the rejection led by national believers, many of our contextualization attempts were aborted. Because they felt threatened in the relationship with the old practices or forms, the MBBs rejected what was national. It happened in such a way that the only option was to borrow what belonged to foreigners. During worship services, in many cases, the use of the organ or piano was the found solution. Brazilian instruments, such as the drum or tambourine, were deemed inappropriate for use in the church.

Any attempt to introduce musical instruments used previously in samba, umbanda, or candomblé (religions originated in Brazil by the African slaves’ influence) was seen as profane by most believers. Even today, after more than 150 years of evangelization, such instruments are looked upon with great distrust in most churches.

2. The missionary and the local people. The local people play a large role in the contextualization process. We need to invest more time considering their part. As missionaries, we often discuss how far we want to go in contextualization (C1, C2, C3, etc.), but not as much time considering and asking how far the people we are evangelizing want to go. We cannot forget that in any contextualization process, as important as the missionary’s posture is, the acceptance and participation of the people in relation to the process is equally, if not more, important. After all, it is impossible for any missionary to facilitate a contextualization process if the local people are not engaged.

Bárbara Burns comments on the importance of the participation of the local people in a genuine contextualization process: “The true contextualization demands that the people have understanding of Jesus’ teachings (Matt. 28:19) and freedom to put them in practice in their lives and in their expressions of worship and obedience to the Lord” (2006, 27).

3. Old and new generations. Even for a short time, the local people may show some resistance in using old forms and filling them with new meaning. As missionaries, we need to be patient; as we wait for new scenarios in our working context, we should invest in the future generations. It is important to be prepared not only to contextualize the gospel, but to address the phenomenon of non-contextualization.

In the end, perhaps it is necessary that a whole generation who have come to faith be studied diligently and introduced in the Church slowly before taking on the great task of using old forms in new ways. After all, very often what is a simple form for the missionary is full of meaning for the national.

In spite of the arguments that can be made against it, the phenomenon of non-contextualization will continue to be manifested. There will likely always be some resistance or disagreement on the side of the national people when undertaking the process of contextualization. It is, therefore, necessary for the missionary to keep in mind that contextualization cannot be forced. Instead, it should be faced with its biblical fundamentals, never to simply achieve results, but in respect to the people and in loyalty to the nature of the gospel.

Burns, Bárbara H. 2006. Níveis de Contextualização: A Contextualização da Palavra de Deus. Atibaia, Brazil: APMB.

Dooley, Robert A. 2005. Indígenas do Brasil: Avaliando a Missão da Igreja. Viçosa, Brazil: Editora Ultimato.

Serie Lausanne. 1983. O Evangelho e a Cultura. A Contextualização da Palavra de Deus. São Paulo: ABU Editora e Visão Mundial.


JdO (pseudonym) is Brazilian, a Baptist pastor, and a missionary with Africa Inland Mission among unreached people groups in Africa. He is the author of several mission books and articles in Portuguese.

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 306-309. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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