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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Contextual Theology

Written by: on February 7, 2015

In Ethiopia, most non-believers associate Protestant Christianity with foreign aid, Americans or Israel, to segregate believers and disqualify the authenticity of Protestant Christianity. In my Arsi Oromo culture, becoming a believer is equal to denying the values and unity of the clan, because religion is more than just an individual affair. Religion is a shared practice that affirms an individual’s solidarity with her or his community. However, the biggest challenge is the Christian church’s failure to preach the gospel in the culture and language of the people. They teach believers to abandon their culture since they are part of a new community whose identity is in Christ. This rejection has been a stumbling block for Oromos to hear the gospel. It is only in recent years that some Oromo Christians began to realize the need to plant Oromo speaking churches. Now we have several Oromo churches planted, both the cities and in rural areas. Thus, as someone deeply passionate about indigenizing the Good News to my own people, I thoroughly enjoyed Models of Contextual Theology, by Stephen B. Bevans.

The author persuasively writes about the significance of a contextual approach to Christian theology. Bevans explains contextual theology as radical new ways “realizes that culture, history, contemporary thought forms, and so forth are to be considered, along with scripture and tradition, as valid sources for theological expression”(p.4). “We can certainly learn from others…but the theology of others can never be our own” (p.5). This has been the insight and wisdom hidden from most churches in my country. They fear that preaching the gospel in every language creates division among churches, loss of jobs for ministers who don’t know the language, and affects the church’s revenue. These kinds of fears emanate from their own selfish interests and have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God. The question for our churches is how can you invite others to the loving God if you reject their language and culture?

Another enlightening learning about Christian contributions to maters of public life comes from “Parables as Paradigms for Public Theology,” by Christopher D. Marshall. He points out a certain resemblance between the nature of parabolic communication and the task of public theology. Marshall is convinced that certain key parables, “could serve as helpful paradigms for understanding public theology, that is, as tools for helping the church conceptualize its vocation in society as the bearer of a message—the ‘gospel of the kingdom’—that is both intelligible and unintelligible to the world, both ethically feasible and eschatological radical, both relevant to secular society and yet particular and distinctive to the community of faith” (p.24). The author is very careful not to encourage or discourage the use of parables “as a communication device or as a source of specialist information,” instead as a paradigm for the “articulation or encapsulation of a particular perspective on reality, parables as a way of conceiving how God’s redemptive initiative in the person and proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth comes to bear on present reality, including on the systems and institutions of public life”(24). Thus, the implications of parables go significantly beyond the community of faith to include the “the commons’—the natural, cultural and political resources of life we share in common in society”(p.24). Attempting to address public matters in light of Christian convictions is not easy by any means, thus Marshal suggests holding “in tension the ethically achievable and the eschatological radical dimensions of the gospel” (42). This particular concern is also evident in my church who tends to focus mainly on “the eschatological ‘with God all things are possible’ dimension and overlook the question of how our faith can bring practical implication for wider, unbelieving society”(p.42). As Stephen Garner highlighted, there is a need to educate the community of faith as to “the dimensions and features of their own theology”(p.178). Thus, the task at hand is helping our community of faith understand “compassion and justice are central to Jesus’ teaching and hence an integral part of the good news” (p.179).

 

About the Author

Telile Fikru Badecha

13 responses to “Contextual Theology”

  1. mm John Woodward says:

    You’ve once again provided great insights for application of our readings this week, Telile. I would concur with you, that it is a great failure of the Church’s missionary efforts in many places to “preach the gospel in the culture and language of the people.” I think it really brings to question the underlying motivates for preaching if we aren’t seeking all methods possible to relate this message of hope and life for people in a way they can deeply understand and connect with where they are at! I think your further point explains a lot of it–it often does come down to power and control! It is sad that Christ spoke so clearly about service, being last, and not lording it over…yet, so much mission work continues to be about domination and control, of imposing outside ideas on confused people! Which is so very sad! That is why I too love this concept of contextual theology. It takes serious people and their position, and it empowers them seek and understand. Thanks again for your important insights from your experiences.

  2. Telile…
    It is no small wonder that the perception would center on foreign aid and segregation (among the others you highlighted). We have exported these items based on what need (either from our vantage point, with self-interest &/or actual need) and thought that segregation is the means to the end. It came from the a particular context of Christian theology. To read of the small steps of contextualization is encouraging, even as it may feel daunting. You bring forth a voice I need to hear.

    At the end of your post you mentioned, “Thus, the task at hand is helping our community of faith understand “compassion and justice are central to Jesus’ teaching and hence an integral part of the good news” (p.179).” I am thinking that you see yourself as part of bringing or assisting in bringing forth “the task at hand.” What would or does that look like for you? What do you “see”?

    Blessings…

    • Telile Fikru Badecha says:

      Carol, one great example is my music ministry that has given me a chance to create gospel songs using cultural melodies. I am always sharing and engaging in dialogue with friends and others in my small bible group about the importance of contextual approach. Thank you for your thoughtful comments!

  3. Telile,

    As always, thanks for sharing. Your wisdom and practical insights always keep me coming back for more of your again. Thanks, especially, for always sharing about your culture, your church, your people, and your life. I am so sorry that there are so many difficulties. That must be very discouraging.

    I too liked the Bevans’ book. “We can certainly learn from others…but the theology of others can never be our own.” This is a powerful and true quote. It is so helpful for me to realize that theology is supposed to be a living, breathing thing, not something that is old and stale.

    I think that the entire church system needs to be reexamined. Perhaps we have created a model of the church that is no longer sustainable in the 21st century. Maybe it is time to get away from professional pastors and from the formal church all together. Perhaps that would help some of the situations in your country. Why does one need to leave one’s own culture to be a Christian? Not everything in one’s culture is evil. I see this same thing being done to Native-Americans. Thankfully, there is a Christian Spiritual movement that is happening that allows Native people to keep much that is culturally dear to them. They can be Christians and be traditional at the same time. When we get together, we will talk about these things.

    Thank you again for your fine post.

    • Telile Fikru Badecha says:

      Bill, I read your blog on Native-Americans and noticed some similarities with my people. Thank God for the Spiritual movement happening among them. I totally agree with you, not everything is bad in our culture. God has no favorite culture. Our cultures are also good enough to be used to in a worship. Yes, let get together at our favorite Starbuks and will talk more-:)

  4. Michael Badriaki says:

    Telile, you write for many of us who come from backgrounds that require a reconciliation between our indigenous cultural approaches to faith in Jesus Christ and the constructs of Western Protestant Christianity. The road to contextualization is a difficult one in Uganda and I can imagine that it is same in Ethiopia because of some of the issues you pointed out. You write:
    “They fear that preaching the gospel in every language creates division among churches, loss of jobs for ministers who don’t know the language, and affects the church’s revenue. These kinds of fears emanate from their own selfish interests and have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God. The question for our churches is how can you invite others to the loving God if you reject their language and culture?”

    Division among churches, loss of employment and revenue are all important things to think through.

    Thank you

    • Telile Fikru Badecha says:

      Michael, I agree, contextualization is not an easy task. But we can start engaging in dialogue with our family members, friends, and leaders at our churches. I just don’t think we need to wait for someone abroad come and do contextual theology for us anymore. We need to be intentional, creative and practical…Thanks brother!

  5. mm Ashley Goad says:

    Telile, you, as always, have a fascinating perspective, one that I stand in awe of. I read your first couple of sentences many times to soak in the weight of honesty. “In Ethiopia, most non-believers associate Protestant Christianity with foreign aid, Americans or Israel, to segregate believers and disqualify the authenticity of Protestant Christianity.” After traveling the world the last years, I imagine that there are so many who would feel the exact same way. … And then I think of my sweet Haiti. The French Catholics were so interested in having converts, they did not teach the true Gospel. They simply wanted the numbers, and now the catchphrase in Haiti to describe religion is “80% Catholic, 100% voudou.”

    Now, I think you will have to write books and books and teach seminars and more on how to preach the Gospel while preserving your heritage and culture! Where is the balance? How do we best do that?

    Fantastic, Telile!

    • Telile Fikru Badecha says:

      Ashely! How sad when the church focuses on making converts but ignore their preaching task. The Ethiopia Orthodox priest did similar things to my Arsi people. They forceful took their land and destroyed their worship placed and forced them to be baptized. Any thing about our culture were seen as evil and have no place in the church. Protestants did preach the Good News to my people but did not like anything about our culture, including our language. So much pain…but there is hope for healing. Yes, I would love to put my thoughts on paper someday, but I also share my learning with people in my bible group and likeminded friends! Ashely! God bless and God bless your sweet Haiti!

  6. mm Julie Dodge says:

    These were indeed rich readings, Telile, and your practical application in the Arsi Oromo church is fantastic. As you continue to struggle with the impact of colonialism, here again the negligence of the West to consider that other groups and cultures are valid and real and meaningful is highlighted. Sadly, there are those who would consider Contextual Theology radical, perhaps even heretical. I think perhaps this springs from the reactions against relativity – ideas that all things are relative and that there is no absolute truth. Yet God remains absolutely true. He does not change based on our understanding of Him. Yet our understanding of Him must make sense i our context. So I find this all meaningful and appropriate and helpful. Thanks as always for sharing your stories.

  7. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Julie, you’re absolutely right, there are many people in my church too who consider my ministry’s contextual approach as unbiblical, or heretical. I used to get really discouraged but now I have learned to use those chance to initiate dialogue. Contextualization is so complex and requires lots of patience. Thanks for your insights!

  8. Telile, it is good to know that the Oromos culture has allowed for indigenous churches that differentiate themselves from the Christian culture of the Western world. This indeed is good news and the contextualization of theology that Bevans promotes. The understanding of contextualization seems to be evident yet too often neglected by the very ones who ought to be promoting it. Much like the western missionaries who came to Ethiopia and did not allow for the contextualization of the gospel, we must be careful not to do the same thing. We must understand compassion amongst community and try to bring the central teachings of Jesus into the very real world of those we are trying to reach. You did a great job of digesting the material and disseminating it back to us in your post. Your writing has improved over the last years. I have enjoyed seeing you grow as we all have done so. Thanks Telile for always bringing your international perspective to our program.

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