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

CONTEXTUALIZATION: THE CHALLENGE OF MULTIFACETED CULTURE

Written by: on February 15, 2014

We might think that Christianity, though scripture and tradition, has always been understood in terms of context. This, however, it seems is not the case. D.W. Bebbington, in his work on the history of evangelicalism,[1] provides the reader with a thread or theme that attaches the history of evangelicalism to culture. The rise and fall of evangelical thought along with changes in theological thinking and practice are related to social/political culture and shifts in cultural context.[2] The impact on evangelical faith and practice during the years covered by Bebbington were, however, related to what has become known as Western Christendom and the rise of modernity. The term contextualize and the concept of contextualizing the gospel came into existence in the early nineteen seventies.[3] The concept coincided with the beginning of the demise of modernity and the spread of Christianity to third world countries in the South, East and the continent of Africa. Stephen Bevans identifies the books by Juan Luis Segundo, Liberation Theology in 1976 and A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez as major points marking the transitioning to contextual theology and praxes.[4] In addition, it is necessary to recognize the effect of globalization as a significant factor in presenting the gospel. The church is confronted with multi-culture and multi-ethnic settings in every location where the gospel is being presented. The church might see her mission as “going to the ends of the earth,” but it is reaching one local community at a time within a particular culture. In joining God the church must present “a theology that is thoroughly contextual on the one hand and global or intercultural on the other.”[5]  In the readings this week, when taken in the context of Bebbington’s historical perspective, one conclusion I would reach is the contextualization of the gospel as a result of colonization of third world countries, the missionary movement, and the ready acceptance of the gospel, especially among the poor. Contextualizing the gospel in a local cultural venue, especially in view of the global multi-cultural settings, requires a shift from the motivation of modern missions (late 19th and 20th centuries). The incentive for missions has been grounded in indigenization characterized by self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating.[6]  Mission has been done, however, in the context of Western theology and practice. Andrew Walls indicates that contextualizing moves beyond the necessary components of indigenization and allows the gospel to speak and be interpreted in the local cultural context. The spread of the gospel to the South and East, as already noted, occurred after enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and the age of scientific methodology and reason. Hence, as Hesselgrave notes, there will be theological issues with “demonism, sorcery, and ancestor veneration”[7] that modern Western theology has not addressed. Walls states that the spread of the gospel has “taken Christian theology into new areas of life, where Western theology has no answers, because it has no questions.”[8] In similar manner, the concept of inculturation (the adapting of how biblical teachings take form or are presented  in non-Christian cultures and the effect on theology and practice of new cultural encounters) ought to allow for the questions that confront those in the new culture as the gospels speaks in their context.[9] In much of the recent writing there has been recognition that World Christianity places the multi-cultural encounter at our door step.[10] It is a challenge for the church; “…become all things, to all people…might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22 NIV), especially when “the field of mission is not a single target culture but a multi-faceted cultural mosaic.”[11] Stephen Garner, in an insightful analysis of the contemporary television show bro’Town, presents how the gospel can meet culture in a typical present day multi-faceted community.[12] The program has all the components of contemporary society: religion, indigenous peoples, pop culture, ethnicity, and in this context, Christianity. Garner notes that bro’Town aired on New Zealand public television for five years and it “functioned as a site of theological reflection and a vehicle for the doing of contextual theology.”[13] It is interesting that Christianity (theology) is contextualized in the everyday experiences of living. The elements of the show fit well with Bremans definition of “contextual theology” as it relates to the context of past and present experience and in particular includes four elements: “personal or community experience, ‘secular’ or ‘religious’ culture, social location, and social; change.”[14] In bro’Town, the characters, from a diverse ethnic and cultural background, interact in addressing a wide variety of life experiences that necessitate applying beliefs that originate in a diverse heritage but are experienced in a common social setting. One of the prize lessons of the show is how the characters were able to reflect, react and express their cultural differences without damaging the community relationship. It was, as Garner notes, “the negotiation of the three-way relationship between God, land and people, and the maintenance of those relationships in a healthy and wholesome way.”[15] It was done within the constraints of Bible, religious institution, and spiritual experience. Again, I can relate very well to bro’Town concepts of living out a contextual theology. “[W]orld theologians [we are all theologians] who base their teachings on scripture may indeed develop different theologies. But they will develop theologies that are complementary, not contradictory.” [16]


[1] D.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London, UK: Routledge, 1989).
[2] See for an example: 38, 57, 74, 97, 165, 168, 178, 237ff, 254, 272, and others.
[3] D. J. Hesselgrave, “Contextualization of Theology” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2ed., Ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001) 294-295.
[4] Steven B. Bevans, “Models of Contextual Theology,” Missiology, 13, 2, 1985, 185-182.
[5] Steven B. Bevans, “What has Contextual Theology to Offer the Church in the Twenty-First Century,” Contextual Theology for the Twenty-First Century¸ ed. Bevans (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 5.
[6] Hesselgrave, Ibid. 294.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), 146.
[9] Bevans, “Models…,” Ibid.
[10] See for an example: Evangelical Alliance, “The World on our doorstep,” at http://www.eauk.org/church/resources/snapshot/the-world-on-our-doorstep.cfm, (Accessed, 2/14/2014).
[11] Dean Flemming, Contestualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Thjeology and Mission, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 14.
[12] Stephen Garner, “Morningside for Life!: Contextual theology meets Animated Television in Bro’TownStudies in World Christianity, 17, 2, 2011, 156-174.
[13] Ibid., 156.
[14] Bevans, “What has…”, 9.
[15] Garner, Ibid., 157.
[16] Hasselgrave, Ibid.

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