DMINLGP

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

The Drama of Contextualization

Written by: on May 9, 2015

The main focus of Simon Chan’s book Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith From the Ground Up is how theology ought to be done, within the Asian culture as well as other cultures.[1] As I am reading more and more on the subject of contextualization I am learning that this ought to be the objective for every person attempting to share the Gospel with any other person. Yet isn’t theology already set? Have we not already figured out the main tenants of the faith and therefore have only to explain these discoveries to the culture groups we encounter? Is there really any “new theology” to develop? This was my line of thought at one time. I love what Flemming stated in his book Contextualization in the New Testament, “Any attempt to reduce the gospel to a set of pre-fabricated formulations that can be carried about and unpacked for all situations runs contrary to both the spirit of the New Testament and the nature of the Christian mission.”[2] We are therefore needing to do the work of contextualization not transport some prefabricated formulations to the people and the cultures we encounters.

Indeed, Bevans states it more boldly by saying, “The contextualization of theology — the attempt to understand Christian faith in terms of a particular context — is really a theological imperative.”[3] So when we begin to think of contextualizing the gospel in Asia or any other part of the world we must remember the fact that “all theologies developed by human beings are shaped by their particular historical and cultural contexts – by the languages they use and the questions they ask. All human theologies are only partial understandings of Theology as God sees it.”[4] As Chan pointed out, it is only in the renewed Spirit of the church that fallen humanity can truly discern what is God and what is guided by cultural experiences.[5] By including the church in the discussion process of contextualization Chan revels his own collectivist cultural nature synonymous with the Confucian Asian culture. In discussing the 10 cultural clusters of our world, Confucian Asia, which includes countries like China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, this collectivist nature of the Confucian Asians is noted as being the highest in the world.[6] But perhaps when it comes to doing theology a collectivist approach would be better than an individualistic elitist attitude. Unfortunately, “much of what the West knows as Asian theology consists largely of elitist accounts of what Asian theologians are saying, and elitist theologians seldom take grassroots Christianity seriously. Yet it is at the grassroots level that we encounter a vibrant, albeit implicit, theology.”[7]

So in this understanding of grassroots-vibrant-implicit-contextualized theology where does the professional theologian or western missionary fit in? It is the place of the outsider to become as much a part of “the inside” as possible to become as Jesus did – incarnation-ally sharing the Gospel. So the missionary does not come with answers to the foreign church but rather as the foreigner he is to “listen carefully [to] what the Spirit of truth who indwells the church is saying through the people of God.”[8] If we as theologians and missionaries do not pause to listen we will become like those elitist theologians that Chan warns us about “who fail to recognize what God is doing among his people by his Spirit are no better (and are perhaps worse) at recognizing what God is doing in the world.”[9]

Finally I have to express my appreciation for Chan bringing out the somewhat dramatic, and living aspect of the work of contextualization. I have often thought of my relationship with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as a dance where often I fail to follow His lead and perhaps even step on His toes. Nonetheless, I am in a sweet fellowship of music, dance, and the rhythm of this life that God has seen fit to play the music and carry the tune. So, for me to read that, “if Scripture is a kind of dramatic script, translating the gospel into new contexts is not a matter of translating ‘concepts’ but more like interpreting a drama, which is a more fluid process,”[10] excited me to say “yes! and Amen!” Truly “the Bible is the redemptive drama, which is not reducible to abstract, fixed concepts. When we attempt to do local theologies we are not merely trying to explain the meaning of a script; rather, we are interpreting the gospel drama by indwelling the text, enacting it and improvising as we go, much like how good actors act out the script of a play.”[11] So, for us all, may we do the dance, improvise as we go along and share the redemptive drama with all nations, tribes, and tongues through the work of contextualization.

[1] Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith From the Ground Up (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), Loc. 57.

[2] Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2005), 296.

[3] Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002), 3.

[4] Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 198.

[5] Chan, Loc. 236–238.

[6] David A Livermore, Expand Your Boarders: Discover 10 Cultural Clusters (East Lansing, MI: Cultural Intelligence Center, LLC, 2013), 61.

[7] Chan, Loc. 46–48.

[8] Ibid., Loc. 423.

[9] Ibid., Loc. 425.

[10] Ibid., 150.

[11] Ibid., Loc. 153–154.

About the Author

mm

Mitch Arbelaez

International Mission Mobilizers with Go To Nations Living and traveling the world from Jacksonville Florida

7 responses to “The Drama of Contextualization”

  1. mm John Woodward says:

    Mitch, I appreciate so much your growing enthusiasm and appreciation (as well as understanding the value for mission work) of contextual theology. You did a tremendous job of highlighting the key insights from Chan. I am on board with you, as I have found this part of our doctoral studies the most challenging, stretching and enlightening…learning to see theology from a whole different perspective…as a work in progress rather than a finished product.

    The most important question you ask (a question that has been haunting me) is “where does the professional theologian or western missionary fit in?” I think Chan gives some insights to this, as he doesn’t ever throw out the baby with the bathwater, suggesting that there are “constants” (rich church traditions and teachings, Protestant and Orthodox and Catholic) that should inform the local theologies. It suggest that a balance must exist, so the missionaries and theologians of the West can continue to make a valuable contribution…but (as you mention) they don’t have the final word. Chan (and so much of my recent reading on contextualization and cultural intelligence) suggests it comes through genuine dialogue, interaction and mutual learning, rather than a top down approach. There is still much to figure out on how this will look into the future, but these movements seem a positive (and exciting) sign of the fact that God is still at work and there is still much to learn!

  2. Mitch,

    It was a pleasure to read your well-written post today. I, too, often step on God’s toes in that “dance of life.” Great metaphor by the way!

    You say, “If we as theologians and missionaries do not pause to listen we will become like those elitist theologians that Chan warns us about…” I could not agree more. We are often so busy talking that we seldomly take the time to listen to others. How can we get anywhere with anyone, particularly in the realm of spiritual matters if we do not take the time to listen. This is the key to building good relationships, which is the key to everything of value in this life and in the next life.

    I would like to talk with you about your work with cultural intelligence sometime. Perhaps we could talk by phone or by e-mail. I would look forward to that. — Bill

    • Richard Volzke says:

      Bill,

      As we study, I am becoming more aware of the western elitist’s theology, when it comes to our understanding of what the scriptures say about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that the church, in America, undervalues the Holy Spirit as part of the trinity. I’ve observed that many Christians equate the Holy Spirit to something like ‘the force’ from the Star Wars. They see the Holy Spirit as the tool that Christ uses to do His bidding on earth, rather than one of the Trinity.

      Richard

  3. Richard Volzke says:

    Mitch,

    You asked, “isn’t theology already set? Have we not already figured out the main tenants of the faith and therefore have only to explain these discoveries to the culture groups we encounter? Is there really any “new theology” to develop?” I would say that your question depends on whether or not you are an open or closed cannon person. If you are an open cannon individual than you believe that God could have more insight to share with man through undiscovered books of the Bible. Of course, if you are closed cannon person then you believe the Bible is complete and there is nothing else God is going to reveal to man. I am an open cannon person, only because I never want to put God in a box. But, I do not believe we are going to uncover any new books of the Bible. God has given us all the theology we need to understand His will for our lives. He has given man enough Scripture to know we are sinners and that we need to be in relationship with Him.

    Richard

  4. mm Ashley Goad says:

    Mitch! A dancer! Of course! I love the enthusiasm and excitement with which your words flowed in this blog! Your post reminded me of Jesus and His favorite storytelling method – the parables. Many of points to His story were the same. For us, when speaking to an audience or a potential believer, the end game is the same. It is how to get to the end game that matters. Jesus told stories – vines, branches, sons leaving and returning, mustard seeds. He used a variety of illustrations, most of which called the listener to have faith, believe, and understand who God is. Depending on who the listener was, He changed up His story. And so we are called to do likewise. Yea?

    Love it, Mitch. Give Michelle a happy Mother’s Day hug from us!

  5. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    You’re so right, Mitch. A collectivist approach much better than an individualistic elitist attitude. Thanks for the reminder that it is by the help of the Spirit the fallen humanity can truly discern what is God and what is guided by cultural experiences…

  6. Michael Badriaki says:

    Great job Mitch on discussing the subject matter of contextualization. It seems that the conversation about contextualization is lacking in certain mission circles and for those that attempt to have the discussion they barely scratch the surface. I think that this is what often gives the pre-fab theology a pass. You write: “We are therefore needing to do the work of contextualization not transport some prefabricated formulations to the people and the cultures we encounters.” Totally spot on!

    Thank you!

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