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

THE GOSPEL – CONTEXT AND CULTURE

Written by: on February 7, 2015

I recall a number of years ago, while preparing for a mission assignment, my wife and I attended a missionary training institute in Colorado. We attempted to prepare for the many situational experiences that awaited us in a country and culture that we knew very little about. I recall our discussions about “place, presence, participation” as if cross-cultural ministry was somehow a three point sermon. We did, in fact discuss and act out some of the anticipated encounters we would have while on assignment. In retrospect, these preparatory learning situations seem shallow and simplistic. In fact, these learning opportunities were meant to help those of us being sent (missionaries elect) to grasp what it meant to be present in a place where we would be engaging a different culture. We live in a place; our presence takes up space; we engage the environment around us that shares our space. These elements comprise the context in which we live and where we were going to serve. We were preparing to move into a new context, even though we could not change the reality of who we were. We would have to adapt and adjust to the new context.

Stephen Bevans in the reading assignments for this week, Models of Contextual Theology, clarifies that contextualization is an essential and imperative element in understanding the reality in which we live.[1] Bevans indicates that we receive meaning from the context in which we live. We understand reality as “culture-bound human beings” that is, we are shaped and conditioned by our cultural context. As such, ne notes, “… our context influences the understanding of God and the expression of our faith.[2]

Reading Bevans reminded of the three “Ps” in our preparation for the mission field as Bevans added a fourth P, “particular” in the discussion on contextualization. Being particular shapes and forms what it means to be contextual more than any other element or concept. Being embedded and embodied in a culture means to live among, to engage, to see and be seen, to give and to receive, to empower and be empowered; it is to bring “concrete reality.”[3] We did experience this to a considerable extent while serving in Tanzania. We ate with the people, shared in their fellowship, stayed in their homes; their place and space become ours as we lived life together. “Particular,” according to Bevans is to be incarnate. “Incarnation is a process of becoming particular, and in and through the particular the divinity could become visible and in some way (not fully but in some way) become graspable and intelligible.”[4] God incarnate in the world dispelled any question of God’s purpose. Paul wrote, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him and through him to reconcile to himself all things …” (Col. 1:19-20a).

In the article “The Contextualization of the Gospel,) C. René Padilla writes in support of Bevans’ incarnational concept. She also notes as essential the contextualizing the gospel “that overcomes cultural barriers and reflects the many-sided wisdom of God.”[5] She indicates the imperative relationship of the gospel in cultural context. Padilla sees the gospel as encompassing all of life in every cultural context in such a way that all culture is valued and appreciated and ultimately transformed by the Gospel. Padilla writes:

It is only as the Word of God becomes flesh in the people of God, that the Gospel takes shape within culture. According to God’s purpose, the Gospel is never to be merely a message in words but a message to be incarnated in his Church and, through it, in history. … It is the cultural embodiment of Christ [being] formed within a given culture. The task of the Church is not the extension of a culture Christianity throughout the world, but the incarnation of the Gospel in each culture.[6]

The gospel, then, engages local culture in a transforming way so that cultural nuances become expressions of Christian faith and living.[7]

In chapter nine, Bevans introduces “The Countercultural Model”[8] as a contextualizing model for theology and faith. This model confronts the reality that often human culture can be so antithetical to the gospel that elements in the culture must be confronted. In this setting, contextualizing the gospel can be culturally offensive and require change rather than transformation. Bevans’ quotes Darrel Whiteman that “Good Contextualization offends.”[9] Of course, Whitman qualifies his statement that it is offensive – but only for the right reasons. I like this model. I believe it is validated in scripture in many places, such as, that the gospel, the Word is like a two edged sword that cuts and severs, laying everything bare (Hebrews 4:12-13). Contextualization should be culturally sensitive, perhaps speaking in love, allowing people to be “confronted with the offense of the Gospel, exposing their own sinfulness and the tendency toward evil, oppressive structures and behavior patterns within their culture.”[10] When I read Whiteman’s article, I was impressed with his definition of contextualization:

Contextualization attempts to communicate the Gospel in word and deed and to establish the church in ways that make sense to people within their local cultural context, presenting Christianity in such a way that it meets people’s deepest needs and penetrates their worldview, thus allowing them to follow Christ and remain within their own culture[11]

What I like about this is that the gospel meets people in the context of their own culture but it does so at the point of their “deepest need.” In this sense, radical change can take place without alienation from God, the gospel or culture.

There is much more in the readings for this week. I wanted to focus on the gospel in the local context; my research area is “Local Church Ministry in a Multicultural Neighborhood: Reconciliation, Restoration, and Reclamation.” The articles by Neville, “The Bible, Justice and Public Theology” and by Marshall, “Parables as Paradigms for Public Theology” are now a part of my master bibliography.[12] Perhaps more amazing is that my study on biblical reconciliation concentrates on the exegetical interpretation and application of three scriptures:

  1. 2 Corinthians 5: 17-20 (Key passage on being reconciled)
  2. Luke 10 (The sending of the disciples into the neighborhood – including the parable of the Good Samaritan).
  3. Luke 15:11-31 (Parable of the prodigal sons and the reconciling father).

My research on biblical reconciliation will expand to consider more deeply justice, restitution and restoration of the victim. Christopher Marshal’s book[13] has also been added to my master bibliography and my library. Reading it will wait until this term is over.

[1] Steven Bevan, Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), Kindle, 188.

[2] Ibid., 228.

[3] Ibid., 404.

[4] Ibid.

[5] C René Padilla, “The Contextualization of the Gospel,” Journal of Theology for South Africa no. 24, 1978, 12.

[6] Ibid., 29.

[7] Ibid., 30.

[8] Bevans, Kindle 2733.

[9] Darrell L. Whiteman, “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 21 no. 1, 1977, 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 2, emphases original.

[12] David J. Neville, ed. The Bible, Justice, and Public Theology (Eugene, OR: WIPF & Stock, 2014).

[13] Christopher D. Marshall, Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime, and Restorative Justice, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).

About the Author

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9 responses to “THE GOSPEL – CONTEXT AND CULTURE”

  1. Ron,

    Thanks for your post. It really got me thinking.

    I wonder what we will think of our understanding of contextual ministry theology that we have now 50 years from now? Will we look back on our own shallowness and naivety? Probably. And what about after we die and are looking at our lives from God’s perspective? What will we think of our Christian ministry understanding and practice then? Nobody has the answers to these hard questions, but it is still important that we ask them. When we meet the Incarnate Christ, what will we think then? All I know for sure is that it will be totally different than our understanding now. However, what I am responsible for now is how I understand and how I live out this theology this side of eternity. This makes for some serious thinking. Thanks for moving me in that direction.

    I appreciate you, my friend.

  2. mm John Woodward says:

    Ron, I knew your post would be extremely insightful because of your mission experience. As I did the readings for this week, I couldn’t help but think that this way of thinking of theology in context is so foundational for the missionary task. I read last year another Bevans book that he co-authored called “Constants in Context” which demonstrated these concepts throughout Church history, with special focus on missionary efforts. It is well worth reading. But, I think you had the very best summary of our readings when you stated: ‘What I like about this is that the gospel meets people in the context of their own culture but it does so at the point of their “deepest need.”‘ That is it! How sad that so many Christians think of gospel as “statements of truth” that people simply have to affirm, when gospel speaks to real lives and real needs in real situations. You have written a wonderful post, Ron. I really appreciated your thoughts and application.

  3. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Ron, Thank you for your thoughtful post as always. I am glad the readings are helpful for your research. Great insight from chapter 8, “The Countercultural Model.” You remind that it is ok it our contextual approach become offensive for the right reason. I agree with you, “Contextualization should be culturally sensitive, perhaps speaking in love, allowing people to be “confronted with the offense of the Gospel, exposing their own sinfulness and the tendency toward evil, oppressive structures and behavior patterns within their culture.”[10]
    Thank you!

  4. Michael Badriaki says:

    Ron, thank you for this post. Too often contextualization in mission is treated as a “trick” to reach indigenous people while ignoring the very impact contextualization should have on the missionary’s life and worldview. After all, both the missionary and the people to whom the missionary seek to reach could benefit from the gospel and it ability to meet people, as you put it “… in the in the context of their own culture but it does so at the point of their “deepest need.” In this sense, radical change can take place without alienation from God, the gospel or culture.” Your statement is helpful because it shows that any efforts towards contextualization should impact and radically change the missionary’s world first as it hold promise for the culture in which the missionary desires to serve.

    Great stuff!

  5. mm Ashley Goad says:

    Ron, I love these sentences of your opening paragraphs:

    “We were preparing to move into a new context, even though we could not change the reality of who we were. We would have to adapt and adjust to the new context.”

    This reminded me of a Mark Twain quote… “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

    Through going, through doing, through being present and participating in a new place, our worldview, our context changes. It influences our understanding of God and the expression of our faith.

    I also liked how you discussed contextualization and culture. As one of my favorite authors (Duane Elmer) says, “The Bible may offend, but we don’t have to.” Kindness, common ground, and words of love instead of tongues of fire work hand-in-hand with context theology.

  6. mm Julie Dodge says:

    This is a great post, Ron. You model what I think is necessary – a willingness to suspend your own thoughts and feelings in order to understand and honor another, without compromising your own self and beliefs. This is no easy task. I also liked your discussion of the Countercultural method. I am going to have to sit with this statement for a while: “Good Contextualization offends.” It works. It makes sense. The challenge then is, as you note, speaking the truth in love, to engage the offended in reconciliation. Food for thought indeed.

  7. Richard Volzke says:

    Ron,
    I like your statement, “We live in a place; our presence takes up space; we engage the environment around us that shares our space.” This is something that all Christians should understand… I wish I could post this in the last church that I served at. We impact and interact with the world around us whether or not we want to. Just by being in a place, I am changing the environment, people, space, and culture. I can choose if the change that I propagate is for the positive or negative based on my actions.
    Richard

  8. Ron. I believe the Bevans book will be a critical one for my semester essay as well as my dissertation. I’m going to look at how we do incarnational theology using cultural intelligence. Therefore contextualizing the message will be supported a lot by Bevan’s work. I particularly like the quote that you have regarding incarnation being a “process of being particular and in and through the particular the divinity could become visible and in someway become graspable and intelligible.” I made a note of that quote myself and will return to it often in my work on incarnating Christ through cultural intelligence.

    I also appreciate your quote from Whiteman’s article that you highlighted here. It is true that contextualization must meet people’s deepest needs and penetrate their worldview. I recall, I believe it was from Bevan’s book, that it needs to be made our own at the same time retaining the truths regarding the Word of God.

    Looks like you got a lot out of the reading and I appreciate you making the effort to give such a meaningful overview here. Thank you.

  9. Miriam Mendez says:

    Ron, wonderful and rich post! Thank you! I loved your statement: “What I like about this is that the gospel meets people in the context of their own culture but it does so at the point of their “deepest need.” In this sense, radical change can take place without alienation from God, the gospel or culture.” This is so true. How can we communicate the Gospel and expect people to understand it if it is totally foreign to their context or culture? When we go without an understanding of the context, instead of connecting people to God, we bring in a God who is unreachable and disconnected from that particular context. Ron, I loved the spirit of your post!

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