The Mythical Link between Contextualization & Syncretism: Lausanne Theology Discussion (7 of 7)

Welcome to the seventh of seven articles in response to the Lausanne Theology Working Group's paper on "The Whole Church Taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World."  If you've not had a chance to read the paper, you can do so by following these links:

You can also read all seven parts of this series here.


3. Regarding the Whole World (continued)

And last (but not least), I want to share a word of appreciation for what is said in this paper regarding world religions and the issue of contextualization.  In particular, may the whole Church latch on strongly to this statement:

“We need to repent of approaches to people of other faiths that reject or denounce their existing religion as wholly evil or satanic, with no effort to understand, critique and learn, and to discern through genuine encounter, friendship and patient dialogue where there may be bridges for the gospel” (p. 28, full version).

Let me say directly that I am personally counting very much upon the Nepalese, Indian and Bhutanese delegations to take this statement back to their contexts.  As one who has endured much grief as a direct result of just such a prejudice while working in the Hindu context, I need my South Asian brothers to sound this call to the South Asian Church.  

Related to that though is my continued concern that while the LTWG paper affirms those who are pursuing contextualization, it still does so in a way that lends credence to the myth that there is some kind of an inherent link between contextualization and syncretism.  I reject the notion that such a link exists and would suggest that no evidence can be shown to demonstrate that those theologically orthodox Christians who intentionally pursue contextualization are in any greater danger of syncretism than Christians who do not.  On the contrary, I believe that honest and balanced analysis will find even more syncretism (if we are defining this term as a sinful conformity to “pattern of this world”) in local churches that haven’t made any intentional effort to contextualize the Christ-life in their context.  The reality is not as the C1-5 scale suggests, that continued pursuit of contextualization inevitably leads to syncretism.  Rather, I would contend that, providing the contextualizer begins on theologically solid ground (an unwavering commitment to uphold the Bible), that the pursuit of contextualization actually serves to produce a much more thoughtful and theologically rich expression of Christian faith and practice than otherwise.   But alas, I cannot go any further into this right now. 

Question #7 – Upon what evidential basis does the LTWG feel it necessary to warn about syncretism in the same sentence as it mentions contextualization?  Doesn’t this sentence only serve to affirm an unfair prejudice against contextualization by repeating the unproven notion that contextualization and syncretism are especially and intrinsically linked?  

Okay, okay there is much more that I could say.  I’m already kicking myself for spending this much time on this.  My little blog post has evolved into a full week of posts.  So, let me wrap it up. I greatly look forward to reading and interacting with your responses.  May the Spirit enrichen and use this conversation.


  1. Cody,
    have you written more on the mythical connection between syncretism and contextualization? I'd like to hear more about it. I'm curious about why this is such a hot-button for you.

  2. The last time I was in Singapore, my agenda was to bring my parents (Buddhist) to church. When I found one that was worshiping in a movie theater a few blocks from my parent's home, I thought, "That's a less intimidating environment than a typical church building ... they should feel comfortable."

    And so, my parents agreed to join me at church one Sunday. While the movie theater is familiar to them, the gospel presented (through songs and sermon) is alien to them because they don't know these people. I never was able to get them to join me to church after that day.

    I believe holding church services in a commercial place; familiar and accessible to the general public is fine. However, I was reminded that greater impact can be achieved if the church (ie. God's people) is "brought" to my parents.

    I realize that it is not about making the gospel "comfortable" for my parents but rather, letting them witness how we live a reconciled and transformed life. They need to see and know how we respond to life's inevitable.

    The opportunity came towards the end of my 4-month visit in Singapore when our family was confronted with the imminent death of an aunt (my mother's eldest sister). I pray that the gospel of Christ's saving grace and unconditional love will make more sense when death stuck closer home one week after my return to the US.

    I can only continue to trust that God's word and truth will take root, convict and draw the lost nearer.

  3. @Donovan

    Yes, I've written a bit. You can get my main train of thought by clicking on the "contextualization" tag on the left of this column. Or simply cut and paste this link:

    That will give you a list of some of my more recent posts on the topic. In at the very beginning of a book that will change the world as we know it, but . . . you know . . . not quite there yet. ;)

  4. Statements of Repentence -- the Manila Manifesto contains several statements of repentance that the Church as a whole hasn’t been faithfully living out. For example, there is this, "In the past we have sometimes been guilty of adopting towards adherents of other faiths attitudes of ignorance, arrogance, disrespect, and even hostility. We repent of this." The fact that the new LTWG paper contains very similar statement is evidence that this repentance hasn’t actually taken place. We must examine these statements of repentance in the Manifesto (and the Lausanne Covenant as well, as Chris Wright has pointed out) and consider how we must actually go about repenting.

  5. Amen, Vincent. You could also mention the folk song experience that you recently had with your parents.