The Lausanne Global Analysis of Highly Contextualized Missions

Recently, a rich article was posted to the Lausanne Global Conversation entitled "Highly Contextualized Missions: Surveying the Global Converstation".  Since the article was focused on one of my favorite topics I wanted to direct your attention to it.  Mainly, I think you should just read it, but I will make a few comments below.

On page 2 of the article, we find:

Syncretism is a related topic in the global conversation. Some feel that the Lausanne Theology Working Group is unfair in suggesting a tenuous connection between contextualization and syncretism, as if there is a causal relationship between the two.[3] Syncretism is a problem where ever there are new believers, regardless of the degree of contextualization. It is a false dichotomy to imply that less contextualization leads to less syncretism. The Cape Town Commitment also warns of syncretism when addressing contextualization under the heading “love respects diversity of discipleship.” Cody C. Lorance, an active Global Conversation contributor involved in both church planting and insider movements among Hindus, rejects the notion that such a link exists.[4] He and many others desire a scale that indicates movement towards Christlikeness, which is necessary in all new fellowships, rather than unhelpfully contrasting contextualization and/or syncretism. Comments on similar articles by other users, however, indicate that many feel there is a greater danger of syncretism in this kind of ministry.

Well, it's cool to be referenced in the article.  I think this paragraph is a good summary of one of the main issues that I've been trying to call attention to.  The author seems to support the view that I hold on this issue.  Again, I believe that there is no necessary link between the pursuit of contextualization and syncretism.  As for the Cape Town Commitment, I have applauded the fact that it seems to dismiss this supposed link.  I’ve posted two blog articles on this topic.

Definitely there are those who believe that contextualization essentially leads to syncretism.  However, I have never come across an article that seeks to prove this in some way other than anecdotally.  I suppose that such articles exist, please do direct me to them if you know of them.

Also on page 2 of the document, we find:

The discussion of church planting versus insider movements begins with the C1-C6 scale that describes the spectrum of Christ-centered communities, developed by John Travis in 1988.

First off, I would take issue with the phrase "church planting versus insider movements".  We must be very careful about painting with too broad a brush on this issue.  So much of the debate and discussion regarding contextualization breaks down because someone assumes all proponents of contexutalization believe and do the same things.  I suppose it is possible that their are advocates of contextualization that would describe themselves as being anti-church planting.  However, I've not met any.  Most of us prefer to use a word other than the English term "church", since we are working among non-English speakers, but that is not the same thing as being against the establishment and extension of God's Church.  Most of us want very much to establish local communities of Christ-followers in our mission fields.  So, the term "versus" seems quite out of place.

Beyond that, I am disappointed that this article reaffirms the idea that the C-scale is of central importance to the discussion of contextualization.  It absolutely is not.  Travis's scale perhaps has served a helpful purpose within the context of Islam and contextualization.  However, it has proven inadequate in many ways.  H.L. Richard's attempt to adapt the scale for mission among Hindus is laudable, but the fundamental flaw remains.  That is, with both scales, the unspoken assumption drawn by nearly all is that eventually one falls off the scale into heresy.  Whether that is at C5, 6, 7, or 15 -- all seem to agree that eventually contextualization leads to syncretism.  In response to this line of reasoning, I always want to ask, "How contextualized was Jesus? How incarnate, human, Jewish, Galilean did he become?"  Isn't the only answer, "Fully"? 

The discussion of contextualization must not BEGIN with Travis's scale.  It must begin with the word of God and a careful consideration of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  

Moving on now to page 3:

By contrast, C3 and C4 churches are more culturally appropriate and are therefore more inviting to Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, as well as more likely to become movements. There are two main differences between the two: C3 believers use only neutral cultural forms (such as folk music) and call themselves “Christians;” C4 believers adapt what they believe to be biblically permissible religious forms (such as certain feasts or styles of worship) and call themselves “followers of Jesus” (therefore separating themselves from the term “Christian,” which often has a connotation of Western or foreign influence).[12]

I simply wish to challenge the idea that non-Western cultures make such distinctions such as "neutral" and "religious" in terms of the forms found in their contexts.  This distinction between the sacred and secular is a very Western one and I don't often see it among my Hindu friends.  To them, buying a car can be every bit as much a religious or sacred experience as going to the temple.  Celebrating a festival can be as non-sacred as going to work.  The impulse to sort forms into categories such as "neutral" and "religious" flows out of a failure to do cross-cultural mission incarnationally.  Sadly, Christians from non-Western nations have imbibed this sorting impulse from their Western counterparts.  The result is often so arbitrary as to be utterly ridiculous to the outside observer and even more so to the non-Christian in that context.  We should be reminded of the Scripture which states with clarity, "So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future--all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's." (1Co 3:21-23)

All things are ours for the glory of Christ.  The missionary call is a call to a kind of possessio.  

And now a final thought from page 5:

The fact remains that less than 1% of the world's Christians ever share their faith with a Muslim.

What is so personally hurtful to me in all of this is the level of criticism I receive from people who themselves couldn't be bothered to share the hope of Christ with a Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist.  I have literally been accused to my face of heresy by individuals who have lived among Hindus all their lives and have never sought to share Christ with them.  Others have told me in one conversation that they "hate" Hindus and in another that they oppose my efforts to contextualize the gospel.  

In a current situation that I am dealing with here locally, a South Asian pastor has opted to abandon the context in which he lives in favor of trying to form his own church out of members of two other Nepali churches in another city.  Since the pastor came to me requesting financial support from my mission board, I asked him the key question:  "Why aren't you trying to reach out to the Hindus that you live among?  There are so many in your city and there is no witness at all among them?"  He gave a roundabout answer that can be summarized as, "It is too difficult."

This pastor prefers to spend his time accusing our church of heresy and syncretism than to reach out to those who have yet to hear about Christ.  Very sad indeed.  


  1. I agree with you that contextualization doesn't necessarily lead to syncretism--and in fact many non-contextualized ministries/individuals are syncretistic in their beliefs despite rejecting cultural-religious forms of their backgrounds.

    With that being said, one of the struggles I have been having recently is to what extent does Paul's admonition to consider the weaker brother apply to this situation. 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 and Romans 14 bring about this theme. Those most opposed to contextualization tend to be those from the cultures we are trying to minister among who have come to faith through badly contextualized ministries. I wonder to what extent we should curtail our rights when considering the weaker brothers.

  2. I also think the conversation needs to change from 'contextualized and non-contextualized' or 'scales of contextualization' to good and bad contextualization.

    I even made the mistake above in the first paragraph when I wrote 'many non-contextualized...' Instead I should have written something like, 'many individuals and ministries that do not recognized their own context, or reject contextualization despite their own unconscious contextualization...'

    Because the truth is that whenever anyone tries to share the Gospel or act out their Christian faith they are in fact interpreters and contextualizers--they are putting their faith either in words or actions into a context--ie. contextualization. The important thing is recognizing the difference between people and ministries that do this well and those that fail to do this well. Those that are affirming of the context that they are in and those that are rejecting the context they are in.

  3. The weaker brother considerations are good things to ponder, but without the other side of that equation -- that is, where the weaker brother refrains from casting judgment on those who don't agree with him -- it is pretty difficult to operate. But nevertheless, it is something I try to bear in mind.

    I agree with you on the non-contextualized v. contextualized issue. I have made the same point elsewhere. Contextualization always happens. The variables are questions about intentionality, contextualization to what, etc. For this reason, I have taken up and been pushing the phrase "the pursuit of contextualization".

  4. Yeah, the Lausanne article title 'Highly contextualized' I think feeds into this unnecessary misunderstanding. Maybe it should be something like 'Thoughtfully contextualized,' 'Carefully contextualized,' or 'Intentionally contextualized.' Because highly is a measure word, and I think that everyone is contextualizing all the time, so people don't do it more or less, they simply do it well or badly.

  5. Anonymous3:07 PM

    Since assessing who a weaker brother is appears subjective, I have always applied those verses toward adopting a heart posture of patience and understanding with the body as a whole; teaming up and sacrificing what I can as the Spirit leads. I'm sure there are many that view those intentionally pursuing contextualization in ministry as weaker brothers.

    We're obviously not going to step down from shepherding the flocks we've been given to shepherd or advocate to a group that giving in to cultural cleansing (in the traditional sense of the word; see Bhutanization) is what you need to do to be Christians, but if we search there are always smaller sacrifices that will greatly bless our brothers and sisters who are incidental practitioners of contextualization. Working against tradition is always a process.

    It's when we stop searching for the battles we can give into for the "weaker brother's" benefit that we need to check ourselves.

    Along the same lines of how terrible it is to turn someone off to the gospel before they interact with it by being a poor communicator, it is terrible to harden someone's heart toward contextualization because we were a poor communicator. I've just recently grown aware of the cruciality of this and I wish it had been sooner. It is likely more important than "it is something that I try to bear in mind."

  6. Thank you, Anonymous, for your comments. Very insightful. Contact me through my email, I'd like to know who you are. Blessings! Cody

  7. Anonymous3:10 PM

    Do you think Jesus' incarnation as a (1st century) Jew was incidental to His incarnation as a human or did the Old Testament and the Messianic prophesies (as well as the Torah as the tutor to Messiah) prepare the way for Him? Was it perhaps not an accident that He was born as a Jew? To what extend should we still take account of His Jewish context instead of just looking at our own (Western) context and applying it to a new culture?

  8. Is this a different "Anonymous" or the same as before? Anyway, interesting question though I'm not sure what exactly you are driving at. Of course one cannot hold to any meaningful doctrine of the sovereignty of God and dismiss the historic fact and details of the incarnation as incidental.

    But, I'm afraid I do not know what your point is. In particular, please rephrase your final question as it is very unclear to me. What does it mean to "look at our own context and apply it to a new culture"?

    Also, do note that the audience of this blog is global so I'd suggest that you not assume that the Western context is "our own."