|Photo by By Express Monorail
I didn't realize that there was a Desiring God / Passion Conference going on. I see it getting all hashtagged on Twitter and a couple quotes are getting a bit annoying. In particular:
"The power is not in contextualization; it's in the Gospel" (being attributed to Jason Meyer)
"Do you fear over-contextualization or under-contextualization? This is the missionary tension you will always be in." (being attributed to Darrin Patrick)
I find both of these statements to be kind of silly. As for the first, is Meyer suggesting that there are people who believe that the power of salvation is actually located in contextualization? And, if so, what the heck would that actually mean? For contextualization to exist as a process, it must have an object. One cannot contextualize nothing. That is, when speaking of contextualization, one must inquire as to what exactly is being contextualized. In this case, we’re talking about the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel, any Christian must confess, is the power of God unto salvation for anyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). But this gospel, in order for it to be proclaimed, heard and then believed, must be contextualized. Always! This is simply not avoidable. Even something as simple as telling the story of Jesus in English is a form of contextualization (good contextualization if the hearer understands English, bad if he/she does not). Show me a person who thinks they can share the gospel without contextualization and I’ll show you a person who doesn’t understand what in the world they are talking about.
Which brings us to the second statement, attributed to Patrick, about this idea of something he calls “over- contextualization.” I know that Patrick likes to talk about this “tension” and has done so before. But again, this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about the concept of contextualization. What Patrick is talking about is actually called accommodation, which is an older missiological concept based on the question, “How much can we accommodate the prevailing culture without compromising the integrity of our faith and the gospel message?” This is a fine question, to be sure. Indeed, it is the question that a lot of people should be wrestling with. But, it isn’t contextualization. Contextualization is a later concept that asks rather, “How can we bring the person and message of the Lord Jesus Christ fully to bear inside a given cultural context?” Contextualization, from a Christian standpoint, is rooted in the Incarnation and is aimed at enfleshing the risen Son of God among every people, nation, tribe and tongue through the witness of His Church. Thus, faithful contextualization is as insider as Jesus the Jew and as prophetic as Jesus the Messiah. When Patrick suggests the dangers of “over-contextualization” he implies that too much of it is sometimes done. Does he actually think that too much of the gospel is being brought to bear on a given context? Well, surely this isn’t what he means. I think what Patrick is saying is actually that too little of the gospel is being brought to bear – i.e. under-contextualization and over-accommodation.
Anyway, the terminology is critical because those of us who intentionally pursue contextualization and adopt an insider trajectory are not usually doing so because we want to be people-pleasers who don’t ruffle feathers. And these little potent conference quotables too often become little sticks for the uniformed and unreflective to pummel us with. I can personally testify that great harm and hindrance can be the result. What the Church ought to be saying is, “We affirm the heart and soul behind insider movement trajectory and contextualization! May we bring the Lord Jesus fully to bear within every cultural context that exists!” And then, once that is settled, we should have a million prayerful conversations about a million specific forms, rituals, cultural expressions, language and more.