SIM Position Paper
The term contextualization includes the ideas inherent in words like indigenization or enculturation. The term indigenization asks, "Who owns the program?" The term enculturation asks, "Does it fit the culture?" Contextualization combines those two thoughts and asks, "How do you transfer what God has said through 'holy men of old' who lived in an ancient cultural context, into the language of people who live in a very different one, through the medium of translators who live in yet another context--today's space age?" This tri-cultural obstacle is the most complex of all.
Accordingly, we define contextualization as "meaningful and appropriate cross-cultural transmission of Biblical truth which is faithful to its original intent and sensitive to culture."
There are several assumptions which lie behind our idea of appropriate contextualization:
1. Biblical truth is absolute and defines the essence of the gospel and the church. These truths cannot be compromised in any way.
2. There are, however, various legitimate ways in which these same truths can be expressed and applied in different cultures. These expressions and applications must be consistent with principles of Biblical interpretation.
3. As every culture contextualizes the gospel and church, missionaries come to new cultures already biased towards their own home culture. To transmit this would be theological imperialism. It leads to the confusion of the gospel and the planting of a foreign church.
4. A contextualized gospel and church which are faithful to Scripture and sensitive to culture must be worked out for each culture being entered. This insures that the issues which must be decided for someone to be converted are the core (and not subsidiary) issues. It allows flexibility in forms of expression which are meaningful to the new church within its culture.
5. A contextualized church will be better able to maintain its unity, sustain its purity, and witness to its own community. Having experienced the process of contextualization, it will be better equipped to transmit Biblical truth to other cultures. It may result in increased receptivity. If the process is not followed, artificial barriers may be erected and the converse of all the above may result.
Areas of Application
Contextualization should be applied to areas such as the following:
1. Dress, behavior and lifestyle of the missionary.
2. Types of development projects, which if inappropriate, might be interpreted as 'inducements' by the non-Christian community.
3. Language, including the Scripture translation, used in evangelism and worship.
4. Thought patterns and communication style as found in the new culture (e.g. story-telling or use of indigenous music).
5. Initial selection, sequence, and emphasis of certain aspects of the gospel relevant to any culture. (e.g. the different way the early apostles shared the gospel with Jews versus the way they shared it with Gentiles.)
6. Worship posture and expression in prayer, music or formal discourse, allowing for various forms. We need to be careful, however, that we do not overlook the delicate relationship between form and meaning. We should avoid inadvertently encouraging a form or practice which is perceived by the worshiper or his unconverted acquaintances as having a meaning which is in conflict with Biblical truth. (e.g. Certain kinds of music in African culture are related to evil practices. The posture of prayer may be much more significant for a Muslim than for a former Catholic.)
7. Discipling and training methods, keeping in mind the past experiences and future needs of new converts.
8. Church organization and government, allowing various forms.
NOTE: The process of contextualization should be perpetuated not only by example but through teaching as a discipline among misionaries and church leaders.
Problems with Contextualization
1. In the rush to contextualize some may attempt to lessen the demands of the gospel or sacrifice Biblical truth to make the gospel or church more acceptable. This may lead to syncretism.
Accordingly, we in SIM limit the use of contextualization to those means and methods which are in harmony with the Word of God, our final authority. Scripture must be the final judge of every culture.
2. Missionaries may not always understand the meaning behind forms which they either allow or disallow in the church.
Accordingly, the best ones to decide what is appropriate are well-taught believers who can speak to their own culture.
3. Some theologians, arguing that the method of interpretation used by evangelicals is often dictated by their cultural mind set, produce new theologies based on different hermeneutical systems--all in the name of contextualization (e.g. "Black Theology" or "Liberation Theology.")
We, however, define our hermeneutic as the grammatico-historical interpretation of Scripture, which states that the meaning of any Scripture is defined by the intent of the author, which in turn, can only be determined by the language he used and the historical context in which he wrote. Thus, while there can be only one meaning, there may be numerous applications.