The issue of “contextualization” has been intensely discussed and debated. Throughout the many discussions I have had, listened in on, and read, I have found some legitimate differences in perspective, but also some pretty serious misunderstandings concerning the nature of contextualization. The place to start in this conversation is with an understanding of culture. So, let me start with a bit of a personal journey.
What is Culture and Why Does it Matter?
I planted my first church in 1988 in the inner city of Buffalo, New York. I was planting a church way before church planting was an “in” thing to do. When I would tell people I was planting a church, they would look at me with a blank stare and ask if I was planting because couldn’t get a “real job.” I was 21 years of age. I didn’t know anything about church planting. I graduated from college with a degree in biology and chemistry, and I went to the inner-city, multi-racial, urban poor people of Buffalo and just started knocking on doors and telling people about Jesus. I wore a suit and a tie and occasionally carried my Bible door-to-door. I might as well have ridden a bicycle and worn a backpack and said I was with the Mormons.
God was so gracious and patient with me as a young man who didn’t yet have a good grasp on how to approach the culture He had sent me into, and by His grace we were able to plant a church. But it was so hard. It took us years to grow the church to a place where it could be self-sufficient and self-supporting. I believed in church planting, but I knew I needed to become effective in making the gospel known and developing the church in areas where churches were desperately needed. Around that time, there was a pastor in California who was getting a lot of attention for his strategy and effectiveness in making disciples. He was part of my tribe, so I started communicating with this guy, Rick Warren.
Rick and I continued these conversations until I was finally able to get to a conference out in California. While there I started to understand the importance of understanding culture. Regrettably, I concluded that the key to culturally relevant church planting was in Hawaiian shirts and shoes without socks. So when I was going to plant my second church in Erie, Pennsylvania, a city that is part of the snow belt that gets about least ten feet of snow each year, I showed up as a culturally relevant church planter wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shoes without socks. I found out very quickly that Warren’s cultural relevance didn’t connect with my culture. (And, to be fair, I should add that Warren does not wear Hawaiian shirts anymore… and I did not when I preached there last fall– even though I was tempted!)
Over time, it became clear to me that we need to not only understand that culture matters, but that the particular culture we are in must be properly understood so we can best preach the gospel, make disciples, and function as the church. I learned that as a pastor, then studied it more in my Ph.D. work (intentionally doing my Ph.D. in missiology to explore these issues), and then in my writing. So, I am passionate about this issue.
Let’s first define culture.
What is culture?
There is a lot of talk about culture, but not always much clarity about what it really is. People shout about culture, but we have to think discerningly about what it is and how we engage culture. Harvie M. Conn has a helpful article in the Evangelical Dictionary of Missions. There he says,
We use the term “culture” to refer to the common ideas, feelings, and values that guide community and personal behavior, that organize and regulate what the group thinks, feels, and does about God, the world, and humanity. It explains why the Sawi people of Irian Jaya regard betrayal as a virtue, while the American sees it as a vice. It undergirds the Korean horror at the idea of Westerners’ placing their elderly parents in retirement homes, and Western horror at the idea of the Korean veneration of their ancestors. It is the climate of opinion that encourages an Eskimo to share his wife with a guest and hides the wife of an Iranian fundamentalist Muslim in a body-length veil. The closest New Testament approximation for culture is kosmos (world), but only when it refers to language-bound, organized human life (1 Cor. 14:10) or the sin-contaminated system of values, traditions, and social structures of which we are a part (John 17:11).
What this means is that “culture” itself is not evil, but a composite of good and evil (as understood biblically) values and vocations, customs and creations, beliefs and behaviors that characterize a particular people in a particular place. In any given culture we can find both the Imago Dei and idols, because all people are made in God’s image and reflect that reality in some ways, but all people are also sinners who exalt other gods while rejecting the Lord. Some parts of a culture can be considered good, while others must be seen as corrupt. Those who say we should not “engage the culture,” are using the word “culture” in a way that evangelical missiologists do not use the term.
Why Does Culture Matter?
Through my experiences in church planting in Buffalo and Erie, I learned an important lesson in church planting– a mistake that unfortunately is made all too often today. Too many church planters plant in their heads and not in their communities. This happens in two ways. Some are Bible-only types, and others are model-inspired– and both make the same mistake of ignoring their culture.
It is easy to develop a solid, theological grasp on the essential components of the church, and the nature of the gospel without understanding the ways in which a biblically-defined church will look and function in differing cultural contexts. The Bible-only folks are convinced they only need to know Scripture in order to reach the people in a given community. I think we all need more scriptural fidelity, but unless they can also exegete the culture they will be ill-equipped to identify idols and understand the ways in which sin has brought ruin to the community.
Others see an effective model of church flourish in one context and believe they only need to replicate that in order to reach the people in their context. They too avoid the hard work of studying their culture, and instead seek to import the work and conclusions drawn from a different context. Both types are hard at work primarily planting and leading in their head instead of their communities. This is bad missiology that disregards the importance of knowing and engaging culture.
More on contextualization coming soon. I’ve also written Exegete Your Culture, free to download.