I am a little worried.

I believe in contextualisation. Oh yes, I do. Isn't the incarnation, the divine becoming human, the ultimate in contextualised activity? The Big-C is as necessary as it is unavoidable.

But still I am worried.

As I travel I am a little surprised at the appetite that there is for contextualisation. It has a huge profile. Not only is there plenty of talk about it, it is the subject where the pulse quickens and the adrenalin rushes. When it comes to missional effectiveness, this is where the hope seems to lie.

Here is a handful of anxieties which I feel...

1. When I train people to preach, I help them live in the content of what the text actually says for awhile. Draw near to it like a train approaching the Himalayas - 'stop, drop, stare' (O'Donnell). See all the detail. Be pedantic. Let the observations thrill you. Let the embryo of the sermon be born as you make space for the 'joy of discovery'. Then go deeper and wider. Live in the critical historical-literary-theological context ... and allow that 'restraining influence of context' (DA Carson) to bring accuracy to your study. As I look and listen to missional conversations, I do worry that the thrill and the joy lie more with the contextualisation of the gospel than with its content.

2. Whether it be grassroots training, or classroom training, I find people can overstate the uniqueness of their own context. In our grassroots work we have a session on  'making the connection'. Participants emerge from a game with the biggest contextual issues which they face in family, in church and in nation. While there are unique things on the lists, it interests me how many issues travel from country to country. In classroom work I am surprised how quickly some students are prepared to play the 'context card', shut down their learning apparatus, and affirm that a particular approach to teaching the Bible simply and clearly will not work, or is not relevant, in their context. As I look and listen, I do worry that people can become a bit precious (as we say back home in New Zealand) about their own cultural context.

3. Last week I watched some young kids perform a Michael Jackson song in an outdoor concert at a beach in Kochi. Last night, in Mysore, McDonalds was awash with young couples with heads in their smartphones, looking up every now and then for a selfie. I know there are those who are addressing it, but could I just slip my hand up and suggest quietly that the global contextual - and not just the local contextual - really does need a lot more attention? The uncritical acceptance of the globalised in popular culture hitched up to the staunch defense of the localised in the classroom could make for compelling conversation. As I look and listen, I do worry whether that conversation is happening often enough.

4. Where are the danger signs, the text running across the screen saying, Warning: syncretism is dangerous to your mission? Every conversation which contextualisation inhabits should be inhabited by syncretism as well. Every assignment that covers contextualisation should expect an appendix on what over-contextualisation, or syncretism, looks like for this topic (and include one on under-contextualisation as well!). It is that important. Bend over too far and you fall in. That is the picture. That is the principle. It is difficult to be the light of the world when you are covered in mud. Every cultural context should produce its equivalent of Marsha Witten's All is Forgiven and make it required reading for every theological student. As I look and listen, I do worry that 'becoming all things to all people to save some' might be, unintentionally, a license for syncretism.

5. Now a word to teachers and academics. Please come down from the excitement of your scholarship in your fifth floor study and incarnate yourself among your students on the ground floor. The same ol' foundations need to be laid for every generation of students. Don't become bored, or weary, with the fundamentals of the faith. Teach them with an enthusiasm and passion that will be transformative under God's hand. 'If it goes without saying it needs to be said'. If it isn't established in the core, it will slip to the periphery - and the periphery will soon take up residence in the core. As I look and listen, I do worry that fifth floors are being built without ground floors being in place first.

5+. Some months ago I posted an open letter to those besotted with relevance. The issues in this post are similar. As I said at the start - with the gospel, contextualisation is both necessary and unavoidable. I guess my anxiety lies with where our hope lies: might it be more with a contextualised gospel, than it is with a contextualised gospel?

nice chatting


NB: As regular readers know, my approach with this blog is simply to chat away. Quite intentionally, I choose not to read around a topic, or linger with wider research. But when I was looking for some imagery, I came across this picture from Tim Keller. I am not a missiologist, but I like it. Be assured. My anxieties evaporate if my looking and listening is always about blue becoming yellow, with no change to the triangle!


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