Revised text of a lecture for the Grade 11 Bible class at Credo Christian High School, Langley, BC in 2007.
As most of you know, for the first few years of my ministry, I served as a missionary in Fort Babine, BC, north of Smithers. There were many difficult issues to work through as a missionary. One of these was the relationship between native culture and the Christian faith. There were some native Christians who said, for instance, that when you became a Christian you could no longer go to potlatch feasts. They said the potlatch was all tied up with native spirituality. Others said that potlatch feasts were okay for Christians or at least some potlatches were okay and others weren’t. These sorts of issues not only come up in Fort Babine – they come up all over the globe. In what follows, I want to look at this relationship between Christianity and culture.
I’m going to speak about something called contextualization. I know that’s a word you may not have heard of before. But if you ever doing any reading in the area of missions, you’ll soon come across it. It’s probably the subject that gets the most discussion by people who study mission.
So, what is contextualization? We can define it like this:
Contextualization is taking the gospel of Christ to a new context and finding appropriate and effective ways to communicate it so the people in that context can understand it best. It also includes developing a church life that is biblically faithful and culturally appropriate.
There is a lot there in that definition. But it can be boiled down to two things: communication and identity. First, when we bring the gospel to people from another culture, how can we effectively tell them about Christ? Second, there’s identity. How do people from another culture take the gospel and make it their own? What does accepting the gospel do to their cultural identity? When we take these two things together, we’re looking at the interaction between culture and faith, particularly a new faith that comes from outside the culture.
Before we go any further, we have to think for a few moments on the definitions of communication and culture. First, let’s define communication:
Communication is transmitting information that influences and/or informs the behaviour and thinking of other creatures.
We sometimes think communication is just a simple matter of using words to get something across to somebody else. But the reality is that communication is a very complicated thing. It’s not just about words. Whether we realize it or not, a lot of our communication is non-verbal. We send messages with our body language. When we communicate with one another, we also work with a shared understanding of what the world is like, or worldview. Coming from the same culture, we share the same understanding of the various social structures – so we know that talking to our parents or teachers is different than speaking to our friends and so on. Communication is a complicated thing. When we’re in our own culture, we can take it for granted. But when you go to another culture, if you want to be effective as a missionary, you have to be sensitive to the complexities of communication.
Culture is also complex. What is culture? There are dozens of definitions floating around. For our purposes, we can use this one:
Culture is the complex, dynamic whole of human existence which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs, and the resulting artifacts.
The two key words I want you to note there are complex and dynamic. Complex means it’s made up of many parts. Dynamic means it’s constantly changing. Someone once said that culture is like a lava lamp – very true.
So, it’s these two things that contextualization is concerned with: culture (identity) and communication. Up till now that sounds a bit abstract and theoretical, but we need to get a bit of background before we move into the more concrete side of things. Let’s do that now.
Sometimes in our churches collections will be taken for Middle East Reformed Fellowship (MERF). This is an organization that does mission work primarily among people in the Middle East who are Muslims, followers of Islam. Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of discussion among missionaries and mission scholars about missions to Muslims. The hot issue is contextualization. How can Christian missionaries effectively communicate the gospel to Muslims, people who have their own unique culture? What does it look like for a person with a Muslim background to become a Christian? To help in discussing and answering these questions, one missionary who goes by the name of John Travis (not his real name) came up with what he called the C-spectrum.
The C-spectrum gives a framework of different ways of being a so-called Muslim Background Believer (MBB) – this is related to the question of identity. The framework looks like this:
C1 refers to a traditional Western church that uses a language foreign to the people (English, for example). The people in this church are trying to be culturally Western and the believers there openly refer to themselves as Christians.
C2 is a traditional Western church using the language of the people (Arabic, for instance). The believers found here refer to themselves as Christians, but some of their language reflects their Muslim background. However, their most important religious vocabulary is definitely Christian.
C3 is used to describe churches that use the language of the people but also other cultural forms (music, dress, artwork, etc.) that these believers consider to be neutral. They still refer to themselves openly as Christians.
C4 is similar to C3. However, it includes more Islamic practices that are considered to be biblically permissible. For instance, C4 believers will pray with raised hands, avoid pork and alcohol and they will use more Islamic language. Also, C4 believers do not refer to themselves as Christians. Instead, they will say that they are followers of Isa the Messiah (Isa is the Arabic name of Jesus).
When we come to C5, we’re speaking about Messianic Muslims. Legally and socially, they remain within the Islamic community. Parts of Islamic theology that go against the Bible are rejected or reinterpreted if possible. Others in their community regard them as Muslims and they refer to themselves as Muslims who follow Isa the Messiah.
Finally, C6 refers to small communities of underground believers. They typically live under totalitarian governments in closed countries. For fear of persecution, they worship Christ entirely in secret. As opposed to C5 and the other groups, C6 MBBs are silent about their faith. They are regarded as Muslims by those around them and they simply identify themselves as Muslims without adding anything or qualifying that further.
The C-spectrum provides a helpful framework for debate and discussion about contextualization with Muslim background believers. Some believe that only C1 and C2 are valid forms of contextualization. Others say that C4 to C6 are equally valid. From this you can concretely see the kinds of issues that are at stake here.
If we bring those issues down to one main concern for those who take the Bible seriously, it is the matter of syncretism. Syncretism is what happens when two belief systems are brought together and then the resulting combined system is a dangerous compromise. With the example above of the C-Spectrum some people are concerned about mixing Christianity and Islam. If you want a clear example of syncretism, we could look at the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico. Roman Catholics around the world worship the Virgin Mary, but in Mexico and other places in Latin America it gets very extreme. This is because when the Roman Catholic Church came into Latin America, the native inhabitants had a pagan nature goddess named Cihuacoatl. The Roman Catholic Church replaced this pagan nature goddess with Mary, whom they call our Lady of Guadeloupe. This has taken place in other places in the world as well. The Roman Catholics have always very easily incorporated pagan elements into their worship. This is what we call syncretism and this is one of the biggest concerns when we discuss contextualization. We want to avoid syncretism because that means compromise and possibly losing the gospel message itself.