The How of Contextualization
We could go through other examples from the history of the church, but I want to move on to look at the how of contextualization. As we do this, we have to keep in mind that the issues contextualization addresses are unavoidable and inevitable for cross-cultural missionaries. When you’re not there and you’re disconnected from life in another culture, it is possible to ignore or minimize the importance of these issues. But the fact is missionaries want to communicate the gospel in a meaningful and effective way – that’s why they’re there! And the fact is that churches everywhere wrestle with a dual identity. On the one hand, they’re a community of citizens of the kingdom of heaven. But on the other hand, they’re people who have an earthly cultural heritage, they are citizens of earthly nations and kingdoms with all that entails. So, the issue here is not: should we do contextualization? The real issue and question here is: how should we do contextualization? Not “whether” but “how.”
This is a huge subject and I can only scratch the surface. I want to do that by introducing you to some of the work of a colleague and friend of mine from the Netherlands. His name is C.J. Haak. He teaches missiology at the seminary of our sister churches. Professor Haak has done a lot of studying and writing on this issue of contextualization.
He developed a model of contextualization that he summarizes with the word “metamorphosis.” Perhaps you recognize that word from science. It’s a Greek word made up of two parts. Meta – is a Greek preposition which indicates a change in something. Morphosis – refers to the shape or form of something. So “metamorphosis” refers to the change of a shape or form. In science, the most common example of metamorphosis is the change that happens as a pupa changes into a butterfly inside its cocoon. This word metamorphosis is also found in the Bible. It’s in the first two verses of Romans 12:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
The English words “be transformed” translates the Greek “metamorphosis” in that passage.
It’s this passage that Prof. Haak works with in developing his idea of what we need to do in contextualization. He says contextualization is basically the transformation of people by the renewing of their minds. Contextualization is leading people to think and act in new ways because of Christ’s work. This is his definition of metamorphosis:
Metamorphosis is the process of the forming of new, Christian thoughts, Christian mentality, and a Christian lifestyle as an implication of the gospel.
According to Prof. Haak, this process of metamorphosis first of all means becoming a good listener and a good observer. You have to listen to people from the other culture and observe very carefully what’s going on. A missionary also has to be a good student of the Scriptures. He has to have an intimate knowledge of the truths of the Bible.
Haak proposes to first take a number of universal issues (things that will always come up when interacting with any culture). These issues are: the worldview of the culture, how the culture views relations and classifications of things, how the culture regards the group and the individual person, time, space, causality (what makes things happen), and values. Working with each of those items, he proposes to reframe them, redirect them, and revitalize them. Since he was a missionary in Irian, in Indonesia, he gives an example working with that culture, what is broadly called Melanesian culture.
In the diagram, you can see how he works with the element of time. Melanesian culture has its own view of time. In the first column, “Reframing,” Prof. Haak shows first the framework of how time is viewed in that culture. Then further down, beside the “Yes,” he suggests how the Bible would restructure that framework. So, as in Hellenistic culture, the Melanesians believe time is cyclical. There is no beginning and no end. However, the Bible challenges that outlook and reframes it. Christians in Melanesian culture are going to have a different view, namely that there is a beginning and an end.
With the next column, “Redirecting,” Prof. Haak is addressing the direction these things take. In unbelieving Melanesian culture, time is considered to belong to people or to the clan. Time can then be freely wasted. However, when people become believers, the Word of God transforms their thinking. Time belongs to God; it is not directed man-ward, but God-ward.
Finally, under “Revitalizing,” we’re looking at how time functions in our thinking. In the old way of thinking, time is regarded as absolute and it is idolized. With the new way of thinking, time is something we can use keeping in mind that it is destined to pass away.
As I said, this is quite a complex subject and here we can just scratch the surface. I haven’t said anything about the role of the church and the confessions in this (Haak goes into that quite a bit). We haven’t touched on the more recent history of contextualization. We haven’t looked into how the missionary guides the process of contextualization. And there’s so much more. What I wanted to do is to simply give you a sense of the complexities involved here. The relationship between culture and faith, and the communication of the gospel to people from another culture – these are not easy things to work through. There are no simple answers here.
In conclusion, I want to leave you with one thought. We’ve talked here a lot about other cultures. But we have to be careful that we don’t assume that none of this is applicable to our own culture. The Word of God not only transforms and challenges other cultures, it also does that to our own. Here I’m not speaking so much about the broader Canadian culture. Here I’m speaking about our little Dutch immigrant sub-culture in the Canadian Reformed Churches. We also have our own ways of looking at all sorts of things. We may not realize it, but we are quite a bit different. That’s not always because we’re Christians, many times it’s because (with most of us) we’re the children and grandchildren of Dutch immigrants. We would be sadly mistaken to think that Dutch immigrant culture is equal to a Christian culture. There are many ways that the Word of God still challenges our culture. To help you in thinking about that, I would refer you to this article.