Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Primer on Contextualization

image Everyone is talking about contextualization these days.  So I thought I would post my notes from a fantastic lecture on the subject by Tim Keller.

I think everyone in ministry in any context should listen to this.  Well, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement, but I really think this short workshop is valuable. The audio is a breakout session he did at a conference in 2004.

Download the audio here.

Below are his three main points and some supporting ideas from those points. (He was reading from a handout which we don’t have and he jumped around a bit. So my outline below does not follow the audio.)

1. Contextualization is adapting your communication of the gospel by adopting some concepts, practices, and words of a particular culture that you consider to be appropriate vehicles.

  • Contextualization is a way of thinking about how Christianity looks a new culture, but also about rethinking how Christianity should look in your own.
  • Parts of all cultures have common grace in them. You should look for those things first.
  • We should be neither conservative nor liberal: a conservative is critical of all culture, but a liberal embraces all of culture.
  • Every culture has a worldview, they all ask: What is human? What is important? What is life? What are we supposed to be doing in this world?... etc. Cultures have a set of answers to those questions and that makes up a worldview. Christianity changes the set of answer to those questions.  [But it doesn’t change the questions. The key is to discover what questions are being asked. What, in your opinion, assumptions does the Islamic worldview make about how man relates to his Creator?  What are the questions Muslims are asking God?]
  • “Contextualization is not giving people what they want. It is giving God’s answers (which they probably do not want) to the questions they are asking and in forms they can comprehend.”

2. Contextualization is unavoidable. You have to do it. Everybody is embodying Christianity in a culture to a varying degree- accepting some parts of that culture and rejecting others.

  • There is no such thing as a universal, a-historical, de-contextualized form or expression of Christianity.
  • Every church is syncretistic to a varying degree. 
  • Whatever you think was old, original Christianity was adapted to a new culture. Every form of Christianity is somewhat contextualized. You always use part of the culture.
  • Jesus was a socially enculturated person. He was not just a general human. He was a Jewish male. You have to incarnate.
  • As soon as you choose a language, or even an illustration, you are contextualizing. There is no such thing as neutrality.
  • “No truth which human beings may articulate can ever be articulated in a culture-transcending way—but that does not mean that the truth thus articulated does not transcend culture.” –Carson

3. Once you realize that everyone is contextualizing, you know that everyone is drawing the line somewhere, you should be charitable with people who are drawing the line in a slightly different place because there will always be people to your right who say that you’re selling out the gospel.  [Amen- we need to be humble, irenic, and cautious.  The Bible is our guide.]

Download the audio and listen to the whole thing.

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