Missionary in my own land

Anyone who has traveled and lived outside of the United States for an extended time is familiar with the term culture shock. Culture shock is a complete disorientation to the new world around you. All the standard cues and social signposts and norms that guide individuals in their daily interactions with the world around them and with others, are no longer present. All of our accustomed sensory perceptions are thrown to the wind. We have nothing familiar to orient us to the new world in which we find ourselves. An individual passes through many stressful periods and emotional ups and downs until slowly s/he gets acclimated to the new environment and learns how to navigate the new waters. For this reason many companies that have employees working in different parts of the world, provide cultural orientation programs for the employees and their families prior to them assuming their new overseas positions.

It is to be expected then that new immigrants to this country would experience culture shock. What of the priest, deacon or minister who is in service to them in the United States? True, these ministers are in their own country, but once they enter into the Hispanic subculture, they are at a total disadvantage. They too, experience culture shock. The standard Anglo-American norms that s/he is used to are no longer perceivable. The language, food, sights, smells, social gestures, music and even clothing are different, not to mention popular religious observances. Suddenly the clergy person finds himself or herself struggling to balance what he or she knows to be true based on Anglo-American norms with things that are norms within a separate cultural context. There is a strong tendency to recur to the attitude that, “well, that’s how we do it here in the U.S.”, “you’re here so YOU have to adapt”. These are fair, typical and even acceptable social responses, but not the right ones for pastoral ministry. The clergy person literally straddles between two worlds, at least initially. The pressure is intense. When one is living in a foreign country, adapting to new attitudes and methods is expected. When one is living in one’s own country, it can be very difficult to step out of that world. It takes a lot of conscious effort. Adding to the stress is the composition of the immigrant group itself. Some are new arrivals, some have been here a while and some have been born in the United States. Each group operates under a different social norm. The clergy person trying to juggle all these realities can feel overwhelmed and most definitely inadequate. Fear not. For those seriously committed to God’s work within a Hispanic context, this anxiety will resolve itself and you will settle into your new role(s). How? You will accomplish this through contextual theology and by becoming one with the community you serve. It is not the intent of this document to provide a deep academic or anthropological discourse on the development, practices, merits and deficiencies of contextual theology. Moreover, the discussion here will provide a brief overview of contextualization and then address its New Testament praxis.

Contextualization or Contextual Theology simply stated is preaching the Gospel and making it relevant to a group of people relative to their cultural context and world view. It is applying the Gospel to culture. God’s message is universal but the ears that hear it are not. Stephen Bevans, SVD in his lecture on contextual theology to the Church Mission Society in Oxford, England states: “…contextual theology is a way of doing theology that takes into account, or we could say puts in a mutually critical dialogue, two realities. The first of these is the experience of the past, recorded in Scripture and preserved and defended in the church’s tradition. The second is the experience of the present or a particular context, which consists of one or more of at least four elements: personal or communal experience, “secular” or “religious” culture, social location, and social change.”1 Stated another way, “Also known as “enculturation,” contextual theology refers to the manner in which the church in every age tends to adapt its teachings to the culture in which it finds itself.”2

Since the term first appeared in 1971, theologians, academics, clergy, and missionaries have been trying to accurately define the concept and establish norms for its application in evangelization. David Hubbard, Fuller Theological Seminary’s former president, once expressed, “no word in the Christian lexicon is as fraught with difficulty, danger and opportunity as contextualization.”3 Our own cultural biases and world views color any attempt to define contextualization and therefore its methodology and implementation. We can end up doing the right things for the wrong reasons or the wrong things for the right reasons! That danger does not preclude us from the responsibility of kerygma that Christ passed on to the church and to all its baptized disciples. The word context, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, comes from the Latin term contextus, meaning a connection of words, and from contexere meaning to weave together. The question is, how do we evangelize in a contextual way so that we weave God’s message into the fabric of the people and not just pin it to their culture?

Several methods, techniques or approaches have been and continue to be developed to assist in successful contextualized evangelization. No single methodology is better than another. Everything is relative to the situation although there are common elements. Let’s first talk about the “scientific” models proposed by Stephen Bevans in his book Models of Contextual Theology (Faith and Culture Series). They are as follows: translational, anthropological, praxis, synthetic, transcendental and countercultural.4 In this 2002 edition of his book, he added the countercultural model, a sign of the continuing efforts to look for ways to better evangelize in today’s world. Each model is suited for different types of ministries and ministers and takes into account notable figures in the field.5

Method Minister / Ministry Notables 6
Translational Pastoral and Narrative Minister Hesselgrave, Pope John Paul II
Anthropological Pastoral Minister and Chaplains Robert E. Hood, Vincent J. Donovan
Praxis Pastoral and Educational Ministers Douglas J. Hall, Asian Feminist Theologians
Synthetic Community Service Youth Ministers and Missioners Kosuke Koyama, Jose M. De Mesa
Transcendental Ministers involved in multicultural ministry Sallie McFague, Justo L. Gonzalez
Countercultural Peace and Justice Advocates Lesslie Newbigin, Darrell Guder, Michael J. Baxter

Translational Model

As any professional translator knows, not everything can be translated from one language into another because the concept for the term simply does not exist or its closest meaning falls short in conveying the intended idea. Some ideas translate exactly and others do not. This model of contextualization seeks to take the meaning of the Gospel and make it real to a group of people using words, phrases, idioms etc. from their own language. This incorporates the Gospel ideals with the experience of people.

Anthropological Model

This model uses the anthropological understanding of culture, that being, the way in which a group of people seeks to understand and express meaning in the world around them. This model uses the culture to its advantage to seek ways to infuse the Gospel message.

Praxis Model

This is a very intense model in that it requires the group to go through a five-step analysis of its experience in the light of critical reflection. The desired outcome is a disposition to a new understanding that leads to a transformation in daily living.

Synthetic Model

In this approach the light of the Gospel and the culture is shined on each other bringing new insights into the culture about itself and the Gospel. The culture is enlightened but remains unchanged.

Transcendental Model

The key to this model is the idea that human reasoning and thinking are universal and above cultural confinement and even biblical content. This model leads people to use that same thinking process to transcend culture and the content of the Bible to find a better understanding of existence and experience. Ultimately they will give appropriate expression of the Gospel message in their particular cultural.

Countercultural Model

This is the “shock and awe” approach to evangelization. It uses techniques that portray Jesus and his message as far above anything the culture has to offer. The goal is to change culture with the new values but not in a confrontational way. Being countercultural in this application means being above the culture and effectuating change through the inherent Gospel power.

Charles Van Engen, in the book, The Good News of the Kingdom: Mission Theology for the Third Millennium (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993) provides information on additional methods that others have proposed. These methods can be grouped into two categories, methods employing “from above” theology and those using “from below” theology. The first method employed in the “from above” category is one in which the tradition of the church is primordial and the connector between the church’s mission and the Bible. This method promotes ecclesiocentrism where the goal is not so much evangelization but rather the growth of the church denomination.

The second “from above” method derives its authority from Scripture and interprets Scripture through the individual goals of the church. This method is counterproductive because it denies the Gospel the opportunity to interrelate with the contextualized mission. To this degree, the mission is cutoff from any of the benefits that Scripture could bring to bear.

The final two methods that fall into the “from below” class are used by both members of the World Council of Churches post Second World War and evangelical missions. These groups set their individual church agendas for mission and then seek to support and validate and accredit their agendas through the Bible. With respect to these approaches, Richard B. Pease states, “Though theology “from above” may result in irrelevance, theology “from below” carries the risk of the Church losing all sense of its prophetic role, along with being salt and light.”7

2 Timothy reminds us that all Scripture is inspired and good for teaching. Therefore, the goal of contextualization is to allow the people being evangelized to be transformed by the Word of God. The job of the missionary or evangelizer is to serve as a facilitator to bring awareness to the group so they can open themselves up to the Spirit. The ways we accomplish this or the models of contextualization that are employed are varied as we have seen There are, however, some guiding principles to the contextualization process outlined by Daniel Sanchez, that are summarized here.8

1. Scripture has the final word in the process of contextualization. All of culture must be viewed and evaluated through the lens of Scripture

2. The integrity of all gospel elements that transcend culture must be maintained.

3. Any changes brought about in theologizing, church structure or methods of evangelization must be through local leadership’s guidance.

4. Theological postulations that may be developed must be validated against dogma and coherent with the general Christian community to avoid the possibility of error and/or syncretism.

5. There should be no mixing of theology, i.e. syncretism

6. Humility and forbearance must be practiced by all.

7. Proper analytical tools must be employed in the socio-cultural evaluation.

8. The model of contextualization should treat the socio-cultural and Scriptural contexts equally.

Evangelization that is properly contextualized opens the doors for a Spirit- infused culture. The experience allows the culture and its people to grow in fullness to be better represented and realized. Darrell Whiteman, professor of cultural anthropology relates this story:

“Last year one of our students at Asbury Seminary, studying with us from Thailand, said to me, “Now that I have been studying contextualization and have discovered how the Gospel relates to culture, I am realizing that I can be both Christian and Thai.” On a recent sabbatical in Southeast Asia, I probed the question of how the Gospel was being proclaimed and lived out in a contextualized manner, and, frankly, I was disappointed. In Thailand I heard over and over again, “To be Thai is to be Buddhist.” The notion that one could be both Thai and Christian was an oxymoron to many. My student at Asbury went on to confide, “It always seemed strange to me that after I converted to Christianity out of Buddhism, I became so aggressive and felt forced to turn my back on my Buddhist family and denounce my culture. Now I realize through the insights of contextualization that I can practice a cherished value of meekness, affirm much of my Thai culture, and follow Jesus in the Thai way.””9

Prof. Whiteman’s student was a product of contextualization that functioned correctly and brought about the hoped-for results. Effectively managed, contextualization will do three things:

1. It will present the Gospel message in such a way that is culturally recognizable and acceptable to such an extent that a person’s inner-most spiritual needs will be met. People become better people, because of Gospel values and still remain totally within their cultural paradigm. We see a concrete example of this is Act 15. As the Gospel message spread, Gentiles became Christians without losing their Hellenistic identity. They did not have to become Jewish, culturally speaking, by adhering to the Jewish laws and customs.

2. Done properly, contextualization will offend the listener. The offense taken will not be because the contextualization goes against the cultural norm (although it may) but because it sheds light on sinful behavior within their culture. Minds are changed.

3. Reciprocity. A truly effective contextualized Gospel will not only enhance the culture but in turn the renewed culture will enhance the church at large. In effect, both will learn from each other things they didn’t know they didn’t know. Hidden treasures within themselves and their cultures will be discovered.

Whiteman accurately states, “One of the things we admire most about the Gospel is its ability to speak within the worldview of every culture. To me, this feature is the empirical proof of the Gospel’s authenticity.”10 The church has been multi-cultural from its very beginning. Throughout its long history the church has gone through the growing pains of finding itself and coming to an understanding of the grace and blessing that our multi-cultured world is. Each culture contains and reveals a small part of the eternal expression of God. In evangelizing others we continue to evangelize ourselves and jointly draw closer to the source of our being. It is by means of contextualization that the church in the 21st century will have the exciting opportunity to have a renewed look in the mirror.

With all the great strides in the area of contextual theology, it behooves us to take a step back and consider the time when it all began. Because being missional is inherent in the nature of the church, evangelization is inherently contextual because of the nature of its origin. Jesus was the first and greatest contextualizer. “So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.” (John 1:14 NLT). When Christ took on the form of a human, he had one of the most contextualizing jobs ever. He was contextualization personified. In his divinity, he understood humanity. In his humanity, he shared his divinity. Most children of immigrants that come to the United States at a young age learn to become fully bicultural as well as bilingual. They can cross the ethnic divide between Anglos and Hispanics with ease. They, like Paul can become all things to all people (1 Cor.).


1. Bevans, Stephen. “What Has Contextual Theology to Offer to the Church of the 21st Century?.” Church Mission Society. CMS (2390). 9 Accessed March 29, 2013. http://www.cms-uk.org/DesktopModules/Bring2mind/DMX/Download.aspx?DMXModule=410&Command=Core_Download&language=en-US&EntryId=2390&PortalId=2&TabId=81.

2. Got Questions.org. “What is Contextual Theology.” Accessed April 12, 2013. http://www.gotquestions.org/contextual-theology.html#ixzz2OyQhu55S.

3. Gilliland, Dean S., ed. The Word Among Us: Contextualizing Theology for Mission Today. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1989. viii
4. Bevans, Stephen B. Models of Contextual Theology Faith and Culture Series. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002

5 Uniting Church in Australia. “Understanding Approaches to Ministry for a Missional Church.” 4-5 Accessed April 12, 2013. http://wr.victas.uca.org.au/assets/141/Approaches_to_Ministry4.pdf

6. MacLeod, Duncan. PostKiwi Blog. Accessed April 14, 2013. http://www.postkiwi.com/2004/stevan-bevans-on-contextual-theology-models/.

7. Pease, Richard B. “Contextualization: The Continuing Search for Relevance.” edited by Kenneth N. Foster, N.p.: Academic Alliance Review, 1999. Accessed March 14, 2013. http://www.kneillfoster.com/aar/1999/AAR1999-6.php.

8.Sanchez, Daniel. “Contextualization and the Missionary Endeavor”.” InMissiology: An Introduction to the Foundation, History, and Strategies of World Missions, edited by John M. Terry, Ebbie Smith, and Justice Anderson, 318-33. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1998

9. Whiteman, Darrell L. “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge.” Seattle Pacific University. Accessed March 15, 2013. http://www.spu.edu/temp/denuol/context.htm

10. Ibid.

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