Effectiveness does not define contextualization

Effectiveness does not define contextualization March 1, 2018

Over at Radius International, Sam Trumball rightly observes how people incorrectly define contextualization.

Public Domain

Trumball begins by stating,

Pinning down exactly what they mean by contextualization, however, often proves elusive. Usually, the answer involves ministry strategies developed by successful missionaries.[1] There are two reasons why previously successful strategies should not stand alone to define contextualization. First, strategy is only part of contextualization. Second, specific strategies should be developed only after language and culture have been learned.

I’d like to highlight and strengthen a particular point “previously successful strategies should not stand alone to define contextualization.”

“Success” versus contextualization

However, one small part of this sentence is problematic and needs adjustment. The phrase “not stand alone” implies too much. It might suggest that

(1) legitimate or healthy contextualization will be successful, and/or

(2) previously successful strategies are legitimate or healthy contextualizations

Various explanations exist for why a previous misson strategy might have worked. For instance, certain multiplication strategies that emphasize rapidity might actually exploit aspects of a culture. In a traditional heirarchial culture, locals might give the Western missionary undue respect. Given his perceived authority, people simply parrot his words.

Who knows whether the message or training is contextualized in some other way?  Yet, the apparant multiplication of groups could give the impression of success when in fact similar techniques could be used by cults.

We ought to assess the success of contextualization by other criteria.

Digging Deeper for a Definition

Although he does not go indepth when defining contextualization, his basic ideas are clear and seem sound.

Contextualization is all about making adjustments—adjustments from one way of looking, communicating, and explaining to another way of looking, communicating, and explaining. The challenge, of course, is to make those adjustments without obscuring or downgrading biblical truth. So how do we contextualize across multiple cultures and still communicate the one true gospel?

First, we contextualize our lifestyle to identify personally with the people we’re trying to reach….

Second, we contextualize our ministry methods to deliver biblical truth in ways our audience understands….

The above comments are standard. I have no definate objections.

For those who’ve read One Gospel or this blog, you might see the problem. He does not address the matter of interpretation, which is where all contextualization fundamentallt begins.

Contextualization cannot be defined merely in terms of communication or application. I suggest that contextualization refers to the process wherein people interpret, communicate, and apply the Bible within a particular cultural context. (OGFAN, 8)

Contextualization does not change the gospel. True. But it can change the people as they contextualize. Biblically faithful and culturally meaningful contextualization will help people to see things in the Bible that have always been there, yet those things were hidden from us due to our own cultural blindspots.

If we want our ministry to be effective, we should keep in mind a more robust view of contextualization.

To read Trumball’s post in full, click here.


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