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Contextualization in North America?

In many places when I hear the word “contextualization” I’m left with the impression that people believe it should happen ‘over there’ rather than here in North America. We don’t need to contextualize here, right? The practice of contextualization is largely viewed as the work of missionaries, not local evangelists and church planters—unless they work among migrant populations.
This orientation, however, is emphatically flawed. It’s easy to see that we live in vastly different times than those in the New Testament.  We worship on comfortable seats in climate-controlled buildings owned by local congregations which you arrived at via car, truck, or bus. Imagine if you tried to plant a church that accurately reproduced congregations of the first-century—including clothing, bathing habits, mode of transportation and the like. You may say, “Of course, that would not work!” And, perhaps you would add, “But what does that have to do with contextualization?”

Everything! None of our churches today accurately offer an experience of a worship service that fits the church at the time of the New Testament. All of them, instead, offer worship experiences that are founded on societal and cultural practices as well as values blended with selected (and selectively interpreted) elements of biblical values. This goes beyond our worship services; it affects everything the church does.
Every church in the world is some mixture of both culture and Scripture—and is, therefore, a contextual “product.” This simple fact needs to be at the forefront of our thinking, not hidden or ignored. To start us thinking more deeply about this question, it will help to see our churches through seven different lenses—or dimensions—in which contextualization takes place.

  • The social dimension is essentially how we form, organize, and lead groups. It includes such things as education (discipleship), leadership values and practices, and the types of “capital” we generate and exchange with each other.
  • The mythic dimension refers to the stories we tell, from the stories told in Sunday School about biblical characters to stories about heroes of our faith. For example, at Wheaton, after Billy Graham’s departure, we heard, wrote, and shared stories of his effectiveness, his faithfulness, and his tenacity to pursue God over multiple decades of very public ministry.
  • The experience dimension refers to our personal connections with God through supernatural experiences. Do we suppress them, encourage them, or even demand them?
  • The artistic dimension includes all the areas we normally think of as “art”—from artistic products (church architecture, statues, paintings, videos) to performance art (drama, singing, sermons). How do we use various forms of art to draw people in, to challenge them and to encourage them?
  • The ritual dimension is one that many evangelicals have tended to reject—and yet God has made us as ritualistic creatures (we see images of ritual in heaven). Even when we try to ignore them we participate in them (our worship services are weekly rituals).
  • The ethical dimension is concerned with the “should” of life. How should we live? What should we do? The Ten Commandments fit this dimension as well as the often unwritten commandments found in local churches. All of us bring into our churches ethical concerns on the personal level, and evangelicals have awakened more recently that ethical concerns on a societal level cannot be ignored.
  • The doctrinal dimension is the final one and is concerned with what is true. God exists. He loves all people. People are separated from him. Christ died for our sin. We take these for granted, but often have a host of historical teachings which are passed on from one generation to another.

If you would like to learn more about these dimensions and see examples of each from around the globe, then look for my upcoming book Contextualizing the Faith: A Holistic Approach  (Baker Academic) due out in November.