(note: this is a continuation of the previous post.)

+The Process of Critical Contextualization

Where do we go from here? We cannot go back to noncontextualization with its ethnocentrism and cultural foreignness. Nor can we stay in more extreme forms of contextualization with their relativism and syncretism.” -Paul Hiebert

Here, I will borrow heavily on Paul Hiebert (he was my mentor’s mentor, an anthropologist, and he passed away recently; what I have read of his works so far is absolutely remarkable), specifically his article in Missiology called “Critical Contextualization” (you can click the link to read the full PDF of this article, which I highly recommend).

(Also, for fun, here’s the link for a more thorough and technical version of “Critical Contextualization” from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research as well as another Missiology article called The Flaw of the Excluded Middle, which I include just for fun because it’s a very insightful article and might prove applicable in some unique ways.)

Hiebert’s article at first glance might not appear to apply much. After all, it is a discussion about how to bring the gospel to new cultures who have never received it before. Moreover, it specifically looks at the culture of India and what to do with various specific rites or rituals. But a closer look reveals how closely related it is. (because I am a nerd: I think we’ll be using a little bit of cross-pollination here with the third face of innovation.)

Anyway, as critical contextualization is a process of a new culture examining the message of the gospel, the scriptures, and their lives and deciding what changes do or do not need to be made in their lives/culture in order to be mature followers of Jesus. It is a process of discernment done primarily by the nationals who are receiving the gospel rather than the missionary, so that they will own it more and mature as christians. Using the process, the nationals discern what to do with everything from burial rites to clothing to worship expressions and so on.

Well, of course we are not a culture that is new to the gospel. And lots of people have already done the discernment for us over the last few centuries, so we don’t have to do any discernment, right? Wrong! We have been conforming to this culture, we need to renew our minds. Hiebert calls for us to undergo the process of critical contextualization continuously. So that’s more than enough intro; now I’ll walk us through his article.

The question: “What should people do with their past customs when they become a christian?” In our case: what should we do with our current customs & forms in light of us being christians?

Historical Response 1: Reject the Old Culture Totally (In our case, reject the current culture totally). Missionaries totally rejected the nationals’ culture as contrary to the gospel, replacing it with Western culture. Here, Hiebert says, “An uncritical rejection of other cultures as pagan is generally tied to an uncritical acceptance of our own cultural expressions as biblical.” This is one of our great corporate sins. Currently, we have people who have created a pseudo-christian culture seen as biblical–often closely tied with such wonderful things as republican politics, spankings, and the God-given right to bear arms. Boom.

Historical Response 2: Accept the Old Culture Uncritically (or the current, in our case). Missionaries who deeply respected other peoples and cultures who did not want the foreignness of the gospel to be a stumbling block encouraged few if any changes when people became Christians. This opened the door to all sorts of syncretism (the mixing of multiple beliefs) so that people ended up with folk religion, a mixture of christian theology & practice with local, traditional theology & practice. Same thing we see today in the progressive church. Jesus is just an add-on, or a plug-in, to whatever else you think or believe or do. And in this way of thinking, you lose Jesus, who he really is and who he really calls us to be.

Historical Response 3: Deal with the Old Culture Critically (or, of course, the current one in our case). Here the missionaries helped the nationals go through a process of critical contextualization to discover through their own discernment what should be rejected, what could be accepted, what might need to be modified, and what might need to be created newly. This is what we need today in our culture, where christianity is often either a crazy, separatist ghetto or a congealed, syncretic folk philosophy. We need a re-indigenized gospel: “Indigenization is communicating the Gospel in ways the people understand, but in ways that challenge them in their personal and corporate lives with God’s call to discipleship” (289). Bam! (I like that quote).

So, here Hiebert gives steps for how to do critical contextualization with a particular issue or custom a group is considering. In our case we could use the same process to examine together our current church cultural, our rituals (even things such as how we shop or what kinds of entertainment we consume), our church forms (such as worship, liturgy, discipleship, etc), and our wider western culture.

Step 1: The people examine all the practices that make up the custom, discussing the meaning and function of each. It is important for the leader in this process to remain nonjudgmental, so that people will openly discuss their thoughts.

Step 2: The people study any related scriptures together, seeking to clearly understand and accept the biblical teachings. This might require some extra assistance if people are not used to a process of exegesis and hermeneutics.

Step 3: The people evaluate critically their own past customs in light of their new biblical understanding, and make a decision about what to do. The people make the decision, not the leader.

Here’s what they might decide to do:
-keep the old practices because they want to and do not find them unbiblical
-reject the old practices as unbecoming of christians
-modify old practices to give them a new meaning
-borrow new, different practices from some other group or culture
-add new rituals to give expression to their faith that are tied to biblical or historico-christian rituals
-create new symbols and practices to convey christian meanings

Hiebert also gives a few theological foundations for this process:
-Priesthood of believers: “decisions are made not by the leadership for the believers; they are made by involving all of the believers. Leaders throughout history have been threatened by this approach, for they believe themselves to have greater understanding than the laity.” This is an important foundation that we can trust in because: (1)the believers use scripture as an authority; (2)all the believers have the Holy Spirit, who we trust to guide them in the process (not just in theory but in practice); and (3) the church is a “discerning community”–none of this process is done in isolation, neither from other Christians nor other church bodies.
-Ongoing Process: we must always be discerning and testing our lives together with the help of the scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and each other. There will always be new questions that arise out of human culture.

Anyway, that’s the process. It’s pretty basic: look at the meaning of our practice, look into related scriptures together, and make a decision. But what if we blow it?!? Here’s a quote I will love forever from Hiebert: “But what about mistakes? Here the missionary and leader must allow the people the greatest privilege we all allow ourselves, namely the right to make mistakes. Much of what we all know theologically we have learned through failure and forgiveness.” !

I share all that mainly to say that I think an adaptive community could figure out how to be the church together using a similar process. We might look at our previous experience of churches (their forms, practices, beliefs, etc) and use this process of discernment to figure out what to do with that stuff. We might keep some things, throw some out, change some to have new meaning or elements, and create some new ones of our own. Furthermore, we would continue to share our lives together and to examine what it means for us to live faithfully to Jesus today using a similar process.

Using this process might help us to avoid the pitfalls our brethren have sometimes been ensnared in; instead we could enjoy life in that narrow space between the poles.

And this process is why I don’t really know what an adaptive community would look like; we would have to figure it out together. And I just think that would be swell.



Well, I invite you to share your own thoughts. What do you think christian community should look like? How do you think it’s formed? I’m open to rebuttals and discussion.

I know this all might be the lofty dreams of a naive young man, but in this case I would be quite happy to rest among the naive.

And if you made it all the way down here to the bottom, many props to you! Thanks for giving your time to read.

That leaves me with one final question:


So who will help me form an adaptive community?