All Ministry is Contextualized

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This is the third post in our series Contextualization and the Gospel.

There is no such thing as an uncontextualized ministry.

Contextualization is the process of adapting a message, method, or ministry to a particular cultural context. As we discussed in our previous post, everyone has a culture and it affects everything we do. Because of this, everything we do in ministry will be adapted to a particular context. Sometimes contextualization will happen intentionally, other times it will simply be a result of everything we do being influenced by culture.

It is impossible for you to live your Christian life outside of cultural influences. You will live a contextualized life, either unknowingly to your own culture, or imperfectly as you seek to incarnate the gospel into another culture. Destino missional team leader Tom Allen refers to this as “Default vs. Design”.

Default vs. Design

Some ministries are contextualized by Design. They decode a particular context and intentionally decide to adapt the gospel message to make sense in that context. Good examples of this could include missionaries going overseas, churches planted to reach the creative class, or ethnic minority specific ministries.

Most ministries/churches, however, are contextualized by default. Since the leaders and members are influenced by their own culture (often unknowingly), they naturally contextualize the gospel and expressions of the kingdom into their own context. This is a good thing and a natural expression of the Gospel message (and what an overseas missionary hopes will happen eventually by the local believers). Examples of this would probably include most ministries, churches, or denominations in the world.

Contextualization is a Good Thing

For some reason many times when people think about contextualization in ministry they view it as a negative thing. They can think that there is one true Godly ministry that is the standard and all “contextualized” ministries are just a poor copy of that standard. While few people express this thought verbally, many act as if that perspective is true. There are at least two problems with viewing ministry this way.

Jesus Led a Contextualized Ministry

Think about it. When the God of the universe decided to save the world, He could have done it any way He wanted. If anyone could have lived an acultural (without a culture) or non-contextualized life, it was Jesus. But the way He deemed best was to contextualize Himself in the form of a human. Not an acultural human. A man. A Jewish man. From Galilee. From Nazareth. And He did such a good job of it that people never questioned whether He was human. That wasn’t up for debate. He was killed because He, being a man, claimed to be God.

If contextualization was bad, why did God view it as so critical to His plan to save the world?

Ethnocentrism in Ministry

The second problem that comes up when viewing contextualization as less than ideal is that it can border on ethnocentrism. This rarely happens intentionally, but it is a natural outflow of that perspective.

Okay. That was radical contextualization for others to contend with in other lands. However, as I thought about this, for me anyway, it became ominous and even suspicious that our own form of Christianity has been unthinkingly assumed to be the main balanced, Biblical, total, properly contextualized thing. Think about it. Do we need to know how to decontextualize our own Christianity before we can ever very successfully contextualize the Bible for somebody else? – Ralph Winter

The danger in viewing contextualization as a bad thing is that it often leads people to think that their own ministry is not contextualized. When someone starts to think this way, it changes how they related to other ministries that are “contextualized by design”. They can begin to say, “Our ministry is Biblical, yours is contextualized.” Which is not far from, “Our ministry is normal, yours is contextualized.” And the next logical step is, “Our ministry is normal. Yours is abnormal.”

This is where ethnocentrism can creep in among the most well-meaning believers (and yes, I used to think this way myself). Because we don’t recognize we have a culture, we fail to see that our own ministry is contextualized to our reality. Then when we call other ministries “contextualized” but fail to say the same thing about our own, we unintentionally are saying that ours is Biblical and the other ministry is not.

For Further Thought

  • This may be the first time you’ve ever though about the ministry or church you are in as being contextualized. What is your first reaction?
  • Do you view contextualization as a good thing or a bad thing? Why?
  • Is your ministry contextualized by default or design?
  • If you used to describe some ministries in your organization as “contextualized”, how would you update that terminology after reading this post?

photo courtesy: Jorge Quinteros

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Posted on September 10, 2012

About destinoeric

A white guy who believes Latinos will change the world, Destinoeric served with Destino from 2008-2013. You can read more of his posts here or on twitter.

2 Responses to All Ministry is Contextualized

  1. Laura Reynolds says:

    Thank you for this post! It reminds me to be intentional, rather than to just let things happen. To remember that we are reaching a context and culture, even if we don’t stop to notice.