When you use the word “contextualization” most cross-cultural workers assume you are talking about theology. However, the foundational idea of contextualization applies more broadly than just to theology—it applies to the whole of the Christian faith. The ultimate goal of contextualization is to make the entirety of the Christian faith, including both the message and the way Christians live their faith out in local settings, enfleshed in a way that is understandable (and, insofar as it is possible, commendable) to the non-Christian people among whom that faith is lived out.
The current approach toward contextualization as limited to being a theological task is an appropriate foundation—but no more than a foundation. Contextualization must be at its core theological, but it must go beyond theology. In this brief article I will outline an approach to contextualization that includes theologizing but also incorporates all that the Christian faith is and all that following Christ calls us to do. I call this approach comprehensive contextualization.
Comprehensive contextualization is a seven-dimension approach drawn from religious scholar Ninian Smart’s model for understanding religions.1 The seven dimensions of comprehensive contextualization are (1) doctrinal, (2) mythic, (3) ethical, (4) social, (5) ritual, (6) supernatural experience and (7) artistic or material. We will explain each in turn.
1. The Doctrinal (Theological) Dimension
The doctrinal dimension refers to beliefs expressed in religious form.2 It is our attempt to answer questions such as, “How did the world come to exist?” and “What powers rule the world?” These beliefs are found in the Bible, and can be organized in a way that makes sense to a particular audience, whether through books, hymns, sermons, Bible studies and so on. This approach can be focused on a particular goal (liberation theologies) or around a particular set of practices (Pentecostal theologies). It may have a subset in mind (black theologies, feminist theologies) or try to be universal (Western systematic theologies). Although not always recognized as contextualized attempts at theologizing, that is precisely what each of these are.
2. The Mythic or Narrative Dimension
The second dimension is the mythic. In the broadest sense, myth refers to the stories of a culture that reflect how it thinks about the world. The way we are using the term should not be confused with the more popular idea of myths as stories that are untrue. Rather, myth in this sense is the power of the stories of a people to embody the things they cherish and value (as well as showing why some things are not valued). Typically, a society’s myths express that society’s ideals about several themes, including sacrifice, love, honor, power, wisdom and heroism.3 While in this sense the Bible can be seen as a “myth,” the reality is that it is the one absolute and true Myth on which all other myths are based and by which all others are judged. It is the reality; they are merely shadows.
There are three ways that we contextualize myth. The first is to find appropriate and powerful ways to explain the biblical story, exemplified by movies such as The Passion of the Christ. A second way is to create stories that are true to the spirit of the Bible and capture the cultural imagination, such as the C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. A third way is to critically analyze the myths of a local society and use the understanding this analysis provides to help more clearly communicate Christian truths in that society, as Don Richardson did in Peace Child.
3. The Ethical/Legal Dimension
While the doctrinal dimension focuses on what is true, the ethical dimension focuses on how people should live. This includes how we are to interact with other people and with the rest of God’s creation, and how society regulates behavior to prevent or stop people from behaving inappropriately.
Contextualizing the ethical dimension requires Christians to explore how to live out God’s goodness in wise ways in light of culture. We are to love God and neighbor under scriptural standards and apply those standards appropriately in our contexts.4 While this includes personal ethics, it also applies to the ethical systems found embedded in cultural systems. For example, when a society dehumanizes a sub-group in some way (e.g., the so-called “untouchables” in India), Christians must respond.
4. The Social or Organizational Dimension
The social dimension is seen in the ways Christians organize themselves in light of scripture and local cultural values. It includes the sense of “togetherness” that comes from participating in Christian rituals together (e.g., communion) but also includes all of the institutions within the Church and how they are organized and run. For example it includes such obvious things as church governance. However, it goes beyond this to include:
- all forms of church association (formal and informal, from children’s clubs to women’s guilds to denominations)
- the means they have to exchange goods and services (voluntary labor, offerings, church dinners)
- the enforcement of their ethical standards (church or denominational discipline)
- how knowledge is passed on from generation to generation (from formal education to informal conversations with a youth leader)
5. The Ritual Dimension
The ritual includes not just what we formally think of as ritual, but any repeated symbolic actions done in relation to Christian faith. This can range from formal Christian rituals such as baptism, communion, marriages and funerals to non-formal ritualistic activities, such as sermons, committee meetings, evangelistic outreaches and prayer meetings.
Rituals serve several purposes for Christians in every society. Rituals such as baptism and communion establish spiritual and social identity of the participants. Rituals such as marriage and ordination mark changes in social status of the participants. Rituals such as prayer meetings and funerals help people face crises in their lives, giving them stability and comfort in the midst of trials. Understanding how the rituals in a society work and how—or whether—they can be modified for use by local Christians is an important component of comprehensive contextualization.5
6. The (Supernatural) Experience Dimension
The dimension of supernatural experience takes into account the fact that in every society people encounter the supernatural, whether through dreams, visions, miraculous experiences, signs and wonders or other means. While many in the Western Church have followed the lead of Western culture and dismissed such encounters,6 the Majority World Church pays careful attention to them and acknowledges them as real and needing to be addressed.
This is a difficult area to contextualize, since they are less amenable to “control” than doctrine or rituals. Contextualization of this dimension should include at least three components:
- Local Christians must study the scriptures and develop biblically-based perspectives on them.
- Christians can then consider developing biblically-founded rituals that enable encounters with God through Christ (e.g., prayer services) as well as rituals that will help people who struggle with negative experiences (e.g., demonic expulsion).
- Those who follow Christ need to be given the freedom—and the language—to talk about their experiences and find Bible-centered and culturally-sensitive ways to handle them.
7. The Artistic or Material Dimension
Christians around the world express their values and ideals through artistic and material means. From church architecture that values the sermon (seen by the elevated pulpit facing the congregation) to sculptures that portray Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf to clothing that indicates status and authority, Christians regularly create and use imaginative ways to express thoughts, feelings and attitudes about their faith. A comprehensive approach to contextualization recognizes this as an essential element of the faith of a local body of believers and finds ways to enable them to express their artistic giftedness in Christ-honoring ways.
Comprehensive contextualization involves far more than just developing good theologies. It entails finding ways to enable the entire Christian faith to dwell in a local culture in ways that both affirm the cultural values that are congruent with scripture and judge the culture for values that cross scriptural boundaries. It is my dream that as we contextualize the whole of our faith across a multitude of cultural boundaries, the entire Church will be enriched by the gifts of faithful service and living found in the uncounted numbers of local communities in which Jesus is honored as Savior and Lord.
1. Smart, Ninian. 1996. Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs. Berkeley, California, USA: University of Californian Press.
2. Ibid, 10.
3. Ibid, 130-131.
4. Adeney, Bernard. 1995. Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press.
5. See Zahniser, A. H. Mathias. 1997. Symbol and Ceremony. Monrovia, California, USA: MARC.
6. Hiebert, Paul. 1982. “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.” Missiology: An International Review. 10:1 (January), 35-47.
(This article is adapted from a chapter in The Changing Face of World Missions. 2005. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker; and from the article “Contextualization that is Comprehensive” in Missiology: An International Review 34:2 [July 2006], 325-335.)