Contextualization and God’s Global Mission

Montréal, like most cities in the world,
contains many subcultures—all of which
need to be infiltrated with the gospel.

It always struck me funny that classical philosophers and theologians began their writings with a prologue, which in Greek is called a prolegomenon. Pro expresses what comes first and legein means “to say.” Therefore, a prolegomenon is a formal, critical introduction to a lengthy text. Why one needs to say something before one says it was a question I asked for years. I have come to understand the usefulness of such an approach!

For a number of years, I have been inviting students, audiences and readers to join me on the 19-kilometre trip that I make every day from my home in the inner suburbs of Montréal (Canada) to my office downtown. It provides a prolegomenon to the themes that inform this article. The themes include the social context in which we live our daily lives and our common ecclesial traditions rooted in the Bible, Christian history and theology.

But this article is also about reflecting on the mission of God. Systematic theologians warn us that too much emphasis on social context threatens to reduce the universal truth of scripture. On the other hand, church planters and evangelists warn us that too much theology often seeks to disguise itself as a universal truth-claim and takes us away from the real work of the gospel in particular contexts. I believe that contextual theology done in the framework of biblical theology seeks to situate itself between these two ends of the spectrum while heeding the warnings of the two. God is Alpha and Omega; however, Jesus became a first-century Jew and lived and laboured primarily in the cities of Palestine in the era of second temple Judaism.1 We will return to this very issue at the conclusion of this article.

In the homes on my street, I can hear several different languages, symbolizing a diverse array of cultures. What was once a former European immigration has now shifted to a truly global movement.

In many ways, my journey resembles the trip that you, the reader, would make through your context. I walk out the door of my home into an amazingly cosmopolitan neighbourhood called Chomedey, which is part of the Census Metropolitan Area of Montréal. In the homes on my street, I can hear several different languages, symbolizing a diverse array of cultures. What was once a former European immigration has now shifted to a truly global movement. When I first began thinking about my neighbourhood I was struck by the linguistic plurality. Today, the “Islamisation” of Chomedey is very real. As I stride toward the bus stop, I pass the only Protestant Church and then cut through the parking lot of the Roman Catholic parish. Thirty years ago, both churches were full for weekend services. The United Church had a Sunday school that taught over two hundred children. The exodus of Anglophones from Montréal has decimated the congregation. Today, forty people gather on Sunday for worship. The Roman Catholic parish once celebrated forty-five masses each week. Last year, they sold the parish to an immigrant Orthodox church.

These remarkable religious changes remind me that my neighbours are much more concerned with their own pursuits and the development of a personal value system rather than that offered by ecclesiastical structures. All things religious have been marginalized in Montréal.

Montréal at night. Understanding the mission of God in our
megacities is complex, yet crucial.

A 12-minute bus ride takes me to the Metro (the subway) where I now enter another world, the metropolis of Montréal. It is one of the largest French-speaking cities in the world and the hub of a social transformation, better known as the Quiet Revolution that has altered the very face of Quebec.

The subway takes me into the heart of the city, but through several different “Montréals.” I pass under student Montréal, which includes four major universities and fifteen community colleges. Montréal has the most students per capita of any city in North America. The population of student Montréal, isolated by itself, would make it the thirteenth largest city in Canada.

Montréal is also a hurting city, with hundreds of AIDS victims, 238,000 people on the welfare rolls and, according to the Ministry of Justice, some nine thousand adolescent prostitutes. Harvest Montréal, the organization that orchestrates food distribution among the poor, gives out thirty-five tons of food a day to 150,000 people a week. In the east end of the city, because of the poor economic state of the residents, it pays for ninety percent of all pharmaceutical prescriptions. My Metro companions seem oblivious to these realities.

As we swing through parts of ethnic Montreal, I am reminded that the 200,000 elementary and secondary students in the five school boards of Montréal represent 192 countries.

At the McGill Metro stop, I am literally pushed out of the Metro car. Some 750,000 people call this home throughout the working week. This is business Montréal. The Census Metropolitan Area generates seventy-six percent of the entire Québec economy.

Several years ago, I began an interesting exercise with my students in a course I teach on urban ministry. The class begins by visiting a rather large ethnic grocery store, Inter-Marché, that is about a kilometre from the faculty building. The store has a huge inventory of foods from several different countries, arranged in aisles that represent the continents. Haitian food covers one third of the Caribbean aisle. Forty-five different flags hang from the ceiling, all contributed by the customers of the store. Inter-Marché is a success because the owner realized Montréal is changing and his store better adapt to new realities. He does a booming business.

In the same neighbourhood we also visit a church building. They read the English-only sign: “We worship God every Sunday at 11 AM.” It does not take great teaching skill to lead the discussion that evening on the nature of pastoral leadership in a changing situation. They suddenly want to know how to “exegete the neighbourhood,” much like they have learned to study a biblical text. I remind them, “We are not taking enough time to think biblically so as to act contextually.”

Some Critical Terms
Missiology is the exegetical, theological and cultural study about the mission of God in the world and the ensuing mission of the Church. For that reason, it is often defined as an inter-disciplinary field of reflection and action.2 When we shape this discussion contextually and pursue this reflection, we are seeking to relate both spatial geography and mission. The former analyses the reasons for the spatial differences of human activity in urban areas for example. Missiology seeks a more adequate understanding of the apostolic mission of the Church while remaining faithful to the exegetical task of understanding the mind of the biblical writers. But this “fusion of horizons” is fraught with danger. We must not forget that when the exegete deals with the Apostle Paul, and when musicology accepts Paul’s apostolic work as normative for the continuing mission of the Church, then these two aims coalesce. In reality, as we study and listen to scripture and walk through the various contexts of life, we are faced with the basic question: “How will the Church reflect biblically about the context and pursue relevant mission in the years ahead?” 

Missiology is a fertile field today for a battle over the definition of three terms—mission, evangelisation and contextualization.

1. Mission. Mission is the embodiment by the whole community of the followers of Jesus of the whole task of God in their specific context for the sake of the whole world. According to David Bosch, “Mission is the Church sent into the world to love, to serve, to preach, to heal, to liberate.”3 This embodiment therefore cannot be separated from Christian spirituality. This means living fully in the world in union with Jesus Christ and his people and growing in conformity to his person. It is a grateful and heartfelt “YES!” to God expressed both in act and attitude. The follower of Jesus lives in obedience and imitation of Jesus Christ and walks in the disciplined and maturing pattern of love for God. It is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others. Spirituality is the process of developing a deep relationship with God. It is also about how Christians live their faith in the world. Spirituality cannot be divorced from the struggle for justice and care for the poor and the oppressed.

2. Evangelisation. Evangelisation is that set of contextual, intentional initiatives of the community of followers of Jesus within the mission of God to demonstrate in word and deed the offer that God gives to change one’s way of living and follow Jesus in every area of life.

3. Contextualization. Contextualization begins by attempting to discern where God by his Spirit is at work in the context.4 It continues with a desire to communicate the gospel in word and deed and to establish groups of people who desire to follow Jesus in ways that make sense to them in their context, presenting Christianity in such a way that it meets people’s deepest needs and transforms their worldview, thus allowing them to follow Christ and remain within their culture.5

The word literally means a “weaving together.” Here, it implies the interweaving of the scriptural teaching about the city and the church with a particular, human situation, a specific context. The very word focuses the attention on the role of the context in the theological enterprise. In a very real sense, then, all doctrinal reflection from the scriptures is related in one way or another to the situation from which it is born, addressing the aspirations, concerns, priorities and needs of the local group of Christians who are doing the reflection.

The task of contextualization is the essence of theological reflection. The challenge is to remain faithful to the historical text of scripture while being mindful of today’s realities. An interpretative bridge is built between the Bible and the situation from which they sprang to the concerns and the circumstances of the local group of Christians who are doing the reflection. The first step of the hermeneutic involves establishing what the text meant at the time it was written. The second step involves creating the bridge that explores how the text is understood in meaningful terms for the interpreters today. The final step is to determine the meaning and application for those who will receive the message in their particular circumstances as the present-day interpreters become ambassadors of the good news.

Contextualization is not just for the one communicating, nor about the content that will be passed along. It is always concerned about what happens once we have communicated; about the ultimate impact of the message on the audience.

Understanding Mission as Missio Dei6
Since the middle of the twentieth century, the Church has been pursuing missiology through the lens of the mission of God. The concept of the missio Dei finds its roots in the writings of Karl Barth who saw it necessary to emphasize the action of God in contrast to the human-centred focus of the liberal theology of his day.

Missio Dei establishes the priority of God’s activity in terms of mission and characterizes God himself as being a missionary God. In this case, mission cannot be conceived of primarily or even essentially as an activity or program of the Church, but must be rooted in God.

In his tremendous love for the created order, God engages in the mission of salvation and redemption for the whole order through the Father’s sending of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Through this missionary activity of the triune God, the Church is formed and this new community is called to participate in the mission of God, to reach out with the salvation and redemption God has initiated and is pursuing in the world.

This hermeneutical approach to the missio Dei or mission of God in city/regions reaffirms “the scandal of particularity.” Urban missiology is rooted in the very particular stories of cities in the Bible and especially of the good news of Jesus’ incarnation and the cosmic goal God has undertaken to re-inaugurate his reign through his death on the cross. There has been a tendency to question the uniqueness of God’s participation with creation through the history of Israel and in the person of Jesus Christ. Instead, the concept of mission was broadened almost to the point that the Church was stripped of any responsibility for proclamation and service. In other words, the Church was excluded from mission. This resulted in an argument that God was working out his purposes in the midst of the world and its historical processes. It was simply the Church’s responsibility to serve missio Dei by pointing to God at work in world history and name him there.

Missio Dei establishes the priority of God’s activity in terms of mission and characterizes God himself as being a missionary God. 

This focus on God’s action in the world and its historical processes, to the exclusion of the Church’s mission of witness and service, was closely tied to what could be described as an exaggerated eschatology in which the fullness of God’s kingdom was expected to be accomplished through the social and political motions of history. In order to avoid the severing of the missio Dei concept from the teachings of classical Christianity, and in an attempt to hold together the whole mission of God for the whole city, it will be important to hold the universal concept of the missio Dei together with the particular history of God’s plenary revelation in the person and work of Jesus Christ and read the story in our own unique contexts.

Following Jesus in the City
We can therefore state that the comprehensiveness of the mission of the Church in the city requires the proclamation of the gospel, the planting and nurture of congregations and the application of the principles of Christ’s lordship to all areas of community life. It means concern for all that is city, even for the cosmos above and beneath the city, from the quality of the air people breathe to the purity of the water in the river and canals.

Following Jesus in the city means getting serious about issues like good schools, responsible government, sanitation and clean streets, fairness in the marketplace and justice in the courts. It means working to eliminate squalor slums and every depressing condition that dishonours God by degrading human life. Once urban disciples see the big picture of what it means to be citizens of the kingdom in the cities as they are, they begin to work from a new and enlarged perspective. Obedience to King Jesus takes them to every nook and cranny of city life. They find the challenges innumerable and the cost often high. But they know that while the dark powers are awesome, God’s rule is greater and its advance is worth every sacrifice.

The walk through the neighbourhood and into the workplace causes one to reflect on these issues. How can we be faithful to Christ Jesus and to the demands of his kingdom rule in our various contexts? Being in touch with the context without understanding and communicating what the Bible says about the themes that surface in the neighbourhood or the workplace will inevitably lead to relativism reminiscent of the extremes of a sort of religious “do goodism.” Being in touch with the truth (orthodoxy) as one listens attentively to the context calls for radical forms of obedience on the part of God's people (plausibility).

My three daughters are musicians. On a weekly basis, one of them is at the piano with her other instruments and her music sheets transposing the score. She is not changing the melody, harmony or essence of the composition; instead, she is putting the music in a different key. A practitioner with the community of faith listens to the text, the social context and the worldviews of the milieu to better understand how to weave a score for the situation. As John Frame stated, “We do not know what scripture says until we know how it relates to our world.”7


1. Bauchkam, Richard. 2003. Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker. Bauckham reminds us that the issue of universality and particularity is essential to mission and to how we read the Bible.

2. It begins on the exegetical level (Christian faith is a missionary faith rooted in Jesus’ practices, the hope of the rule of God and his justice) and follows with historical, theological and practical reflection and initiatives. It is inter-disciplinary because it takes into account cultural studies, holistic community transformational development theory and practice, a critique of the past, contextualisation and strategies that move the people of God in their local situation forward.

3. Bosch, David. 1991. Transforming Mission. Maryknoll, New York, USA: Orbis Books, 412.

4. This approach to urban mission hermeneutics is intentional on my part. A lived experience in context is a preliminary step in all contextual theologies. This is certainly true in theologies of liberation. Leonardo Boff and Clodivis Boff call this the preliminary stage of all theologising, a living commitment with the poor and oppressed. Robert Schrieter (1986) summarizes the biblical foundation well: “…the development of local theologies depends as much on finding Christ already active in the culture as it does on bringing Christ to the culture. The great respect for culture has a Christological basis. It grows out of a belief that the risen Christ’s salvific activity in bringing about the Kingdom of God is already going on before our arrival. From a missionary perspective there would be no conversion if the grace of God had not preceded the missionary and opened the hearts of those who heard.” (Constructing Local Theologies. Maryknoll, New York, USA: Orbis, 29).

5. This reflection is inspired by an article by Whiteman, David. 1997. “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge” International Bulletin of Missionary Research. 21(1): 2-7.

6. I am grateful to John Vissers and Roland De Vries for helping me in the formulation of the following section. See their unpublished paper, “Evangelizing the Church: Towards A Reformed Theology of Mission for Canadian Presbyterians.”

7. Frame, John. 1976. Van Til the Theologian. Phillipsburg, New Jersey, USA: Pilgrim, 25.

Glenn Smith is senior associate for urban mission for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and is executive director of Christian Direction in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He is a professor of urban theology and missiology at the Institut de theologie pour la Francophonie at the Université de Montréal and at the Université chrétienne du Nord d’Haïti. He is also professor of urban missiology at Bakke Graduate University in Seattle, Washington, USA. Smith is editor of the Urban Communitees section.