Response to Question at Circumpolar

Over at the blog Circumpolar, which I enjoy reading from time to time, there is an interesting discussion about words like contextualization, syncretism, and the question of Muslim followers of Jesus (some of whom would not call themselves Christians). A reader sent me two questions on my comment, and I wrote this is response. It's too long for their comment section, so I'm posting it here. --AD

1. Could you please define how you are using the words "contextualization" and "syncretism" here?

I am using a different definition of contextualization, and I think that it also the meaning that is being used by the seven self-church. The original meaning of contextualization was an extension of indigenization and was understood to be something carried out by the local believers, not by missionaries. Of course missionaries do indeed need to adapt aspects of their communication, that's not new at all. But the actual work of contextualization is primarily the prerogative of the local believers, in conversation both the church of history and other churches in the world. This is the understanding of contextualization advanced by Coe and Schreiter. This is what I cal organic contextualization.

Initially evangelicals didn't like this idea at all, as it came out of the World Council of Churches in the early and mid 70's.

Eventually, though, some did get on board but they started to view it not so much as an historical progression that would take place perhaps decades or even centuries after the initial founding of a church. Rather it was interpreted as a missionary method, something that missionaries could do ahead of time, in advance of the founding of the actual communities. Do you see the difference? It's quite dramatic, I think. So in the older sense of the word (organic) contextualization is an extension and the next step after indigenization (leadership and authority are xfered to the locals).

In the newer sense of the word, which is only used by evangelicals incidentally, this is what I would call directed contextualization.

Now to your question about believers in Jesus who still call themselves Muslims. I would break them down into three categories, though maybe there are more. 1) Those who do this because they don't want to be persecuted. 2) Those who use the term for the sake of evangelism and not burning bridges. 3) Those who genuinely feel and think like Muslims, but with some kind of affection or love for Jesus and faith that he reconciles us to God. I don't know any of the third sort, though I'd be interested in meeting some. Based on my lengthy conversation with our common friend yesterday I *think* he is advocating the second category. That doesn't seem to be what I hear from CG people though.

The only real study of people I've read who might be in category three are the 'Jesus Imandars' in Dhaka by Jorgensen, which is really hard to get (I had to get it from Yale, good grief!) Even there, only a third of the believers would say they are 'muslims', another third said something like 'Muslim followers of Jesus' and the final third would not say they are Muslims at all.

Re Syncretism: I simply mean 'mixing' and I think it is integral to Christianity. The Christmas tree is syncretistic, but it's ok. Modeling worship after a concert is mixing too, and evangelicals love it. So syncretism is, I would say, neutral. There can be good or bad syncretism. But both of the forms of contextualization mentioned above are syncretistic.

Question 2. You said, 'In that [c5] approach the Western missionaries do the 'contextualizing' and then present their version of the 'contextualized' gospel to Muslims.' That is a pretty broad brush-stroke considering that c5 is not a methodology but a system of classifying indigenous "churches." Are you implying that, in your experience, all Muslims who have chosen to follow Jesus and retain their Muslim identity have been spoon-fed this concept?

The two terms 'c5' and 'contextualization' have suffered the same fate. They were removed from their original context and recruited as evangelistic tools. Thus C5 went from being, as you rightly noted, simply a descriptive tool, to being a church-planting strategy. Missionaries decided ahead of time what kind of church their team would plant, maybe c4, maybe c5, and they would tell you, even before their first convert. Does this not match your experience? It sure matches mine.

Spoon fed? That's a little bit stronger term than I would use. It implies a sort of mono-directionality to the relationship between missionary and disciple. I would not say they are spoon-fed it, but they are fed it, or at least offered it and told that's it a good dish. And in the end, Anglican missionaries tend to make Anglican converts, as do baptists and Catholics and Pentecostals. We teach what we know. We try to allow for self-expression and exploration, but for the most part what the missionary suggests is what the disciple will believe. If the missionary suggests, you can or you should continue to call yourself a Muslim, then guess what, he or she probably will.

Hope that helps. --AD


Warrick Farah said…
Thanks AD, I tried to respond here:

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