Contextualization was the word of the week during our time in Chandigarh. We spent 3 days with a good Hindu-background brother who is doing contextualized church planting, which got us thinking and talking a lot. The idea behind contextualization is that people’s response to the gospel and the life of the Body will never look exactly the same in different cultures. The less the Church contextualizes, the more it will look exactly the same in any culture in the world. The more it contextualizes, the more it can take many different forms.
The challenge for us Westerners in understanding contextualization is that we tend to divorce religion from culture. In our minds, Hinduism and Islam are religions people must leave in order to follow Christ, and we often presume they can do so without leaving their culture. The problem is that, for many people in the non-Western world, religion and culture cannot be separated. When people say they are Hindus or Muslims (or Catholics in Mexico, perhaps), they are not just stating their adherence to a particular religion, they are telling who they are. For non-Westerners, the physical and spiritual worlds are not separate; everything in life has a spiritual aspect to it. Westerners separate the two, and can therefore make a distinction between culture and religion, but for most non-Westerners, the two are inseparable.
If we understand this, is the only option for a person in India to cease being a Hindu or a Muslim (Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, etc.) and become a Christian? Or can a person be a Hindu or a Muslim who follows Christ and serves the one true God alone? Before jumping to any conclusions, let’s consider the matter.
Our host in Chandigarh, who oversees several house fellowships, is contextualizing his work in the local Hindu and Sikh cultures. In other words, elements of Hinduism or Sikhism find expression in the lives of these churches. In saying this, I do NOT mean the people worship false gods–the elements of culture present among them are part of their commitment to Christ, rather than compromising it. This leader is sometimes criticized by ministers from more traditional churches, who would like to see him completely break away from anything having an appearance of Hinduism or Sikhism.
An example of this contextualization is the name by which the believers call their fellowship. They call their community a satsang, which is a Hindu word for a gathering seeking truth. Some say it is wrong to use this Hindu term, arguing that it is a pagan concept. The brothers and sisters we met, though, believe the use of the word helps those of a Hindu background draw near to God. Another example is the use of a coconut for the Lord’s Supper. Coconuts are often incorporated into Hindu worship; therefore, Hindu-background believers break them open and take the flesh and the milk to represent the body and blood of Christ. Something really neat we learned is that, for Hindus, a coconut means fullness of life. So Christ’s body was broken, and through him comes fullness of life.
It can be easy to criticize such contextualization of the gospel in other cultures, and those practicing contextualization have faced their share of attacks. I’m not sure it’s right to criticize, though, until we have had the opportunity to live for an extended period of time in the culture in question, gaining a good understand of the practices and worldview of the people. How else can we understand whether a cultural expression is pagan or not? In our short time with our brothers and sisters in Chandigarh, as far as we could tell we found them to be full of the love of God and committed to Christ and the work of the kingdom.
Ministry in a Muslim context provides some significant contextualization questions that other cross-cultural church planters have had to deal with. Here are a few of these questions:
- By what name do you call God? Do you tell people that Allah is not God and then try and introduce them to the one true God, giving him some other name? Or do you say that Allah is the one true God and then try and help lead people to a clearer understanding of his true nature?
- Can a believer worship God in a mosque? Or should s/he never go to a mosque again after beginning to follow Christ?
- Muslims customarily kneel and pray five times a day. Is this an okay practice for a follower of Christ to continue, or should a Muslim-background believer be encouraged to avoid it?
For the conscientious cross-cultural church planter, questions of contextualization are difficult. If one decides to contextualize, then the question arises of which cultural elements should be practiced as part of obedience to Christ. A good guiding question here can be, “Does this practice help people access God, or does it restrict access to God?” Many traditional churches here in India are quite contextualized in a way. People meet in big “temples” where they come to hear the teachings of a spiritual “guru” who everyone recognizes as being on a higher spiritual level than the common people. But you can make the argument that this model promotes a temple-and-priest Christianity that is closer to the Old Testament than the New, and it restricts access to God. Flowers, candles, incense, and coconuts, though, may all be elements of Hindu culture that can help people draw near to the one true God and worship him. They can especially be powerful when Hindus realize these elements can be part of accessing God personally, rather than having spiritual gurus as mediators between the gods and man.
So what thoughts do you have about contextualization? Can you think of ways the gospel has been contextualized in our Western culture?