What exactly is contextualisation? This article seeks to explain, in simple terms, to non-missionary readers what contextualisation involves and the aims of those missionaries who recommend contextualisation methods.
As we do so, we will begin to understand why there is such acrimonious debate for and against contextualisation.
Although this article relates to mission to Muslims, the principles and conclusions involved are applicable for any use of contextualisation in a cross-cultural environment. We shall also seek to evaluate what is called the ‘C1–C6 contextualisation spectrum’.
John Travis writes: ‘The purpose of [this] spectrum is to assist church planters and Muslim-background believers in ascertaining which type of Christ-centred communities may draw the most people from the target group to Christ, and best fit in a given context’ (Encountering the world of Islam, Authentic Media, 2008, p.377).
In his book Fresh vision for the Muslim world (Authentic Publishing, 2009, pp.153-154) Mike Kuhn gives this explanation of what contextualisation is. He says, ‘Modern-day missions have coined the term contextualisation.
‘It’s a hotly debated umbrella word that asks what cultural and religious forms (dress, chanting, worship styles, etc.) can be borrowed from other cultures, such that the Christian faith is not perceived as a foreign entity?
‘What is at stake is removing the garb of our own culture from the faith so that it is embraced on its own terms, through vehicles of expression understood and accepted in the local setting’.
John Travis again: ‘The C1 to C6 spectrum compares and contrast types of “Christ centred communities” (C [means] groups of believers in Christ) found in the Muslim world’.
From the quotes above, we can see that contextualisation is about building ‘indigenous Christ-centred communities’ in other cultures, which are not Western.
Where then does the point of controversy lie between equally motivated missionaries yearning to bring the gospel of Christ to the Muslim world?
The controversy arises from the range or degree of contextualisation, that is, the amount of cultural adaptation advised within the C1 to C6 (or even C7) spectrum. The following is a thumbnail sketch of this spectrum.
C1 describes converts from Islam becoming part of a Christian church which is completely foreign to them and their culture. Everything about the church they are now part of is strange to these former Muslims.
The MBB (Muslim background believer, Muslim converted to Christ) sees him- or herself — as do former family, friends and community — as a Christian and someone who has abandoned their Islamic culture and faith and become a Westerner.
C2 is generally the same as C1, but in this case the whole church service takes place in the local language or dialect. The religious vocabulary and terminology of this group is still non-Islamic. As in C1 the MBB in C2 is seen as a Christian.
C3 is a culturally indigenous congregation, yet one which resolutely avoids adopting any cultural, religious or worshipping forms which are expressly Islamic. Members of these congregations are also termed Christians.
C4 are culturally indigenous congregations using biblically acceptable but Muslim forms of worship and local male/female dress. Some of these congregations strongly recommend not keeping dogs as pets, drinking alcohol of any type or eating pork.
Some C4 indigenous congregations also add the observance of Ramadan, the Muslim fast! These congregations see themselves as followers of Isa al-Massih, the Qur’anic name for Jesus. The local community is somewhat confused about such congregations and sees its members as ‘strange kinds of Christian’!
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo (Barnabas Aid, March/April 2010, pull-out supplement) describes the C5 group as claiming to be ‘followers of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, in fellowship with like-minded believers within the Muslim community’.
Sookhdeo adds that their self-identity is ‘Muslim followers of Isa, culturally and officially Muslim’, whereas the local community — Muslim and non-Muslim — views these people as ‘strange kinds of Muslim’. John Travis adds that C5 congregations see themselves as Muslim followers of Isa, but not as Christians.
C6 is the ‘secret’ or ‘underground’ group who still remain active in the life of the Muslim community. These people see themselves as Muslim followers of Isa; the local community sees them only as Muslim.
It is in connection with the missiological/indigenous church practices derived from the C5/C6 end of the spectrum that the controversy gets heated! Are those individuals who make up such congregations truly converted, or are they in reality still Muslim?
Now, we must be careful how from a safe, comfortable Western perspective we critique C5/C6 followers of Jesus. In many Islamic countries and communities, confessing faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, God, and Saviour can result in severe persecution — the loss of educational privileges, occupation, family and even life. We perhaps need also to keep in mind Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea!
An even more extreme application of the C6 principle is known as the ‘Insider Movement’. The Insider Movement encourages Muslims who have ‘accepted’ Jesus to stay within their Muslim family and communities.
All Christians would see that as a sound biblical and acceptable practice from one perspective, but it is here that the controversy which divides missionaries and evangelists to the Muslim world becomes bitter.
Proponents of the Insider Movement encourage Muslims who have ‘accepted Jesus’ not only to stay within their communities — which is good — but to continue reading the Quran in private as well as public and to confess the Shahada, ‘There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet’. This is hardly something we would expect true believers in Jesus Christ to confess!
These secret MBBs are also encouraged to continue to attend the mosque and perform the ritual washings demanded by Islam before entering it and joining in the Salat, the ritual prayer which again affirms God as Allah and Mohammed as his prophet.
A few Western Christian missionaries have even moved far beyond C6 contextualisation practices into an area known as C7.
C7 missionaries have themselves made a formal ‘conversion’ to Islam, taking Muslim names for themselves and fully immersing themselves in the life of the local Muslim community and religious life, centred within the local mosque.
Both local Muslims and local Christians regard these ‘converted’ Christian missionaries as bona fide Muslims.
As heated debate continues to surge around the C1-C6 [C7] contextualisation spectrum, we should keep the following principles in mind. First, that the apostle Paul said, ‘I came to you without deceit’.
As converted followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, we must never pretend to be that which we are not.
When Paul stated that he became all things to all men in order to win some to Christ, he did not by that statement intimate that believers should become deceivers and pronounce themselves to be Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists, etc., in order to proclaim Christ.
Second, we cannot pour the new wine of the gospel into the stiff, rigid bottles of other religious practices and beliefs. Nor can we attach the blood bought freedom of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the old, legalistic ways of other religions. The gospel transcends all cultures and in its simplicity speaks to men and women of all cultures and ethnic background.
Yes, we must rid the pure gospel of Jesus Christ from Western — and even Eastern — cultural trappings to ensure that it is neither Western nor Eastern culture that we preach. But we must also resist the temptation to dress the gospel in the new clothes of the culture we hope to reach.
Christianity and Islam are, at root, fundamentally different religious systems. It is the belief of this author that C5, 6 and 7 context-ualisation may indeed be ‘a bridge too far’ in attempting to make the gospel palatable to Muslim peoples.
Perhaps real Christian ‘contextualisation’ is best expressed by Charles Marsh: ‘The Bible consistently teaches that it is the character of the servant that counts … the love that goes on loving in spite of a Muslim’s hatred and bitterness … the joy in the Lord that rebounds in spite of opposition and persecution; the peace of God that Muslims so earnestly covert; the plodding patience that continues to go on; the practical goodness that Muslims cannot refute by argument; the faithfulness to one’s pledged word, on which one’s Muslim friend may rely; the gentle meekness that persists when confronted with arrogance; and the self-control to remain too even-tempered to vent one’s anger over senseless arguments’ (Encountering the world of Islam, Authentic Publishing, 2008, p.304).
Surely the above is what we should aim at in all our contact with fellow humans, and especially those from another cultural, religious and philosophical system? May God give us the grace to live out our salvation in such a way!