There is an old Swahili proverb: “Travel with open eyes and you will become a scholar.”February 28th, 2008
There is an old Swahili proverb: “Travel with open eyes and you will become a scholar.” Our recent journey to the Horn of Africa was certainly an eye-opening experience for me. For two weeks we were able to slip behind the headlines of conflict and violence (of which we encountered none), and quietly observe the fingerprints of God upon two very diverse spiritual movements.
Philip Jenkins, the renowned historian, has observed that the future of Christianity will be written in the south. For indeed the Southern Hemisphere here in the West, along with Africa, the great continent of the South, have become the fertile fields for the mighty plantings and reapings of the Spirit of God. And in a matter of years, it seems clear, the most vibrant and active manifestation of Christian faith will radiate from these southern regions of earth.
Today there are movements within the great monotheistic religions of Africa—Christianity and Islam—that are providing new opportunities for third millennial contextualization. As I wrote in my blog last week, we were able to observe (and participate) in the living out of Paul’s great missionary passion: “So though I was not a slave to any human being, I put myself in slavery to all people, to win as many as I could. To the Jews I made myself as a Jew, to win the Jews. . . . To the weak, I made myself weak, to win the weak. I accommodated myself to people in all kinds of different situations, so that by all possible means I might bring some to salvation. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, that I may share its benefits with others” (I Corinthians 9:19-23 NJB).
Paul is not describing the accommodating or watering down of either his faith or divine truth in order to reach earth’s diverse populace. But it is clear that he was willing to immerse himself in the faith culture (or lack thereof) of the people group he was seeking to reach on behalf of the gospel. Acts describes Paul’s adjusting his worship practice, adapting the emphasis of his theology and teaching, shifting both his civil and ecclesiastical identity—all of it dependent on the group he was seeking to penetrate. He “became” one of them in order to reach some of them.
Could it be that there are people groups on earth today that will only be effectively reached for God by men and women, young adults, who are willing to embrace a new identity or at least a new identification with those groups? Could it be that changing our living habits, our dress, our language, along with refocusing our faith practice and adapting our theological expression might be prompted by the Spirit of God . . . just as he did with Paul?
Twelve miles up the road from this university is the second most depressed inner city (per capita) in the U.S. Could it be contextualization doesn’t have to cross the equator or the seas to be strategic for God? Perhaps he is calling students and families right here in our parish to “move in” to the new culture and context of Benton
Having just returned with Karen from two weeks in the Horn of Africa,February 21st, 2008
Having just returned with Karen from two weeks in the Horn of
Paul never used the word. But in a letter he once wrote, he described it graphically. “To the Jews I made myself as a Jew, to win the Jews . . . to those outside the Law [I made myself] as one outside the Law . . . to the weak, I made myself weak, to win the weak.” And all of this for what? “I accommodated myself to people in all kinds of different situations, so that by all possible means I might bring some to salvation” (I Corinthians 9:20-22 NJB).
Reread his words a few times, and I think you’ll agree with me that this intrepid missionary is advocating a radical modus operandi for the mission of God! Namely, the good news of the Kingdom is most effectively communicated when the communicator is “in context” with the community he/she is seeking to reach. I.e., to reach Jews, become as a Jew, embracing the common ground of their faith, affirming the shared truth of their beliefs. Paul did. To reach the weak, take off your power suit and tie, and wear the garb and display the mind and heart of the humble, the weak, the disenfranchised. I.e., become one of them in order to reach one of them.
That little used word? “Contextualization.” And the reason it’s been on my mind these past two weeks is that I’ve been wondering if Paul’s strategy could also be expressed, “To the Muslim, I became as a Muslim”? And what about, “to the Pentecostal, I became as a Pentecostal”? I.e., is being “in context” as essential for the divine mission today as it was in Paul’s day?
But how far does “contextualization” go without compromising your own faith? How closely do I need to resemble the one I’m trying to reach without sacrificing my own spiritual identity, values and truth? Someday perhaps you and I can share a story or two from the Horn of Africa as a part of seeking the answers. But in the mean time, we can share the prayer that God might enable us as he did Paul to accommodate ourselves to people “in all kinds of different situations, so that by all possible means [we] might bring some to salvation.”
After all, wasn’t that God’s personal mission two thousand years ago, when he became “one with us” in order that he might save even one of us? Clearly “contextualization” has a most compelling precedent, wouldn’t you agree?