Mission agencies use the word contextualization with the same frequency that others might use the word ‘sliced bread.’ That is to say, their approach to the subject of how one brings the unchanging Gospel into a changing context, is very much their ‘bread and butter.’ As the CRCNA faces and will continue to face the changing winds of doctrine, one might wonder if a bit of contextualization theory might help it to ascertain the big picture behind some of the issues of the day? To help visual things, a PowerPoint that was shown at a recent Classis Hamilton meeting is attached.
Three elements of contextualization:
- The global Church and its history, doctrinal formulations and acquired wisdom. The fact that the global Church has almost 2 millennia of history should give us pause to think that our immediate context is the only one. In this span of time, the Church has encountered almost every form of temptation to compromise, heretical doctrines and at times has teetered near death. In all of these situations, with the enduring love of Christ for his Church and the power of the Holy Spirit, managed to respond. These responses through time, in multiple places, form a treasury of experience and knowledge that any church in any context does well to be familiar with.
- The Holy Bible which is Holy Spirit inspired Scripture. God has spoken and continues to speak through his authoritative Word. The global Church and its wisdom helps us to examine its teachings, not just as we would read them in our context, but in light of all of the contexts in which it has been read and obeyed.
- Culture. On slide number two, culture is defined variously as: "Worldview exteriorized” (Daniel Strange, 2015), "a lived worldview” (Kevin VanHoozer, 2007), the religious ideal [cult] lived out (John Frame, 2008).
Common to each of these definitions is the fact that the context in which the Church finds itself is very much a lived expression of the worldview of the surrounding culture. Consider these aspects of North American culture:
- immediate gratification
- highly individualistic
- prizes autonomy and self-determination
- prizes personal peace and affluence
- one's sexual desires constitute one's identity
- avoids suffering
- focuses on the here and now
- lives out its therapeutic, moralistic deism
- prizes novelty and consumption
- is highly relativistic
- and. . . ?
Granted, this list does not include creativity, entrepreneurial values, altruism, wealth creation, stewardship, honesty, work ethic and so forth, but for this short treatment we will look at how some of the more negative values can influence the Church.
The pervasive effects of this culture and its values, cannot but affect the Church in Grand Rapids, Grand Bend and Grand Forks. Just how much so is a very large question.
When culture dominates the church.
On slide three, one sees that culture becomes the glasses through which a church reads Scripture and understands its history. If we take a selection of attributes of North American culture, and use these as the interpretive tool for the Bible, one can see that the logical consequence could easily lead to any of the following:
- euthanasia as the old are no longer novel or provide gratification
- prosperity gospel as it avoids suffering and promises affluence
- co-habitation before marriage as instant gratification and a focus on the needs of individuals is highlighted
- consumers come to church to shop for its best offerings and then leave when it fails to deliver on their expectations
- sexual expression in step with the local culture due to its relativistic view of the Scriptures, being “What is true for me is true for me” coupled with the enshrined right of self-determination
- mission organizations that promote the idea that a person can remain in their old religion as this will be less socially disruptive
A better way?
On slide four we see that culture assumes a much less prominent place than the previous slide. In fact, it is largely overshadowed by both the Bible and the global Church circles. It is these two that work hand in hand in this slide to exegete and to critique the culture, not with rose-colored glasses, but with a Biblical Christian worldview.
- To what extent are you influenced by the surrounding culture in your understanding of the Bible and of the wisdom of the global and historical Church?
- If a church in Pakistan communicated a message to the CRCNA about some of its direction, would this be received with humility and given due consideration, or would the CRCNA dismiss the message?
- If a subject of deliberation came up at a Synod, would input from church history and from other members of the global Church be solicited?
- Richard Niebuhr in his 1951 Christ and Culture saw five possible interactions that could occur in the interface of the church and its local culture. These included:
- Christ against Culture.
- Christ of Culture.
- Christ above Culture.
- Christ and Culture in Paradox.
- Christ Transforming Culture.
Is it remotely possible, in examining the dominant position of culture in slide three that a Reformed church which espouses ‘Christ Transforming Culture’ could in fact be in the process of becoming transformed by that very culture?