Contextualization and Cultural Baggage

15. Authentic evangelism is always contextual.

The term contextualization comes to us from Taiwan.

Shoki Coe first coined the term in 1972, but the term grew out of the missionary milieu of China in the twentieth century. In their book, The Changing Face of Christianity, Lamin Sanneh and Joel A. Carpenter trace the development of an indigenous Christianity in China, stripped of the Western cultural baggage that had been haphazardly imported since Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China, arrived in 1807. Over the course of time different approaches were implemented to mitigate the cultural byproducts of a Westernized gospel. The underlying problem was the embedded ideas of Western colonialism, cultural superiority, and manifest destiny still at play. Mission societies ended up establishing churches that were tied to and heavily dependent on the “benevolent paternalism” of the older Western churches.

Three-self Solution

The Protestant solution to free up the younger, native churches from the domineering oversight of their Western parents was the “three-self” formula of self-government, self-support, and self-propagation.

Unfortunately, despite much initial enthusiasm this ideal didn’t pan out.

Roland Allen, who had served as a missionary in China from 1895-1903 and witnessed the Boxer Rebellion, argued in 1912 for a return to the apostolic model of church planting in his seminal book, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?

It is impossible but that the account so carefully given by St. Luke of the planting of the Churches in the Four Provinces [Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia] should have something more than a mere archaeological and historical interest. Like the rest of the Holy Scriptures it was certainly “written for our learning.” It was certainly meant to be something more than the romantic history of an exceptional man, doing exceptional things under exceptional circumstances — a story from which ordinary people of a later age can get no more instruction for practical missionary work than they receive from the history of the Cid, or from the exploits of King Arthur. It was really intended to throw light on the path of those who should come after. –p. 7

We cannot imagine any Christianity worthy of the name existing without the elaborate machinery which we have invented. We naturally expect our converts to adopt from us not only essentials but accidentals. –p. 11

Ten years after writing this, Watchman Nee established a church in Fuzhou, China, stripped of the Western cultural accretions and based solely on the New Testament pattern that Allen argued for.

Lamin Sanneh and Joel A. Carpenter write:

A new stage for indigenous Christian movements in China started around 1920… The best known of these is the Little Flock—or Local Church movement— associated with Nee Tuo-sheng (Watchman Nee)… These movements represent attempts to develop a fully indigenous Christian church with an appropriately contextualized theology… Nee was convinced that the mission-founded churches were compromised by their “foreignness” and lukewarm spirit. In other words, he saw the problem to be profoundly theological. Consequently, these churches could not respond to the spiritual needs of the Chinese people. For him the only answer was to establish a “wholly independent Chinese Christian movement by returning to a more simple New Testament form of Christianity.” Accordingly, Nee developed an ecclesiology that was nonhierarchical and local in organization… Watchman Nee was a powerful preacher and leader but is probably best known for his prolific theological writings…

The Changing Face of Christianity, pp. 204-205

One of Nee’s early classics was The Normal Christian Church Life and represents his study of the New Testament in light of church practice. Originally entitled Concerning our Missions, Nee addresses the problem of self-government, self-support, and self-propagation. Thus, this book is truly an indigenous answer to the missional dilemma that persists today in contextualization.

2 thoughts on “Contextualization and Cultural Baggage

  1. Pingback: Evangelism Series Summary | life and building

  2. Pingback: A missionary encounter | God's Love Visible

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