Pioneers Statement on Contextualization

Pioneers Statement on Contextualization

Pioneers recently adopted a “Statement on Contextualization” which provides insight into how the international leadership of the organization views contextualization.  This statement will be heralded in some circles and maligned in others.  Overall, though, I think it does a pretty good job of combining freedom with responsibility.

I would love to get your feedback on this Statement and post.  Please comment!

My own views on this topic continue to evolve.  Most recently, I have observed (mostly in personal conversations) that proponents of “Insider Movement” strategies are seeking a reform of Islam itself.  I believe this is a different conversation than one about contextualization.  To see a reformed Islam means that Christianity doesn’t really confront Islam as an alternative religious worldview.  Rather, within the scope of Islam itself these IM folks believe there is room for a brand of Islam that is Christian.

In justifying this approach, IM'ers suggest a comparison to the Protestant Reformation and include a harsh indictment of the historic church.  The Protestant Reformation, I would suggest, is a poor analogy for a reformed version of Islam.  The distance from Catholicism to Protestantism is significant but it pales in comparison with the distance between Islam and Christianity.  The indictment on the historic church stems from the argument that,  “We cannot too harshly judge Islam; just look how bad our own history has been.”  It is an attempt to close the aforementioned distance by stating that Christianity can be divorced from its historical forms and practices. I believe that can only go so far. As much as we Christians might not like it, there is a great deal of history in our Christianity. We are who we are in part because of where we have been. Just take a simple issue like the Biblical canon.  It was put together through the lens of history. That’s just one of many, many issues that do not allow us to walk away from our history.

So, as I personally wrestle with this topic, Pioneers produced the following statement. Even though I work for Pioneers, I can objectively say that I think it's a pretty good statement.  A few things stick out to me: 

  • Pan-Religious:  Pioneers works with people from all of the major religious blocs.  For that reason, this statement it not simply directed at Islam.  It can be used in any context.  [I would note, as a sidebar issue, that missiology is skating dangerously close to being overtaken by Islamic themes and essentially "splitting" into different forms.  While I appreciate the commitment that many have to “Muslim-only” approaches, most of the unreached are not Muslims.  While Muslims make up the greatest portion of unreached, it is not strategic, Biblical, or helpful to ignore the rest of the world’s unreached people. The Christian faith should not be defined as a reaction to another religious worldview.]
  • Addresses Identity:  From my perspective, issues of identity are paramount in this discussion.  I personally do not believe that missionaries should encourage Christians to identify themselves as Muslims or have continued allegiance to Mohamed.  Extracting people from their social circle is a challenge to the formation of movements.  However, our pragmatic desire to see church planting movements occur should not come at the cost of a believer's new identity in Christ.  The Pioneers’ statement addresses this concern.
  • Freedom:  Particularly the second paragraph provides for missionaries to explore contextualization at a fairly deep and experimental level.  All churches in the US will not view this positively.  They are looking for a strict “Do / Don’t Do” list.  Missionaries are, for better or for worse, the entrepreneurs of the church.  We must allow them a fair measure of freedom as the experts on the local culture.  This statement accomplishes that without compromising theology.

So, without any further ado… here it is

PIONEERS STATEMENT ON CONTEXTUALIZATION

Messengers who bring the Good News have the privilege and responsibility to faithfully communicate the biblical Gospel message. They should model and teach obedience to all the Scriptures under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thus PI workers desire to minister in ways most likely to yield faithful disciples and the reproduction of biblical churches among those with least access to the Gospel.

We believe God normally desires new believers to remain connected with their social context (1 Corinthians 7:17?24), while not compromising biblical teaching in their beliefs or practice (e.g. permanently retaining their former non-Christian religious identity). The implications of living out this creative tension and Gospel witness are best worked out by groups of believers, through prayer and diligent study of the Scriptures, informed by the story of God’s people throughout history and the global body of Christ.

This affects key issues, including:

Allegiance:

We encourage believers to live in such a way that those around them become increasingly aware of their wholehearted submission to Jesus as Lord. He calls all believers to a process of transformation into the image of Christ (Romans 12:1,2; Colossians 3:10), giving courageous and respectful testimony of Christ’s work in us (1 Peter 3:14?16).

Identity:

We want believers to understand their biblical identity in Christ and his church, and to embrace the implications of that identity as active members of a local community of believers (Ephesians 2:19?22; 1 Peter 2:9).

Obedience:

Our passion is to see believers obey all that Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:20). This involves an ongoing process whereby believers are empowered by the Spirit and nurtured through the Scripture (Galatians 5:16?25; 2 Timothy 3:16,17; 1 Peter 2:2,3).

Worldview and Beliefs:

Believers are intentionally discipled in such a way that their worldview and beliefs are increasingly transformed into conformity with Scripture (Romans 12:2; Hebrews 5:14).

Suffering:

God grants us suffering in this world to refine our faith, strengthen his church and bring glory to Christ (Phil 1:29; 3:10; 1 Peter 1:7). Together, we recognize that persecution is not to be feared, and “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12; Matthew 10:28; Hebrews 10:32?34).

Culture:

All cultures reflect elements of God’s creative goodness and human sinfulness (Romans 2:14,15; 1 John 2:15?17). We encourage believers to live out biblically sound and culturally appropriate worship, witness, relationships and lifestyles (Ephesians 5:15; 1 Timothy 5:8; 1 Peter 2:11,12,16,17).

8 thoughts on “Pioneers Statement on Contextualization

  1. Ted,
    I'm glad Pioneers is wrestling through these issues and coming up with some parameters of how their workers operate in the area of contextualization. I work with Perspectives, which is a part of the US Center for World Mission. USCWM is a proponent of Insider Movements – but the definition can be easily misinterpreted depending upon who you talk to. Often "stick figures" are made of Insider Movement proponents, which are easily knocked down and chastised. I'm not well versed in the IM area, but I do know they are usually hammered by others who are going after the fringe.

    It reminds me of the Tea Party Movement in our political landscape. The Democrats can easily hold up a random Tea Party member that says unconventional and maybe even 'wrong' things, and paint the whole Tea Party as that. When there is no official Tea Party "Party", just as there is no official Insider Movement document?? There are a lot of people who call themselves proponents or antagonists of IM's, but what does that actually mean when it's a concept, not a definitive statement?

    All that to say, I think your Contextualization Statement is good. I think what some in the IM people are saying is good, and doesn't contradict your statement. It's a fine line between contextualization and syncretism. I'll leave it to others smarter than me to figure out where that line is. I hope many others respond to this!

    1. John, I wonder if you would mind elaborating upon your statement that "It's a fine line between contextualization and syncretism"? I don't find there to be any necessary connection between the pursuit of contextualization in mission and syncretism.

  2. Ted,
    I too am glad Pioneers has (is still?) working through this/these many issues. I’m sure you are feeling pressure from some to be more specific. In my opinion, what you have (above) goes far enough. Naturally, much of it must be interpreted in any given context. A few thots:
    – As you note, identity is crucial. And, I completely agree that NEW identity in Christ is required. Of course, what that looks like and how it is lived out will vary greatly. While we may be more mature than new believers, and may be in a position to suggest what it might look like, I’m not sure that is always wise. I have found (and heard from many field folks) that pointing to the Word of God is often better than trying to answer with our Western biases and “Christianized culture.”
    In other words: Let them decide. As they grow, they will likely do things differently than they do now.
    – You many know that “IM” terminology is fading. First, this is not what they call themselves. Most talk about following Jesus in some way. And many are not movements per se. Jesus or Kingdom followers or movement seems to be preferred, but there is not really any good term that fits all. How is “incarnational movements to Jesus”…a mouthful yet descriptive.
    – I’ve found it helpful with many to mention that: none of those I know who are within these movement or who is positive towards them would suggest they are the only way to go in every situation. Nothing is meaningful without a context. Few, for example, would suggest this approach be followed in Iran (unless one is working with imams…even then, the idea of “letting them decide” would make it different in every situation) or other places where they want out of Islam.
    – There are these kinds of movements in the Hindu and Buddhist world…again perhaps not always “movements” (yet), but certainly followers within those blocs who are new in Christ but are keeping much of their cultural/birth identity.
    – Ted, there ARE Catholics who are far worse than Muslims in terms of theology. Perhaps one would agree with your point in general, in the Holy See, but not in, say, rural Latin America with cristo-paginism and/or veneration of Mary beyond others. Ralph Winter made that point years ago. We have much in common with Muslims (monotheism being a biggy, and the one that many attribute to Muhammad – thus his “prophethood” status in their eyes).
    – A new contribution to this discussion is the book: Allah: A Christian Response by Miroslav Volf. I haven’t finished it yet, but the slip-cover of the book says two quotes:
    1. What the Qur’an denies about God as Holy Trinity has been denied by every great teacher of the church in the past and ought to be denied by Christians today.
    2. A person can be both a practicing Muslim and 100 percent Christian without denying core convictions of belief and practice.
    I haven’t finished it yet….so I’ll not comment more here. Certainly, we need to understand his arguments and the reality of what “their book” teaches (about the trinity for example) rather than listening to others (from either side) tell us.
    USCWM

    1. Greg,

      Thanks for replying. It's nice to know that somebody out there is reading this blog. Sometimes I wonder!

      One of the difficulties in this debate is the shifting definitions that are being used to describe contextualization. I am aware of a search for new terminology that is seemingly always ongoing. I can appreciate the fact that within academia theories need to be modified and that, as we learn new things, we must adopt new paradigms and terminology. First, it became a no-no to use the C-Scale to describe IM strategies. Now we shouldn't use "IM." It is frustrating the conversation. I have a suspicion that the terminology is fading in part because it (IM) is unpopular in some church circles and there is a need to keep the issue in transition.

      Simply because a phenomenon exists does not, of course, validate. You can check out the use of tongues by very aberrant cult groups for an example of this. Whenever humanity is the topic you can find just about anything. So, arguments about it "just happening" everywhere are not convincing to me if the goal is to suggest a model of ministry.

      I understand wayward Catholicism having worked in Croatia and Bosnia where there are practices that would make many Catholics shudder. One example could be the mariology that surrounds Medjugorje. However, the polemic that I am hearing from those who wish to promote IM ideas is that 1) Christians throughout history have had terrible theology yet we regard them as Christians and so it follows that 2) Muslims with terrible theology (i.e. non-Trinitarian views) can also be regarded as a part of the Kingdom. Well, I can't agree with either point 1 or point 2 in that argument. It's also a "lowest common denominator" approach. I think we have to be asking ourselves: what's the end game? Is it a church made up of cultural Christians? No… Is it a church made of "followers" who don't embrace historic Christian theology? No…. What is it? I think we know, but we are so eager to see movements happen that our missiological practice is preceding our theology.

      I have not had the chance to read gospodin Vulf's book yet (too much reading in my PhD work right now!). I am hoping that the "cover" material is intended to be provocative because the statement "A person can be both a practicing Muslim and 100 percent Christian" needs many, many qualifiers. I trust he expands on them in the text. I hope I can get to the book.

      I personally don't consider myself anti-contextualization. As I note above, I like the fact that the Pioneers' statement doesn't contain a do/don't list so that contextualization can be employed. At the same time, I believe that Islam and Christianity are incompatible theologically. It's true that they embrace some similar things. However, they are self-evidently contradictory of each other in many other ways. "Their book" may be a good starting point, but "our book" needs to be the ending point. That pretty much sums up my view of IM strategy: it is, at best, a transitory phase of the church as it emerges.

      Thanks for the comment. I think a robust conversation serves us all.

  3. Thank you for posting this. I like the Pioneers statement quite a lot. I also appreciate moving this debate out of the mire of mission to Muslims. The debate over whether or not we should pursue contextualization is not the same thing as debating particular decisions and practices employed by specific communities and/or missionaries working among Muslims.

    I'm also happy that you avoided the temptation to write anything that would reinforce the spurious notion that there is some inherent connection between contexutalization and syncretism. Syncretism is most alive and well in communities where no intentional pursuit of contextualization has been employed. Where intentional contextualizers syncretize, it is almost always a problem with their commitment to and understanding of Scripture rather than the fact that they are trying to contextualize.

    Perhaps you have already seen the Cape Town Commitment's section on this issue. I commend it to you and your readers:

    4. Love respects diversity of discipleship

    So called ‘insider movements’ are to be found within several religions. These are groups of people who are now following Jesus as their God and Saviour. They meet together in small groups for fellowship, teaching, worship and prayer centred around Jesus and the Bible while continuing to live socially and culturally within their birth communities, including some elements of its religious observance. This is a complex phenomenon and there is much disagreement over how to respond to it. Some commend such movements. Others warn of the danger of syncretism. Syncretism, however, is a danger found among Christians everywhere as we express our faith within our own cultures. We should avoid the tendency, when we see God at work in unexpected or unfamiliar ways, either (i) hastily to classify it and promote it as a new mission strategy, or (ii) hastily to condemn it without sensitive contextual listening.

    A) In the spirit of Barnabas who, on arrival in Antioch, ‘saw the evidence of the grace of God’ and ‘was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord,’[72] we would appeal to all those who are concerned with this issue to:

    Take as their primary guiding principle the apostolic decision and practice: ‘We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.’[73]
    Exercise humility, patience and graciousness in recognizing the diversity of viewpoints, and conduct conversations without stridency and mutual condemnation.[74]

  4. We can see that the Pioneers' statement hits some important points but they are not fleshed out in a way that people can understand the seriousness of them. For example, the short statement on worldview does not convey the powerful influence of a culture and theology that is foreign to the Bible. The point needs to be driven home that biblical truth should not be contaminated by any syncretic amalgamation with another worldview and theology. Thus, as far as possible no Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist or other worldviews, philosophies or theologies should be integrated with biblical truth even when they seem to agree.
    Cultural similarities should be reinterpreted in light of biblical truth.
    It is just such associations and integrations that led to the collapse of God's purpose for the Jews as recorded in the Old Testament.
    This point is not clearly made in the Pioneers' statement.

    1. Roger,

      I think what you are looking for is a denunciation or condemnation of C5/IM strategies. I was not a part of the team that drafted the statement, but my sense is that the leadership team wanted to be positive and not negative in the statement.

      What the statement (including the one you note on worldview) does embrace is that we are not to "leave" people in their non-Christian worldview. Leaving people in the non-Christian worldview is what one of our staff have called an "Insider-for-life" approach. The "Insider-for-life" thinking is at the core of the C5/IM view. It holds that a person can stay in their non-Christian world and be a follower of Jesus (they tend avoid the "Christan" label).

      I would commend to you the recently published "A Closer Look" resource from the Pioneers' website. It can be found here: http://www.cartpioneers.org/a-closer-look-forum-o… and it will show in greater detail the dialogue that has been taking place on the topic at Pioneers.

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