Having just returned with Karen from two weeks in the Horn of Africa,
Having just returned with Karen from two weeks in the Horn of Africa, I’ve had the chance to ponder the meaning of a word we don’t use much in daily conversation. But as we spent time in the company of two very different communities of people there, the word has taken on a new meaning for me.
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?