Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Non-Missional Contextualization or Attempts at Non-Missional Relevancy?

Matt Stone of Eclectic Itchings and I have had some interesting exchanges as a result of Alan Hirsch’s recent trip to the U.S. to discuss missional church concepts. In particular, we have discussed the implications (or what should be the implications) of Christology and missiology for formation of ecclesiology. In a recent email, Matt made me aware of a post at Radical Congruency on this topic. They quoted from a letter from Forge (Hirsch’s organization) which touched on the relationship between Christology, missiology and ecclesiology. The letter included a statement that is relevant for consideration to both traditional and contemporary churches, as well as emerging churches:

We believe it is precisely this non-missional contextualising that is frustrating efforts to find a new way of being church in the new landscapes of the West and is the focus of the anxiety of the evangelical conservatives such as Carson.
I’ve been thinking about this quote, and particularly the phrase “non-missional contextualizing.” It is important to consider how missiology defines “contextualization.” The following quote from the dictionary at missiology.org is representative of missiological definitions:
Contextualization: (1) "the efforts of formulating, presenting and practicing the Christian faith in such a way that is relevant to the cultural context of the target group in terms of conceptualization, expression and application; yet maintaining theological coherence, biblical integrity and theoretical consistency" (Wan 1999, 13)
I would like to draw the readers attention not only to the specifics of this definition, but also to the assumptions upon which it is based, namely, that contextualization is usually a purposeful process that takes places within the broader framework of an attempt to be missional. If this is the case, I wonder whether it makes any sense to speak of “non-missional contextualizing.”

I think I understand what Forge tried to say. Various churches in the West have tried to reach various segments of a rapidly shifting culture by adjusting their services and programs in order to attract people into the church building and community in order to engage the gospel. Forge may be saying that this is a form of non-missional contextualizing, in that it is attempting to present “church” in a context more relevant to the groups a church seeks to reach.

The same might be said of aspects of the emerging church. Their incorporation of certain elements in worship that are appealing to postmoderns, for example, might be considered non-missional contextualizing if such efforts are divorced from incarnational efforts within the culture.

If my understanding is correct, I wonder whether this assessment by Forge is slightly off the mark. I agree that a lack of missional perspective is at the heart of the failure of the Western church to engage the culture, and that this is non-missional, but I don’t know that efforts by traditional and contemporary churches, and some emerging churches, have been contextual, unless one can accidentally swerve into contextual methodology. As the definition provided above seems to assume, contextualization presumes a missional perspective and foundation, and perhaps the efforts of traditional, contemporary, and some emerging churches might more accurately be described as attempts at “non-missional relevancy” rather than contextualization.

At any rate, Forge’s overall assessment is correct in that Western culture is at a place that puts it far beyond anything that mere modifications to church services, programs, and new buildings can address.

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