Contextualization &  Eschatology

by Dr Tan Lai Yong

While on holiday with my family, I saw this signboard outside a home that was being renovated. The builders advertised that they were totally committed to giving a good finish to the house.

I live and work in a region where there are more than 25 different people groups. There is indeed a rich diversity of cultures that is being influenced by modern education and the economics of rapid urbanization. We need to be contextualized when we present the Gospel. Much has been studied and written about cultures and customs. We certainly need to know the inclinations of our host culture as well to discern the influence of taboos and traditions that modified our own understanding of the Christian life.

The signboard outside the house that was being renovated reminded me that cross cultural workers should also take on the same attitude – to have the finish in mind right from the start . We should view our work in church planting and evangelism from the end times and this should modify the methods and ways that we present the Gospel.

From the passage in Ephesians 5:25-27, we catch a glimpse of the Apostle Paul’s view of the church from the end times :

Husbands, love your wives , just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy , cleansing her by the washing with water through the word , and to present her to himself as a radiant church , without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish , but holy and blameless.

As we work to present to Christ a radiant church , holy and blameless, we should be looking at ways :

a) to love the church

b) to give up our status and examine our traditions

c) to present the Word

In our desire to surge forward, there may be situations when missionaries seem to love their plans and methods more than the people. I have been in situations where foreign workers very quickly want to start an orphanage or a bible school without first learning the local language and culture, and without connection with the fledging local church.

When I moved into the host country in 1996, I could not get a medical license though I was a qualified doctor in Singapore and even held medical registration to practice in the United Kingdom. There was a feeling of professional loss and emptiness in status. Trained as a doctor, it was tempting for me to quickly start a clinic. That would allow me to help the many needy and poor patients in an area where there were few doctors. Deep in my heart, I also knew that a medical practice would also allow me to quickly establish my status. However it dawnedon me that in many poor villages, there was a much bigger need for clean water, toilets, and health education. In the long run, having good sanitation, clean water and appropriate hygiene knowledge would give the villagers better health than having a clinic. But these changes take a much longer time.

These days, many missionaries, especially Asian missionaries that are being sent out, are highly trained and qualified. Many have seminary degrees and are respected pastors that are held in high esteem in their own countries. There is an unsaid culture shock when entering a host culture that does not have a place in the society’s pecking order for ordained clergy.

In unreached areas, there may be a naïve and somewhat healthy ignorance of churchmanship or church government. It does not al-ways do the new church that much good to quickly introduce the methods and traditions from our own sending culture. We have to first ask the eschatological question of what the church is to look like when Christ comes.

I do not have the answers and would apologize if I have stepped on anyone’s feelings for bringing up sensitive issues. This is not about the process of ordination or about the doctrine of Holy Communion. But I feel troubled when church traditions from another country are introduced into a local church plant too quickly.

In some instances, the foreign missionary assumes that only ordained people can initiate the Holy Communion. Since he or she is the only ordained person in the newly planted local church, it automatically means that locals will not be leading the Holy Communion. How would this affect the locals?

Are we empowering them? Are we ready to give up on our positions of influence as we had experienced in our home churches so that we can focus on presenting the local church radiant through the Word and the Spirit? I do not have the answers but would encourage much thinking and prayer in our own situations as we seek to plant and build up local churches.

Contextualization does not mean that we simply drift along with our host culture. Paul talks about the cleansing through the Word. We need to bring a counter culture ie a biblical lifestyle with us and through us.

Practically I found it useful to:

a) drink tea with local friends – listen to the changes

b) develop local leadership – actively allow for changes

c) be discerning – provide for intentional change

A good start onto the journey of contextualizing our faith to local culture is to spend time with local friends.

While our long term intention is to share the Gospel, we should take time to listen and earn the right to be heard. Drinking tea – synonymous to relaxing time together – is a good way in my host culture. Sometimes, I review my past month and will take note if I had not spent enough time just hanging out with locals (often because I spent too much time in meetings and business/administration tasks).

Over a cup of tea, I listen and ask questions about education, the market economy, inflation, corruption, illness and lack of health care … and how these issues affect and change their way of living. I listen to the changes and eventually want to tell them about the love of our unchanging God.

From a long term perspective – developing local leaders will be a giant step forward for contextualization of the Christian faith. This is one intentional change that missionaries must work towards.

Also, we should be aware that contextualization is not just about methods. We do need the guidance of the Spirit and the wisdom from God’s word. We need to discern the appropriate application of biblical truth in each culture and among each generation.

In the book “Habits of the Mind”, James Sire writes that Christians suffer from the sin of arrogance. That same arrogance causes others to suffer. Our very assurance that we as Christians are in possession of the truth has been and continues to be a barrier to others learning the truth we claim to know. He then quotes

Richard John Neuhaus:

“Few things have contributed so powerfully to the unbelief of the modern and postmodern world as the pretension of Christians to know more than we do … If Christians exhibited more intellectual patience, modesty, curiosity, and sense of adventure, there would be fewer atheists in the world …”

( Habits of the Mind by James Sire IVP)

Where I live and work now, coffee drinking became more in the vogue a few years ago. Tea was thought of as an old fashion habit. But in the past 2 years, tea drinking made a huge come-back. Prices of tea spiraled. Tea merchants would now encamp themselves by tea farms so as to be the first to bid for and buy the tea leaves.

Fashion, styles and tastes will come and go. We are assured that God’s Word will stand firm and so should humbly and wisely bring His truth in relevant ways to wherever He brings us.

Writer: Dr. Tan Lai Yong is from Bethesda Frankel Estate Church in Singapore. He is married with 2 children.

*Article extract from Asian Mission 2007 September Issue.