Thursday, 11 September 2008

Contextual mission or missional contextualisation or whatever you call it …

Mark Driscoll has recently been in Sydney and stirred plenty of discussion. Most discussion has  focussed on the 18 points which Tony Payne at solapanel described delightfully as "Mark Driscoll's 18 Theses nailed to the foreheads of the assembled Anglican leaders in Sydney". (In fact there were a scattering of others there as well as Anglicans, though not myself). You can see the report and read a summary here.

He says that we have to be 'missional' and 'contextual', and that is what I wanted to talk about and see if anyone out there (hello if you are the reader!) has a view and wants to keep talking.

On the one hand I am all for missional contextualisation. What I mean by that is we think and speak in the context of culture and society. Inevitably theology is shaped by who we are and where and when we live. I don't think we need to apologise for that or try to avoid it. We should admit it and enjoy it. The questions that press on us and the way we'll answer them are part of theology and preaching  and should be. As a theologian I take it as one of my exciting and solemn duties to help students develop ways to  speak faithfully about God to their world from Scripture  So not only should be we contextual, we are missional; we speak (and write and act) because we are part of what God is doing in his world. Once we've prayed "Your kingdom come on earth" we recognise the mission. So our contextualisation is not mere accommodation or compliance with the culture, it has to be redemptive and so will be subversive and counter-cultural.

So far, so good (for me, anyway).

My fear is that missional contextualisation is short-circuited. We read the Bible carefully against its own horizon and then move to express that in our context with our own horizon, but don't engage with how the church has understood and expressed the gospel and lived in the past. Older forms of thought and life are abandoned with apparent ease. Older forms of worship are judged not culturally relevant and simply  jettisoned.  I don't want to lock us into traditionalism at all, but I want to be part of a church which drinks deeply of the ways of the past, appreciates it, and keeps some and transforms some and leaves some, but thoughtfully.

I think that is why I find myself changing sides on the question of contextualisation. Some days I insist on it, but others it feels so shallow. When it is done well in conversation with the past I love it. When it is the thoughtless preference of the present for the past I find it sickening.

Am I on the right track? Are there better ways to analyse and address the issues? How do I as a theology teacher help students learn the tradition in depth, but still be ready to re-express the gospel?


Lynne said...

Jumping in as one of the unqualified here, but I think it helps to make a cleart distinction between presentation and content. Our content must be faithful to our understanding of scripture, and ultimately, whatever entry point we start from, our aim is to lead people towards the whole counsel of God "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you". However, our presentation, our mode of approach, should always be relevant to the immediate context and the people we are dealing with. We know that instinctively; no one with any credentials as a communicator addresses a Sunday School class the same way as a group of theology students, or evangelises in an Old People's Home the way they would in an inner city cafe. Yet when it comes to actual church services, we're suddenly a lot less certain. Maybe part of it is the need to be clearer in our own minds which of our activities are "outreach" and which are for the edification of believers ..
just some musings from a fellow wrestler ..

Daniel McClintock said...

Hi John,

How to help the students learn the tradition in depth but still be ready to re-express the gospel?...

Perhaps the start would be to analyse the traditions you teach, in light of the cultural context in which they began, identifying with the students in what way these were faithful (or unfaithful) re-tellings of the gospel.

Then, the traditions are being taught, but also understood as models of ministry, which may either thoughtfully be kept or abandoned- depending on faithful engagement with the gospel and authentic engagement with the present culture.


Seumas Macdonald said...

I think McClintock has hit the nail on its head. Surely our conversations with our ancestors in faith, our study of church history and historical theology and the like, are deeply enriched by an appreciation of the cultural contexts in which they arise and which they address, and their success and failure in regard to the same.

Similarly speaking, the call to missional contextualisation recognises that the cultural context in which the gospel is expressed will, almost inevitably have weaknesses. The translatability of the gospel almost begs christians to remain in cross-cultural communication with their brothers and sisters, to avoid blindness to their own weaknesses, and remain challenged by the need not to confuse timely expressions of the gospel with the timeless truths of the gospel.

Russ said...

One of the challenges I feel is that we do a lot of talk about contextualisation post-Driscoll but we're short on concrete examples. Is everyone thinking of the same thing? Are we talking about remodelling churches to feel more contemporary or even holding meetings in the local pub? Or are we talking about changing how we communicate—like learning from commedians how to hold an audience for an hour? Or including more Hillson-style multimedia?

The other observation I'd add is that, at least for much of the postmodern culture we work within, the past has a great attraction. I've known a number of churches (outside Sydney circles) where they've had Passover celebrations at Easter time. It seemed some of the attraction was to remember the past—to see what we do today as somehow a product of the past, even though so much of what we do is actually quite different from what they did. It's significant to note Mark has published Vintage Jesus. The title resonates with the whole "going back to the origin" feel. This means we can be explicit in our conversation with the past. And sometimes we can abandon current traditions for even older ones that served the same purpose.

The important thing does seem to be properly understanding why things are done the way they are before abandoning or changing them. That seems the heart of what you're saying.

Brett said...

It may be helpful to look at the history and uses of the terms you are using here. Missional & contexualisation are both tricky terms as they are driven by the presuppositions of those using them. These terms have been picked up and used extensively through the 'Emerging church’ and beyond. There is a significant degree of variety out there. If you want to see some of this have a look at the missional syncroblog (, the conclusion here seems to be that ‘missional’ must be more than the adjectival form of mission but must include incarnational mission. Much of the academic material on contextualisation presupposes that the incarnation is the model which we must follow. While this does capture significant parts of the Biblical teaching (Jn1, 20:21, Phil 2 etc.) At present I have some reservations about this which I will get around to posting at some point soon on my blog.
As for Contextualisation, Hesselgrave & Rommen's book 'Contextualisation' shows the spectrum of use of this term. I think that contextualisation is a good thing but needs to be founded on the Biblical calls to share in God's mission, love our neighbour and have compassion for the lost. Tradition in this sense can guide and guard us from the novelty of our age and actually help us to have some depth and authenticity.
In the emerging church conversation there are different approaches to Tradition. Dan Kimball will encourage us to use ancient forms as a way of incorporating depth. Alan Hirsch comments that the church has been in Christendom mode (300-2000AD) and needs to get back to the Missional mode of the NT church. In this sense he goes too far in almost dismissing the majority of church history and movements. Essentially there are diverse approaches to Tradition.
Mark Driscoll is at the conservative end of this conversation (if he is in it at all anymore). He was encouraging us to engage with our context. While we may need to work on the way we do church continually, more important than that is working on engaging and connecting with the people around us. That is part of the mission that God has given us.
I take it that good contextualisation will offend people, but for the right reasons. (see Whiteman, D.L., Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge. International Bulletin of Missiological Research. Jan 1997 ) The message of Jesus is offensive, and if we are speaking in ways the people around us can understand we will offend people. In this sense an appreciation of tradition will help us to critique the present and to have more of a ‘prophetic’ voice to our culture. I am convinced that deep down our society’s problems are spiritual ones and if we can both help people to see their problems and point them to real hope and life in Jesus.
When we think of contextualisation we so quickly move to thinking about our church meetings and particularly preaching. Much of what is in our traditional forms is very good and certainly not worth throwing out, yet if we sit in our buildings arguing about how to shape our meetings we have missed the main point here. In reality the majority of mission and contextualisation will come from the things we do outside our meetings. It will come from the way we engage with unchurched people around us. If we then let that begin to have some impact on what we do it can be helpful. Personally I think that much of our conservatism has held us away from the errors we see in much of the American church, yet it also means that many Christians are isolated from the communities they live amongst.
A helpful concept to think through in regard to Church meetings is the idea of novelty. Our culture loves novelty, used well you can capture much attention by doing novel things. But if everything you do is novel, you run the danger of losing both depth and any sense of authenticity. We can use novelty but we ought never to put it in the driver’s seat. Contextualisation is always a fine line between syncretism and irrelevance, but it is one way of speaking of the task of taking the gospel of Jesus to the world.

John McClean said...

Thanks a lot for all the comments.

I should try to clarify again - my original post was not a criticism of Driscoll. He is just the person who put the issues in the air I breath in the last few weeks. I was then asking myself why do I embrace contextualisation (no doubt version of it which others would see as rather weak ) in theology but get nervous of it at other times. Of course church/theological tradition can never be the whole answer. I suppose I am really proposing that as we seek to be contextual an appreciation of the thought and practice of the church of the past will be a very important resource, and probably an under-appreciated resource. That is the point that several comments made.

I know a bit of the literature and discussion about contextualisation and 'missional' - though Brett's summary was very helpful. That's why I deliberately did not pin my question to a tight use of either term.

tristan said...

I did think just the other day, while preparing to lead a church service that the stuff I was saying, albeit presented the way the congregation would expect to hear it, was (and still is) going to be completely useless should any unchurched person walk in the door. It's frustrating but I don't really know how to change it.

I do think that the Message in general will be more applicable to the masses when Christians get closer to it (separating it from anything we humans have added along the way, whether archaic language or apathy towards it or whatever), rather than when we package it in this decade's clothing. After all, it is a Message designed specifically for the human soul.