Good missionaries know that they must contextualize their ministry to their receiving culture. Missionaries seek to present the eternal truth of the gospel in a way that a non-Christian culture can understand and respond to God’s voice. The most obvious form of contextualization (though not always the most simple) happens when a missionary crosses a language barrier to communicate the truth. For example, a missionary from Texas who travels to France to spread the gospel must first learn how to speak French before they do anything else. This is called contextualization – learning how to communicate effectively in a different culture.
What is clear for missionaries in foreign cultures is not always clear for missionaries on their home turf. In other words, learning to communicate the gospel to a people group that is foreign to you makes the contextualization steps abundantly clear. The missionary sees quickly that he is an outsider and that he needs to adopt new styles of dress and speech and patterns of behavior in order to work in this new cultural context. But what does contextualization mean in your own cultural context? How do use the language and patterns of your native culture to effectively communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ?
One of the reasons that this is exceedingly difficult is because the line between contextualization and syncretism is thin. Whereas contextualization is entering a cultural worldview for the sake of clearly communicating God’s eternal truth in an understandable way, syncretism is the merger of two worldviews into one new worldview. In other words, if we are not careful in our missionary work (especially in our own culture but also in foreign cultures), we will enter the worldview of those around us not to challenge it but in order to adopt it and merge it with Christian theology.
When you travel overseas, syncretism is fairly easy to see. If Christians in another context have adopted non-Christian beliefs from their culture, you are more likely to see them as an outsider to both cultures. But discerning syncretism in your own culture is exceedingly difficult. Let’s look at two biblical examples to further illustrate the difference between effective missionary contextualization and unhealthy theological syncretism.
First, let’s look at Paul’s missionary work in Athens in Acts 17:22-34. In this passage, Paul goes to the place of religious practice for his receiving culture, the Areopagus, and intelligently engages the pagan culture. He obviously had read their poets and knew their philosophers. He spoke their language and knew their customs. Paul identifies with them and speaks highly of their religiosity. However, in the midst of entering the Athenean worldview, he also challenges it with biblical truth. He enters the worldview to challenge the worldview – which is the key of missionary contextualization. Please note in this passage that Paul goes to the people he is ministering to and does not critique their morality. He gets below the surface of their activities to their idolatry. He wants to speak to their foundational beliefs, not their outward behaviors. He understands the worldview of those he is trying to reach (and explains it clearly) so that He can engage it intelligently and challenge it biblically (with the metanarrative of Scripture).
To see a clear illustration of crossing the line into syncretism, let’s look at the Israelites in Judges 2:11-15. Instead of driving the foreign peoples out of the Promised Land like they hand been commanded, the Israelites assimilated the religious beliefs and practices of those around them into their own faith system. This is essential to understand. They did not abandon Yahweh completely. They abandoned Yahweh uniquely. In other words, they continued to worship Yahweh and bring sacrifices to Yahweh, but they also wanted to include the gods of the Canaanite religions in their worship. This is called syncretism – adding the gods of another worldview into the Christian worldview to form a new melting-pot religion. The result is a mixture of Christian language and theology with pagan language and theology.
You can see why the missionary has a difficult task – to study a worldview at the level of understanding it and being able to communicate within it without adopting the beliefs and values of that worldview. In our current American culture, the dominant worldviews are materialism, hedonism, secularism, pluralism, naturalism, and moralism. As we engage each one of these religious systems (which they are) with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must be aware of the danger we face of uncritically adopting the idols associated with each. Moving forward, the challenge for Christian missionaries is to effectively contextualize our work without falling into theological syncretism. May God give us wisdom and insight into our tendencies as His servants so that we can avoid the traps that would hurt our witness for Christ.