Contextualisation Theory in Euro-American Missiology

The term “contextualisation” has not had a long history. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that it displaced “indigenisation” as the label of choice. What follows is a brief history of how this came about, followed by a list of what I see as unresolved issues in contextualisation studies.

In the earliest days of the modern missionary, the basic concept Euro-American missionaries carried with them may be labeled “cultural encounter.” Taking the gospel to non-Western peoples was seen as an encounter between Euro-American “Christian” culture and the “pagan” cultures of the non-Western world. Missionaries sought to defeat the enemy through converting “pagans” to what they assumed was Christian culture.

Three Selfs
Toward the middle of the nineteenth century, the writings of Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson advocating self-support, self-governance and self-propagation brought about some attempts to change things, though mostly at a superficial level, by putting nationals in charge of the churches. Three-self theory was considered enlightened missiology for nearly a century.
Early Impact of Anthropology
In the 1940s and 1950s, the impact of anthropology was starting to be felt. A very influential source of anthropological insight during the 1950s and 1960s was the bimonthly journal Practical Anthropology.
Beyond “Form Indigeneity”
William Smalley’s “Cultural Implications of an Indigenous Church” (Practical Anthropology 1958) was a major breakthrough in thinking about indigeneity. Smalley challenges the prevailing assumption that churches run by nationals are indigenous, concluding that churches operating according to western patterns are not indigenous even though run by nationals. By the 70s, then, there were many advocating a more dynamic approach to the relationship of Christianity to culture than the form indigeneity concept.
Transition to Contextualisation
In 1972 at a World Council of Churches consultation, Shoki Coe formally introduced the term “contextualisation.” Though its World Council origins led many evangelicals to at first reject the term, during the mid and late 70s, we began to take seriously the broadening of the concept and to find both the term and the discussion useful and instructive.
Evangelical Acceptance of the Concept of Contextualisation

Typical of the new mood were the several events important to this discussion that happened in 1978. The January 1978 issue of Evangelical Missions Quarterly was devoted entirely to the issue of contextualisation. Helpful articles by Buswell, Conn, myself and Kinsler were included. Also in January, the ground breaking Willowbank Consultation on Gospel and Culture was convened. Contextualisation was very much in focus there. Also in 1978, Charles Taber initiated the journal Gospel in Context and published three important articles.Then, in 1979, my book Christianity in Culture was published, suggesting “dynamic equivalence” to New Testament models as the appropriate approach to contextualisation.

Since 1980

Contextualisation studies have increased greatly since 1980. Bevans and Thomas list 32 significant studies in their bibliography (Missiology 1991), 25 of which have been written in the 1980s, twelve by Roman Catholics, including Crollius’ (ed. 1982) eleven volume collection of papers on inculturation.In 1984 Harvie Conn responded to and went beyond my book in Eternal Word and Changing Worlds. In 1985, Robert Schreiter published his experiment with a semiotic approach to contextualisation,Constructing Local Theologies. 1987 saw the publication of Paul Hiebert’s article “Critical Contextualization.” David Hesselgrave & Edward Rommen’s, Contextualisation (1989) provides a conservative reaction to contextualisation studies. In The Word Among Us (Gilliland, ed. 1989), Fuller’s School of World Mission faculty provide statements on a variety of contextualisation issues.

Five important Roman Catholic contributions during this period are the article on inculturation in The New Dictionary of Theology (1987) by Eugene Hill, Alyward Shorter’s, Toward a Theology of Inculturation (1988), Peter Schineller in A Handbook on Inculturation (1990), Gerald Arbuckle’s, Earthing the Gospel: An Inculturation Handbook for the Pastoral Worker (1990) and Stephen Bevans’ helpful attempt to take stock of and organise the various approaches to contextualisation in his Models of Contextual Theology (1992).

Darrell Whiteman has written an important essay entitled, “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge,” (International Bulletin 1997).

Remaining Issues

Much remains to be done, both in conceptualising and in applying what we think we know. I point to six areas of unfinished business.1. How to get what we think we know academically across to field missionaries, to entrenched church leaders and to the administrators of missionary-sending organisations.

2. How to solve the problem of missionaries who know enough to work in culturally sensitive ways but who do not do it.

3. We have not dealt with the fact that there are important differences for the second and third generations from those faced by the first.

4. The contextualisation of relationship. What about the allegiance dimension that is critical to Christianity?

5. Most of the world is heavily into spiritual power. We have not adequately dealt with contextualising spiritual power and spiritual warfare.

6. We need to look critically at our theories of contextualisation in relation to what is really going on in the churches. Why do many of the largest, apparently most “successful” churches seem poorly contextualised? Are there factors that override cultural fit?

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