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Posts Tagged: missiology

Face Painting in Western Africa

Nov. 11, 2015By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

There are always pitfalls to cross-cultural engagement.  Well-meaning people, wishing to serve Christ, travel on short-term trips every year hoping God will use them to serve believers around the world. However, without a lot of thought to how other cultures view certain activities, some trips can harm the local churches we desire to serve.

Fanciful-Faces-Chicago-Face-Painter-FP-Web-BBTake for example a recent trip to West Africa where one of the tasks was the face-painting of children. Go to any fair in the US and you will see children begging their parents to have someone paint their face.  However, in the region of the country this short-term team was visiting, face painting was associated with witchcraft.  The team could not figure out why the children were crying while they painted their face.  Later that night the children were beat by their parents.  

How would a short-term team avoid such a situation? It is simple.  Instead of telling missionaries what you intend to do when you go to partner with them, ask them what would be best.  

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Two Kinds of Contextualization and Syncretism

Oct. 28, 2015By: Jackson WuAuthor Bio

What we don't know about contextualization CAN hurt our gospel ministry. Typically, people regard contextualization as a form of communication or application. This is not mistaken; but it is critically incomplete.blur-old-antique-book

Contextualization most basically is an act of interpretation. Only then can it be understood as communication or application. Contextualization is not primarily something we do to the gospel; rather, it is the mind’s perception of and/or response to the gospel. This is a broad description.


In actual fact, we can further subdivide contextualization into two kinds. The first is exegetical contextualization; the second is cultural contextualization.


Exegetical Contextualization


Exegetical contextualization refers to one’s interpreting Scripture from a cultural perspective.


It means locating the cultural context within the biblical text. Accordingly, someone with an East Asian worldview will more naturally see a number of concepts within the Bible that reflect the distinctives of his or her culture.

For example, one might more easily see themes like honor, shame, and collective identity. Exegetical contextualization means seeing what is true of our cultural context within the biblical text itself. I am not referring to eisegesis, whereby one forces foreign ideas into Scripture. Rather "exegetical contextualization" refers to a form of contextualization where one sees what actually is already in the text.

In short, we interpret Scripture through a cultural lens.

What might this look like in practice? In an East Asian context, an exegetically contextualized theology would take seriously language about God’s people not being “put to shame,” frequently used by biblical authors. Also, one could highlight instances of collectivism in both the Old and New Testament, such as when individuals are able to represent entire groups.


Cultural contextualization


Cultural contextualization refers to one’s interpreting culture from a biblical perspective.



Hence, one looks at a culture and identifies various concepts that can already found in the Bible. It situates the biblical text within the cultural context.

When examining a culture like China, the contextualizer might notice that God is called Father and the church is a family. Likewise, one might observe common features within the histories of Israel and China. These may include each people’s suffering from imperialism and demonstrating strong degrees of ethnocentric/nationalistic prejudice against outsiders.

Cultural contextualization means seeing what is true about a culture as a result of one’s having a biblical lens. In this way, the Bible provides new and true ways of assessing a cultural context.

What might this look like in a particular social setting? One could think of rampant consumerism and the fear people have of losing face. In light of Romans 6, we might say that people have become slaves to their homes, cars, or even to their own families. They need God to free them.

Why does this matter?


1. Protecting Theology

First, recognizing these two forms of contextualization can protect us from other mistaken or distorted views. For example, when interpreting Scripture, one should never use contemporary culture as a function replacement of the biblical context. In effect, this is the problem with the work of K. K. Yeo, who seems consistently to collapse Chinese culture into Paul’s letters, as if Paul were actually writing to modern Chinese people.[1]

Contextualization that is faithful to Scripture will clearly differentiate two locations––that of the reader and that which is being studied. That is, we must distinguish between the things we are interpreting and the perspective we use.

Breakthroughs in contextualization happen where there is overlap between these two locations. Overlap of course does not mean equivalence. No ancient biblical culture can be equated with any modern culture. In addition, one should not deny the importance of biblical ideas that are not inherent to a particular culture. In time, contrasting ideas can complement areas of overlap. After all, no culture is complete in itself.

Two Types of Syncretism


People use the term “syncretism” to refer to one’s confusing culture and Scripture. Most often, people think of “cultural syncretism,” wherein one reads his or her own contemporary culture into the ancient world.

However, there is a subtler example of syncretism called “theological syncretism.” In this this kind of syncretism, people restrict Scriptural truth to their own theological traditions dressed in various cultural expressions.

Accordingly, the metaphors and explanations that make the most sense to one group of people becomes the standard to which people from other cultures are supposed to conform. Western theologians and missionaries, for example, run the risk of “theological contextualization” when law-guilt metaphors are so emphasized that they functionally exclude other images and themes, like honor and shame.

2. Contextualizing Assumptions

If we assume that contextualization is mainly about communication or application, then we inevitably assume the thing (e.g. the gospel) that we want to contextualize. However, any theological truth we claim to know is an interpreted truth.

To put it another way, our conceptions of the gospel are always contextualized. Bevins rightly says, “There is no such thing as ‘theology’; there is only contextualized theology.”[2] Consequently, we at best end up contextualizing a contextualization. We simply provide wording or illustrations as a bridge by which the listener can understand the cultural perspective from which we are communicating the gospel. Our presentations are always culture laden.

3. Developing Contextualizations

The distinction between exegetical and cultural contextualization can help people actually develop biblical faithful and culturally understandable contextualizations. The difficulty of relating text and context can result in paralysis.

Not knowing how to “balance” the two, people fear compromising Scripture and thus do little to nothing by way of contextualization. By recognizing these two orientations, one then must consider how they relate to one another.

Interpretation precedes application. In the same way, exegetical contextualization is the foundation for cultural contextualization. Order matters. If the order gets reversed, unclear or problematic notions from a culture could be forced into one’s exegesis of the biblical text.

Naturally, hermeneutics (i.e. interpretation method) is a central component to any contextualization.[3] This single observation has great significance for missionary training and strategy. Missionaries should be sound exegetes, proficient in their ability to interpret the Bible.

This kind of skill is something quite distinct from simply being well versed in systematic theology and various biblical doctrines. When a missionary teaches the Bible to locals, he aims to demonstrate how his conclusions are reached.

Otherwise, what are the consequences? First of all, local Christians cannot reproduce the given interpretation. Second and more serious, they essentially grant greater authority to the foreign teacher above the Bible itself.

For a more extensive discussion on contextualization, see One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization.

 For a more rigorous demonstration of this approach, see Saving God's Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame.




[1] For examples of his work, see K. K. Yeo, Musing with Confucius and Paul: Toward a Chinese Christian Theology (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2008); K. K. Yeo, What Has Jerusalem to do with Beijing: Biblical Interpretation from a Chinese Perspective (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press, 1998).

[2] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 3. Emphasis in original.

[3] David Clark, To Know and Love God, 104–10.

Photo Credit: Plexels

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Don't Become a Cynical Missionary

Sep. 2, 2015By: Josh Montague

I’ve talked to them repeatedly. They joined up idealistic, adventurous, excited, and ready to take on the world. But now after years of living abroad, they’ve grown a cynical, disenchanted chip on their shoulder. I pastored in Madison, WI for twelve years and saw intellectual skepticism hijack the enthusiastic hope of many college students after their years in the educational field. Now as someone who gets to interact with both pastors here in the States and missionaries abroad, I’m noticing a growing cynicism around global missions. And increasingly, I find it in myself as well.


So let’s be straight. If we hold to Christ as the sovereign Head of the church, there can be no room given to cynicism. Cynicism is plain and simple disbelief in the promises of Jesus.

  • “I will build my church.” (Mt. 16:18)
  • “I am with you always.” (Mt. 28:20)
  • “I have many in this city who are my people.” (Ac. 18:10)

If anyone had a reason to be cynical and a bit jaded about the state of the global church it was the apostle Paul. The churches he planted were beset by various cocktails of heresy, immorality, false teachers, power plays, greed, disrespect, syncretism, and legalism among other things. Paul was personally beaten, exiled, ridiculed, rejected, mocked, shipwrecked, abandoned, imprisoned, whipped, and bitten by poisonous snakes. Combine that amount of personal suffering with the theological mess that describes so many of the churches he planted and the man had excuses aplenty for cynical despair.

In our modern Christian landscape, churches in Africa run to prosperity theology more than they run to Jesus. Small village churches have near-constant leadership squabbles. Pastors resemble celebrities and CEOs more than humble servants. The phrase “a mile wide and an inch deep” is used in Asia, Africa, and – lest we become geographically conceited - the Americas to describe a numerically growing church with a shallow and seemingly unsustainable theology. Every morning seems to bring news of another fallen Christian leader. Reading great books like When Helping Hurts cause you to question every missions trip you’ve ever taken. We have before us the perfect breeding ground for a cynical heart.

So it’s helpful to look to Paul.

  • To a church filled with immorality and power plays: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus”. (1 Cor. 1:4)
  • To a church struggling to understand the Gospel of grace: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.” (Rom. 1:8)
  • To a church that needed to be reminded in multiple ways to simply be kind to each other: “I do not cease to give thanks for you”. (Eph. 1:16)
  • To a church with a lack of financial capital and an abundance of petty squabbling: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you”. (Php. 1:3)
  • To a church beset by heretical teaching: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you”. (Col. 1:3)
  • To a church with an incredibly over-realized eschatology: “We give thanks to God always for all of you”. (1 Thess 1:2)
  • To a timid young pastor: “I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers” (2 Tim 1:3)
  • To a slave-owner: “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers”. (Phil 1:4)

If Paul could sit down at the first-century equivalent of a whiteboard and draw out his ideal church, listing its core values, leadership structure, cultural engagement strategy, and plan for reproductive multiplication, it probably wouldn’t resemble the Corinthian or Colossian or Thessalonian church. The churches I’ve pastored and worked with rarely fit what I draw up on white boards and legal pads. But while I can get easily frustrated, Paul was thankful. And Paul wasn’t just superficially thankful. His gratitude ran deep despite so many imperfections and concerns. And my inevitable question is “How?!” How can Paul find so much gratitude and joy in the church with its many blemishes and imperfections?

  1. Big Picture > Small Pictures. At the outset of Paul’s ministry, there was no church in Corinth or Thessolonica or Colossae. God in his mercy had used this former enemy of the church to plant new churches across the global landscape.
  2. Jesus is sovereign. There’s a quiet confidence running through Paul’s letters. He attacks heresy and sin with intensity, but he’s always supremely confident that Jesus was in charge. The one who promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church (Matt 16:18) stands over and protects the church.
  3. Small advances are still advances. Anyone who is involved in pastoral ministry understands the feeling that the church is in a constant state of two steps forward, one step back. Paul was able to celebrate the two steps forward while learning from and teaching about the one step back.
  4. Prayer. Paul had written to the church at Philippi and said, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Php 4:6) As a pastor and now as a teacher, I can easily slip into a state of anxiety about the global church … and my local church. Paul practiced what he preached. Rather than fret with anxiety, he prayed. Prayer directs us to the sovereignty of God. Prayer build hope in God’s redemptive plan for the church. Prayer places our anxieties and concerns into the hands of Almighty God.
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You Are Not Serving in Africa

Aug. 19, 2015By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

We are serving in Africa.  

That is statement I often hear from missionaries or when short-term teams arrive back in the US.  In one sense it is true, they may have traveled to the continent of Africa.  However, I think more precise wording is in order.

Imagine for a moment three short-term teams from Kenya come to the United States to serve.  One goes to Dallas, TX, another to San Francisco, CA and the other to Lake Placid, NY.  The trips go well and when they return they tell everyone what North American culture is like, how North American people act and how the church is flourishing and struggling.

Can one location really tell you what a country is like, and even more, a whole continent?

Africa consists of 47 countries (the UN says 54 and the African Union says 53).  There are around 2000 languages spoken and an estimated 3000 people groups on the continent.  To the north, Isalm dominates the religious and political landscape. To the south, most countries have a majority of professing Christians.  Have you considered that Kenyans and Egyptians are both African?!

When we live and travel overseas, we only get small pictures of the overall culture of a country.  Honestly, on short-term trips we probably come to understand the culture of a neighborhood, not a county, a province/state, a country or a continent.  Even missionaries, who live in one location for many years, may live among one tribe in a country or they may live is a major city. It's not enough to say "we serve in Africa." 

Let's be more precise in our wording. 

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How to Grow as a Missiologist

Jun. 4, 2015By: Travis MyersAuthor Bio

One of my former college students who passed through Bethlehem College & Seminary before we offered a cross-cultural ministry concentration has been turned on to mission studies by one of the professors at the seminary he now attends. Brandon, who earned a degree in biblical and theological studies at BCS, asked me how he could grow as a missiologist. What I told him would apply to any US American Christian who has already been well grounded in sound doctrine and bible study skills, those things providing the essential lense through which to evaluate the contemporary global situation and formulate a faithful response. Here is an expanded version of what I told him:

operation-world1“Keep studying God’s marvelous and mixed up world while consciously making connections between what’s going on and the missio Dei revealed in Scripture. Be a student of globalization, especially the amazing and heart wrenching flow of migrant peoples around the world. Get to know as many people involved in cross-cultural ministry as possible. Cultivate meaningful cross-cultural relationships for yourself in the city where you live. Dip into cross-cultural immersion experiences as you have opportunity, like enjoying an Asian supermarket, visiting a Somali coffee shop, or going bowling with hipsters. Read The Economist weekly. Follow BBC on Twitter. Check out Al-Jazeera and Pravda online occassionally to get a different perspective. Watch popular international films and parse them for their worldview assumptions and assertions.

 Stay abreast of controversial issues in missions, especially regarding strategy, and apply rigorous theological thinking to them. That is very needful. The Reader for the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course and the journal Evangelical Missions Quarterly provide discerning readers an introduction to some of these topics. Craig Ott and Stephen Strauss’s Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues provides a judicious assesment of several topics from an evangelical and ecclesiocentric perspective while introducing readers to a range of missiological literature.

You should learn about issues involved with ministry among the materially poor and international development. Start by reading Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself but don’t avoid secular literature on the topic. Don’t go on a short term ministry trip without first reading David Livermore’s Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence and Tim Tennent’s “Six Dangerous Questions” to ask before doing STM.

Other books that I include in my courses and recommend to students include Tim Tennent’s Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century; the Bruce Ashford edited Theology and Practice of Mission: God, the Church, and the Nations; Paul Borthwick’s Western Christians in Global Mission: What’s the Role of the North American Church; Miriam Adeney’s Kingdom without Borders: The Untold Story of Global Christianity; Robert Wuthnow’s Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches; and, of course, Operation World.

In addition, you might peruse the websites of both the Lausanne Movement and the World Evangelical Alliance for papers and presentations by Christian leaders from around the world. The site offers from a “young, reformed, and restless” perspective podcasts that speak to the why and how of missions to unreached people groups.

For advanced study, see Landmark Essays in Mission and World Christianity, edited by Robert Gallagher and Paul Hertig; Mark Noll’s The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith; as well as Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, edited by Craig Ott and Harold Netland.

If you are interested in the history of missions – as you should be (!) – then also see Dana Robert’s Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion; Ruth Tucker’s biographical approach in From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya; the two fascinating and seminal books by Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History and The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History; and, finally, The Great Commission: Evangelicals and the History of World Missions, edited by Martin Klauber and Scott Manetsch. The last book noted concludes with a few chapters surveying the contemporary world Christian scene per continent and a wonderful chapter by D.A. Carson on the theology of missions.”

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