This is my second interaction with David J. Hesselgrave and Ed Stetzer's book Missionshift. You can see my first response here, and can read and join in on the larger conversation at Ed Stetzer's blog.
The essay for this review was written by Paul G. Hiebert. Hiebert's thesis is to offer some discussion of the state of "contextualization" as a critical aspect of missions, and of the changing perceptions of contextualization among missionaries and missions scholars. Hiebert's goal is to focus on the present of what has been traditionally termed "missions."
Hiebert shares his thought that there are four primary views of contextualization in missions. View one is what I would call the spartan approach where the missionaries may translate the Bible into the local language, but then do little (or nothing) else to contextualize. This makes the new "indigenous" church look like churches where the missionaries came from, just with a different language spoken. The church looks nothing like the local culture.
View two is what I would term as the all things approach where the missionaries swing to the opposite extreme of view one, choosing to embrace and accommodate virtually everything from the new culture they are trying to reach. The big problem with view two is syncretism of course. The church looses its identity and looks just like the local culture.
The third view has the missionaries trying to remain Biblical faithful while remaining sensitive to the surrounding culture. This avoids many of the pitfalls of the first two approaches to contextualization. This view is rooted in the historic views of the faith and applying it to the current culture.
The fourth view guides the missionary to attempt to answer the questions of what did the Biblical text mean to the original audience, and then what does that mean for us today? I personally didn't seen enough difference between views 3 & 4 to need separate categories for them, but Hiebert felt there was room to differentiate.
One of the first thoughts I had while reading through this (along with other reactions in the book to the essay as well as an essay response by David Hesselgrave) is the idea that contextualization is inherently reactionary - or at least as it has been categorized by Hiebert. Being reactionary puts the missionary/church at times at a disadvantage to addressing the culture. While this isn't unique to the missions field, it is/can be an additional barrier in what can already be a challenging place for ministry. This is why I am a strong proponent of indigenous led churches as early and often as possible. To his credit, Hiebert does a fair job of pointing out the need for missionaries to deal with sociocultural differences. To be able to minister as effectively as possible, foreign missionaries must really do their homework to learn the culture, and then continue to grow in that knowledge and understanding. And it has to be both knowledge and understanding for the missionary to be able to fully leverage the culture in the presentation of the Gospel.
Within the body of view four, Hiebert brings up a number of good points that are worth noting.
1 - Our theologies are our partial human attempts to understand Scripture in our particular contexts, but the Gospel transcends them all. (Page 95)
-The Gospel is greater than culture, but it works within culture.
2 - Missionaries would be well served to avoid blindly criticizing customary beliefs and practices because regardless of whether the criticism is true, it causes people to be unwilling to share freely with them for fear of further condemnation and judgment. Not only do you have to earn the right to say things of this sort, but it is often detrimental to your efforts even if you have "earned" the right. Certainly there does come a time of accountability for views, but if the Gospel is as great as we claim it to be (it's far greater indeed!) it should on its own stand as something greater as we live it out and share it with others.
3 - The study of Scripture is the responsibility of the church as a hermeneutical community. (Page 97)
-Indeed a good reminder to interpret and grow our views and understandings of Scripture in the context of a larger community. It keeps us from jumping off the cliff theologically. And in a missions setting it allows the missionary to draw in the cultural aspects they may miss or misunderstand. This ties in well with the idea
on page 100 that:
4 - [The missionary] and their people must together make and enforce decisions arrived at corporately. Only then will old believes and practices not be pushed underground, subverting the Gospel. (Page 101)
-Local buy-in is a must if the Gospel is to be transformational to any culture. Without it we're just as likely to be inoculating people against Christianity.
A contextualized hermeneutic is a must if we are to reach the the whole world for Christ, and not just the people who are like us. This is true domestically as well as abroad. It requires a bit more work on the part of the missionary (we're all missionaries in some context) but the effectiveness in this approach is far greater.
Thankfully Christ will build His church and the Holy Spirit has been sent to be our helper, so even when we miss, even when we are not at our best, the Gospel can still be advanced.