Let me give you an example of contextualizing: A Sunday school teacher takes a Bible story, say, Jonah and the big fish, and thinks how to present it to a class of 5 year olds. What will work to make the message heard by them and what won't work? Do you use simple words, bright colours, pictures, sounds, acting it out, short activities, tasty snacks? You know already what would work and what wouldn't, right? Now you can imagine this process that the gospel goes through when it moves from one cultural context to another. This is the process of contextualization, figuring out how to communicate it and grow the kingdom in a context of a certain time, place, culture and people group.
The ideas that are blowing my mind in my seminary education this week relate to contextualization in both Melanesian and post-modern contexts. How do you make the gospel relevant to Papua New Guineans? To the urban unchurched in the West? The churches I know are best at contextualizing the gospel to people who are already churched. As this group is lacking in, well, un-churched people, how do you re-imagine it and scrape away all that getting-in-the-way church culture in order to communicate he core of "Hey, God's Kingdom has come to Earth! Whoppee!"? I can think of dozens of things that my churches in Alaska, California and PNG are doing that were contextualizing decisions made by medieval missionaries as they moved from Roman into European tribal culture...and we're still doing them!!* Perhaps it's time for a shift? After 1000 years? Can we change, pretty please? I know that I have a low boredom threshold, but even you must get bored after a thousand years of doing the same stuff and thinking it's really the gospel!
Researchers (from Fuller, btw) Bolger and Gibbs look at churches that are trying to figure out how to make the gospel understood and powerful (contextualized) for the unchurched post-moderns living in cities in the UK and USA (book published in 2005), and they realize that these movements of believers have some things in common: they are inspired by the life of Jesus and want to follow his example, even if that leads them away from the same old way we've done church, they tend to be very communal and also missional. These churches are called "emerging" because something is changing, but it's too soon to see what a post-modern contextualized church movement will look like when it's full blown.
Another Fuller researcher, Joshua Daimoi, was writing his PhD thesis " Nominalism in PNG" when I was first in that country as a fifth grader. He says that the gospel is a mile wide and an inch deep in PNG because the church has overlooked the how Melanesian culture works: it's communal, including an emphasis on harmony and structured around community leaders, and is holistically spiritual, not acknowledging the (false) western dichotomies of sacred/secular or material/spiritual, for instance. It knows that the spirit world is real, for instance, and that managing spiritual power is part of creating a balanced, healthy life.
So, getting to what's blowing my mind: both the emergent churches in post-modern urban settings and Melanesians in villages and towns around the Pacific have these common characteristics: holistic ways of seeing the world, acknowledging the spirit world, a desire for community. Once this is pointed out, it's so obvious that I can never again not see it operating in culture around me. (Which sentence should really be the theme of getting a seminary education!, don't you agree?)
Which leads me to my last point that bears much pondering (and it'll get fair shrift in at least two of the papers I have to write this week): what is a modernist Western town like Ukarumpa going to do about it? And personally, how do I live my life, as my Orthodox sisters and brothers would have it, as an ikon of the trinity, showing by all my actions that I'm living in fellowship with God? The question specifically raised for me by Bolger's Church and Mission class is, how would I arrange worship services in Uka, all this being true? The question from Travis' Power Encounter class that I'm pondering is, all this being true, how can we see inner healing and deliverance make a difference in Aiyura?
Are the answers formulating themselves as we speak away back in some corner of my brain? Probably! Come, Lord Jesus! Meanwhile, back to reading mind-blowing books.
*Church in rectangular buildings, for instance, on Sundays in the morning, one powerful man up front on the platform, platforms, windows, especially big ones with colours or arches, separate spaces for 'sacred' and 'secular' activities (that's not a medieval but a modern addition, and a poisonous one!), rich colours for church upholstery (though there was a Reformation reaction against that, and many protestant churches formed in revivals after 1800 or so are kind of self-consciously plain and not-pretty on purpose--though we seem to be getting over telling Protestant women to be self-consciously not-pretty), facing the front of the room, church buildings being separate and fancy looking and not like buildings for other purposes, singing or reading together, spiritual work being done by special set-apart people (clergy) done to the spiritually less-empowered (laity), people wearing special clothes for church, services that are discrete that last around an hour, special celebrations around Christmas and Easter (themselves pretty pagan in the way we still celebrate them, still using some of those Roman-era European tribal religious practices!), and my list could go on and on, but as this is a rant instead of a reasoned appeal, I won't bother to. ut it's in our practice, so doesn't it amount to a more powerful statement of belief for all that?