Lately I’ve been wondering if trying to educate mainstream Christians about contextualisation is a bit wrong headed. Besides the fact that it burns you out (I say this from experience), the reality is traditional-contemporary churches already are contextualized for their constituencies – the increasingly marginalized pool of modernists in western society. They don’t talk about it this way of course, or realize how culturally marginalized they really are, but should we have hernias over it? It works for them.

To extend this line of thought, let’s no forget their forbears, the Amish. Should we try and ram contexualisation theory down their throats too? Hassle them to be more missional? But the Amish practice contextualisation! They have luddite churches for cultural luddites. Perfect fit! They don’t need our theories. The fact that their mission field is vanishingly small doesn’t change this.

Maybe I’m being facetious, but I say this because for all our efforts to educate mainstream Christians about contextualisation, all we see to be doing is sowing division. We focus on our distinctiveness, rub it up the noses of other Christians and wonder why they react the way the do. No, I think what we need to do instead is re-evaluate Christian unity. What is our basis for unity with other Christians? How do we exercise patience, kindness, humility and other fruits of the spirit in relations with them? How do we avoid the conflicts that invariably arise when parallel monocultural missions are pursued (remember Rowandra, South Africa, etc).

I think the real problem we have with modernist Christianity is its tendency to promote a faux unity, a unity that is not based on universals. Like the Hebrew Christians insisting that all Christians should refrain from meat offered to idols, get circumcised and practice kosher living, the Modernist evangelical-charistmatic insistence that we should all adopt their metaphors, their theological emphases, should be expose for what it is, cultural imperialism masquerading as universal truth. I’m thinking we shouldn’t be berating modernist Christians for their indifference towards contextual mission theory, what we should be critiquing them for is the same thing Paul critiqued the Hebrew Christians for – universalizing the relative, over-emphasisng non-essentials, adding to the gospel for people not of their (sub)culture and erecting stumbling blocks on the path to salvation. The irony is, the most strident voices of “bible-only” preaching are some of the worst culprits of reading cultural relativities into the universal gospel message. So let’s pray about it, let’s look for what we do have in common with our Christian siblings, lets focus a little less about our own distinctiveness in modernist Christian forums, and where we do feel that critique is being called for by the Spirit, lets focus on what Paul did, cultivating authentic unity.

A final note: with the explosion of sub-cultures within global society, on the net and on the streets, will there ever contextualised churches for every subculture? Within easy reach? I think the reality is we will be faced with people who don’t culturally fit within any church for some time to come yet, and maybe never get it fully right. Culture is shifting too quickly to contextualise for every emerging possibility. In such as environment, can we say the emerging church will ever fully emerge? As I person who straddles both the emerging church and the contemporary church and gets a sore ass in the process, I’ve come to think that maybe we’ll never get contextualisation fully right, but what we do need to get right, and get right now, is a biblical understanding of unity cultivation.

4 thoughts on “Faux unity

  1. you can’t walk both sides of a barbed-wire fence…
    …you’ve got some good thoughts there. i think you are right that a number of mainstream “bible-belt” evangelical churches are highly contextualised towards suburban modernity and also uncritical of their received culture.
    one issue that comes up here is the divide between the global and local, between cosmopolitanism and localism. i would want to push this all a little futher and say most mainstream churches are not just contextualised for modernism, they are also contextualised for localism (you could go so far as to say they are contextualised for localist fundamentalism).
    i think you can lead a thoughtful horse to contextualisation and it might drink, but lead a localist horse to globalised cosmopolitanism and it will kick you where it hurts.

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  2. Yes, you raise an interesting point about a cosmopolitan / local divide between emergent and establishment Christians. In my experience, the more parochial the more modern, the more cosmopolitan the more postmodern.
    As a related observation, the small emergent group I run has two guys who do business overseas (possibly the only ones in the church) and Im one of the most well travelled church members by far.
    By contrast, the more modernist inclinded members are generally school teachers or the like working within a few K’s of where they live.
    It’s not a hard and fast rule, and I say this at risk of oversimplifying the situation, but cosmopolitan / parochialism does tend to be indicative of postmodern / modern sensibilities.
    PS. Pray for a spiritual crotch guard. Actually didn’t Jesus say something about becoming eunichs for the Kingdom? Just joking. The fence isn’t quite that sharp – I’m not subjected to hostility, just a wearying indifference.

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  3. Is it really about the people that are going to religion or the religion that people are bringing into their lives and community? Mass media and globalization has completely changed the “localism” of the church or religion contextualised for modernism.

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  4. I wouldn’t give up on challenging the avergae church re contextualisation, but then I wouldn’t get a hernia opver it either. The ways of thinking are very entrenched and as you mention steeped in some form or ‘biblical’ validaton.
    As Richard Rohr says, ‘the best critique of the bad is the practice of the better’.
    If we can actually do something of significance and value then maybe people will take note.
    Of course the problem is that the measureing sticks are completely different so we may never be regarded as effectrive by those who look thru different glasses.

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