Contextualization: Perspective from an Ethnologist

[Dr. David Cashin is an indologist and Professor of Intercultural Studies in the Seminary and School of Ministry at Columbia International University. For nine years he and his wife Margareta served in Bangladesh as missionaries, church planters, educators and development workers with SIM International. He has published numerous articles and is a sought after speaker on the topics related to the Islam and missions.]

Throughout your ministry, is there a particular occasion when you had to consciously engage in contextualization in order to get the message across? If so, when?

My evangelistic approach is question based.  I seek to contextualize my witness every time by understanding where my person is at through these questions and then adapting the message to their assumptions (whether by way of critique or agreement).  This also takes place in the church environment when I do speaking.  The background of the Church may influence my approach.  Also when ministering in Sweden or Bangladesh I preach in the local languages which is a kind of contextualization.

What are some of the greatest challenges that the missionary faces in doing contextualization?

First, to avoid syncretism and being unfaithful to the text or to the ultimate identity of the new believers.  Second, dealing with his/her own assumptions about reality that may distort the message to the hearers.

What would you say to a missionary who claimed that they didn’t need to contextualize in order to communicate to the target culture?  

This attitude would be both absurd and unbiblical.  God contextualized to us in Jesus who became fully man.  If we imitate Jesus we contextualize, period.  I call it absurd because you can’t be in the vicinity of a person to minister without being in “his context” to some degree.  The issue is, what principles do you bring to the unavoidable process of contextualization?  How do you do it well, rather than badly?

How should contextualization shape the ministries of American churches and Christians in their cultural contexts?

I think [American] Christians need to be aware of the assumptions that our culture brings to the table:

  1. Relativistic
  2. Self-focused in terms of authority
  3. Evolutionary with some key contradictions and inconsistencies.
  4. The very system that they follow leads to the selfishness which they generally identify as humanity’s biggest problem.

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