As we continue our examination of this topic, it’s important to consider the risks as well as the rewards. In my last article, I noted that, on the one hand, there is a danger of unconsciously contextualizing to ourselves and not really communicating the Gospel message to our hearers. On the other hand, there is the risk of syncretism, which I’ll address in this article.
What is Syncretism?
“Syncretism is the mixing of Christian assumptions with those worldview assumptions that are incompatible with Christianity so that the result is not biblical Christianity” (Kraft, “Culture, Worldview and Contextualization” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 405).
“Syncretism…[is] the loss of critical and basic elements of the gospel in the process of contextualization and their replacement with religious elements from the receiving culture” (Larkin, Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics, 153, summarizing the conclusions of the Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization in 1973).
“[Syncretism is] the replacement of core or important truths of the gospel with non-Christian elements” (Moreau, “Syncretism,” in The Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions).
Why the Concern?
Contextualization begins with the burden to communicate the Gospel and to make it understandable and actionable in a particular culture. Those who engage in this process have already parted ways with those who are only concerned to communicate the Gospel to a churched subculture or to win converts to a particular culture rather than to Christ by clearly communicating his Gospel. But as we engage in this process, we could end up in the self-defeating result of failing to communicate the true Gospel again.
But not only does syncretism make us fall prey to the same problem that we set out to avoid, it also puts us in the position of adding to Christ alone. In fact, that’s really the problem with both extremes. The unconscious contextualizer refuses to bend his cultural assumptions in order to humbly minister to others; ultimately, they force people to accept Jesus+a subculture. The syncretist bends the Gospel to a target subculture in a noble effort to minister to others, but they only end up adding Jesus+an incompatible worldview.
Colossians 2 warns us against taking such an approach. By adapting Christianity to the elemental spirits and religious practices of the surrounding culture, the Colossian church was in danger of abandoning Christ. Although their efforts, no doubt, came with the best of intentions, they had surrendered the true value of the Gospel in their syncretism. So what is the difference between Paul’s contextualization at Mars Hill and elsewhere and the syncretism that we see in Colossians? In other words, how does the necessary work of contextualization turn into syncretism?
When does Contextualization Turn into Syncretism?
When, whether intentionally or unintentionally, we cause Christian practices to take on non-Christian meanings. For example, erroneous teachings regarding prayer can easily take hold in particular cultures. Do people end up understanding prayer as a means to good luck or to force God’s hand to give us success? These misunderstandings are the result of syncretism either in the understanding of the recipients or in the explanation of the teachers. Understanding the proclivities of various cultures to misunderstand essential Christian activities like prayer, baptism, worship, or communion will help us avoid syncretism.
When cultural accommodations violate the clear commands of Scripture. In an American context, attempts to muddy the Bible’s teaching on objective morality (e.g., homosexual practices) have resulted in sub-Christian teaching. Although this could be argued as a form of contextualization, it would seem clear that the explicit violation of moral precepts rules this as a case of syncretism. We do need to exercise caution with this critique. There are many legitimate exercises of contextualization (i.e., local dress, emotional expressions, or musical styles) that have been addressed under this head; however, in lieu of an explicit biblical command or form, we need to avoid prescribing cultural confines on Christian practice in the ever-changing cultures around us.
When the uniqueness of the Christian Gospel is traded for closer relationships with other world religions or secularism. One example of this approach is the avoidance of the description of Jesus as “the Son of God” in Muslim contexts. The sensitivity of some missionaries to Muslim misunderstandings of the Trinity have led to avoidance of this construction; however, by avoiding this designation, the resultant teaching is sub-Christian. In the secular culture of America, it is easy for Christians to soft-pedal or discount the supernatural acts in Scripture. Cultural accommodation of modernism in the church led to the splintering of mainline liberal denominations and evangelicals in the early 20th century.
Principles for Avoiding Syncretism:
- Remember that the goal of effective contextualization is cross-cultural communication in an understandable and actionable manner, not communication that gains the most results or the greatest popularity. Although good contextualization may result in an honest rapport where the messenger and message are respected in the end, this shouldn’t be our aim. While we certainly believe that God has called us to present his Gospel to the nations and that we aren’t excused from shoddy attempts to do so, we’re under no delusion that the best efforts will present quantifiable results.
- Remember the non-negotiable truths. Although Christians in your culture may have piled up a number of cultural and negotiable applications, you need to be able to cut through these and hold a firm grasp on what must remain unmovable. Ultimately, if it comes down to flexing the core of the Gospel message and fighting the culture, the culture must be confronted every time.
- Root yourself in historical and missional theology. By reminding yourself of the historical vein of orthodox theology and the varying approaches to missions within that paradigm throughout church history, you’ll gain a clearer perspective on how to approach your target culture. I know that it’s a little cliche to say that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but I think the lesson is paramount. For an insightful period of history, I’d recommend reading about the German church during the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler.
- Understand your target culture from two angles. We’ll get into this more in later articles, but you must approach the culture asking: (1) What in this culture is the result of the law of God written on their hearts? And (2) what in this culture is the result of the fall? In asking both of these questions, you’ll begin to see that particular elements in the culture will lend themselves to effective Gospel communication, and other elements must be confronted by a clear and contextualized Gospel message. Missionaries who omit either of these perspectives either end up solely attacking the surrounding culture or solely adopting that culture.
- Deepen your grasp of the traditions and practices in your culture. Missionaries often tell me that one of the most difficult struggles they have is understanding which practices pose a threat to the Gospel and which don’t. For example, in some eastern cultures, a dead person is positioned facing the door when in a home for a funeral. The ancient purpose for this practice apparently was out of fear that an evil spirit would enter the corpse and that the zombie wouldn’t be able to exit (*gasp*). When people insisted on facing the corpse toward the door in the church, what was the missionary to do? Was it syncretism in order to accommodate the local custom? Although the missionary had done a deep dive into the history of his target culture, he paused to question the people that he ministered to. As he began asking questions, he discovered that the people had no clue about the underlying fears of zombie corpses. They had just always done it that way! Because the missionary wasn’t content to just understand his culture from the European history books but through the lens of his people, instead, he was able to accommodate the local customs without the danger of syncretism. This little vignette is reminiscent of the attempts in American churches to tie modern musical forms to animistic practices in Africa. If the cultural practices do not carry a meaning to the people that violates Scripture, it is not the missionary’s job to try to construct such a meaning. On the other hand, if the practices do carry such a problematic meaning, it is our job to confront the culture.
- Commit yourself to the centrality and exclusivity of the Gospel in your ministry. With Christ, you and the people you love have everything; without Jesus, you and the people you minister to have nothing. If your practice of contextualization misleads or muddies the clarity or the potency of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, you must repent and turn back to the Gospel. Hope doesn’t come through mass conversions to a fuzzy gospel or through poverty relief that just ends at that. Hope comes through Jesus.
As we continue our overview of this topic, I’ll be discussing contextualization with the assumption that syncretism, as we’ve defined it, isn’t present. I think this is essential for the purposes of implementation and discussion. I’ll leave you with this thought-provoking statement:
“Though the risk of syncretism is always present when Christians attempt to inculturate Christianity, it is a risk that needs to be taken in order that people experience New Testament Christianity” (Kraft, “Culture, Worldview and Contextualization” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 405).
[To see the previous three articles on contextualization, click here.]