An interesting exchange took place last week between an anonymous missionary (non-SBC) presently serving in a Muslim country and a theologian at Liberty Theological Seminary. A post entitled "My Pilgrimage" is hosted at SBCImpact and written by an anonymous missionary who calls himself/herself "From the Middle East" (a regular contributor for SBCImpact, by the way). The pilgrimage described is in story form, self-designed by the missionary, "not so much as a full doctrinal statement"; instead, it is offered to indigenous Muslims to gauge whether they are "interested in hearing the Good News." More on it in a moment.
Dr. Fred Smith, Associate Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies, at Liberty Theological Seminary offered a strong challenge on SBCToday entitled 'More than a Prophet: A response to “My Pilgrimage.”' The interested reader should digest both pieces to get the maximum benefit from the two very different approaches to globalizing the gospel witness. Make no mistake: the two approaches are very different; so different, in fact, that reconciliation between the two appears to me impossible.
In addition, though the comment threads are very long, there are some helpful insights to be gleaned. Sadly, one must wade through a brier-patch of useless but inevitable complaining by a few to get the good stuff (e.g., Some endlessly suggested that stateside Christians have no expertise and consequently no business challenging the methodologies of missionaries abroad).
The issue in many ways is excruciatingly complicated. What is contextualization? The term is widely used in the field of global missions and has to do primarily with strategic communication of the gospel to people groups who have virtually no understanding of the Christian faith. To contextualize the gospel means to communicate God's revelation in both message and method in a manner which gives priority to Scripture's authority as well as serious consideration to form and meaning in each culture the gospel is introduced**.
Let's unpack that a bit.
First, the priority is the communication of God's revelation. If this is not the foundation of global missions, everything else we do is moot. Period. We go only to propagate His message, His gospel.
Secondly, communicating the message cannot, in the end, be separated from the method we employ to communicate it though it can be distinguished. In short, the message is rooted in scriptural authority; most of us have no problem here. However, the method in communicating the message is also rooted in biblical revelation. If this is so, then contextualization may be measured in success or failure according to its degree of preservation to not only the biblical message but also the biblical method.
Furthermore, a similar distinction can be explored between the meaning of the message and the form of the message we share. The meaning has to do with what we want to say and the form is how we say it. It is here, more than elsewhere, it seems to me, that defines the radical difference in the two approaches represented above. Allow me to show you what I mean.
The anonymous missionary writes:
"By Allah’s mercy, I was born into a respectable family. During my childhood, my parents taught me how to behave in a way that brought honor to our family and was righteous before Allah"
"But then I began reflecting on my own life. On the things I did. Did I truly worship Allah alone?"
"[My friend] said he struggled with the same thing...He said that the only Prophet that could give us greater understanding of the Kingdom of Allah and true submission to His will was Isa Al-Masih"
"As I studied the Torah, Zabur and Injil more and more, I came to see this is true. Finally, I was convinced only Isa Al-Masih was capable of helping me understand the Kingdom of Allah. So, I submitted to Allah’s will through Al-Masih...All praise be to Allah!"
Now note a sampling of the criticisms Dr. Smith made pertaining to the missionary's opening testimony to speak of his/her experience with Christ:
"Nowhere does the Bible ever tell us that salvation is a matter of merely understanding certain facts about God and his will...We are saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ because of His finished work on the cross. The writer of this article would have us believe that salvation comes by “understanding the Kingdom of Allah,” not by faith in anyone"
"Whatever might have been the author’s goal, what he communicates here is not the truth as taught in the Bible. We cannot communicate the gospel well if we say things that are different from what we really mean"
"The author of this article also presents Jesus (Isa) himself in a way that is totally foreign to the Bible... Nowhere in the testimony is Jesus, or Isa, referred to other than as a “prophet.” The Bible tells us, however, that Jesus is more than a prophet; more than one who gives us “understanding;” more than a “great teacher”...Our righteousness is in Him, not in “greater understanding.”
"There is one final problem with this author’s testimony. It lies in his repeated references to God as “Allah.”...In the context of Islam, “Allah” refers to a being who is remote from creation, who promotes salvation by works...This is a completely different person from the God of the Bible...These two beings are not the same god and cannot be! The referent for the word, in the understanding of the people he is reaching, is completely different from the God who reveals Himself in the Bible."
The difference is striking: the missionary focuses exclusively on the form of the message--how to say it--while Dr. Smith's evident concern is the meaning of the message--what is being said.
Is there a priority that should be followed? That is, should form take priority over meaning or meaning over form? From my perspective, hands down, meaning cannot be sacrificed at the altar of form. Why? First, there are definitive times in Scripture when form is so wed to meaning that sacrificing form includes sacrificing meaning as well. For example, Baptists argue changing the form of baptism inevitably changes the meaning of baptism. If this is so, it follows that form is subservient to meaning.
Secondly, practically speaking, no matter how culturally relevant missionaries might become in their communication with indigenous respondents, if what they communicate is so biblically insipid, that the end product cannot be discerned as biblically rooted in the unadulterated gospel, global missions is a grand waste of precious resources.
In fact, it may not be too much to say that missions carried out by sincere, well-intentioned believers, who focus primarily on the form of the message to the lamentable neglect of the meaning of the message, do global missions much harm and lead inevitably to the universally feared danger of missiologists of every stripe--religious syncretism. Here Christianity is presented as so blendable with indigenous culture and/or culture's religion, that it, in effect, becomes, in less than a generation, an aberrant faith at best or a gross heresy at worst.
Given such, I cannot hide my own profound reservation with the missionary's excessive focus on the form of the message as can be observed above. By default, then, I believe Dr. Smith's points were well taken and not adequately critiqued by those who challenged his thoughts in the comment thread.
Nor by admitting such am I revealing suspicion that our IMB missionaries are not doing a worthy service for our Lord (And neither would Dr. Smith, I fully trust). I believe they are. In addition, I believe that our stateside trustees--despite those who insist they have no right to do so because they are not missionaries on the field--are sensitive to the astounding challenges our missionaries face each and every day they serve and remain capable guardians for our missionary force.
Such challenges, including but not limited to, properly contextualizing the gospel message--balancing relevant form with right message--should drive us all to our knees more often for those who faithfully take the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth. God be glorified.
With that, I am...
**J. Raymond Tallman, An Introduction to World Missions, Moody Press, 1989, p. 212