Sunday, March 24, 2019

Contextualization Versus Syncretism

In communicating the Gospel it is important to contextualize the message.  This would be true in every situation, whether one is speaking to an American audience or in Brazil.  Using theological verbiage like being “born-again” in Iowa might be understood by some, missed completely by a non-believer who comes to church for the first time. Certainly the phrase of being a born a second time would be confusing to a Hindu who believes in twelve thousand reincarnations.  Contextualization is an important element in presenting the message of Christ.

In Kenya, speaking to the Pokot cattle herders, I wouldn’t use Bible terms to describe Jesus as He is the Savior or that He died for their sins.  Those terms are church words, good words to be sure, but phrases they don’t get.  They don’t have a concept of sin, though they do have a concept of causing an offense to people in their community.  Instead of describing Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, I would describe Him as The Good Shepherd.   As cattle herders they understand that concept.  It’s putting the message into their frame of thinking…it is contextualizing the message.  

Syncretism, on the other hand, is when a person uses the symbols, including language, of the culture in an attempt to blend their cultural/religious beliefs alongside the Gospel, where it is indistinguishable.  An example of this was my recent trip to India.  A Hindu temple and a Catholic church are situated side-by-side.  I took a picture of the idols in the temple and then walked less than fifty-feet to a statute of Mary and Jesus.  Incense is burning at both sites, people are praying to both with clasped hands.  Both Hindus and Catholics stand before their icons asking for blessing.

To a Hindu, which may acknowledge Jesus as “a god,” along with the other three hundred million they worship, it is not surprising that they see little difference in the Christian faith.  

I am a strong proponent of contextualization of the Gospel and I am dismayed at how little attention is given to crafting our message to the average person who has little or no understanding of the Good News.  Good contextualization moves away from telling the story of Christ from our Christian culture and stretches to present the Gospel to a worldview that is not our own.  The challenge is not too fall off the precipice into syncretism.