This article, “Rethinking Culture and Mission,” is the result of many conversations with many people. In the summer of 2011, Epic Movement’s Leadership Development and Resource team engaged the questions: “What do we really believe about culture? Do our actions and attitudes reveal that we value it, and if so, why? And do we engage different people and contexts out of true respect, or out of pure pragmatism and ‘strategy’ while on mission?”
Since that time, I’ve gotten much feedback from Epic staff that has significantly shaped this article. First and foremost is my teammate Brian Virtue, who spent hours conversing me on these topics, and helping with editing. His mind and heart are huge influences not only on this article, but on me as a person. Much credit as well to Regina Chan and the Epic NYC team, who invested much time and provided detailed and invaluable insight. Others who gave feedback include: Destino Eric and Kristy from Cru’s Latino ministry, Tom Virtue, Steve Hong, Chrissy Reyes, Whitney Chen, TJ Poon, Sandy Mackin, and my wife Jennifer Pei. And much gratitude to Margaret Yu, who led last summer’s foundational conversations, and to Charles Gilmer from Impact Movement, who pioneered conversation about contextualization within Cru. Last but not least, much credit goes to my teammate Aaron Schweizer, who put in much effort in the layout and readability of the article!
Whatever your cultural or religious background, I hope this article sparks important questions and conversations about culture and mission that are part of your lifelong development as a leader.
- You can read the full text of the article below, or you can directly download the pdf here: Rethinking Culture and Mission
What is your understanding of culture? When was the last time you thought about what it really means?
Culture is all around us, but do we see it as good or bad? Some think of culture as a barrier that only divides people, and causes hate and violence. Others think of it as a burden or necessary evil that we have to learn in order to be more effective in our jobs or mission. Still others may see culture as overly complex and want to leave it as a topic for intellectuals to figure out.
Perhaps we have all had some of these thoughts, at one time or another. Why even think about culture and what makes us different from one another? Why not focus instead on what unites us, and might seem to bring us together?
But what if we saw culture instead as a gift of God, to develop us as leaders who embrace the unique beauty of our backgrounds, personalities, and talents? What if we saw culture as a window into the very heart of God, who in His master design longs to expand our view of Him and other people, through transformative relationships and diverse experiences?
While this article is for anyone interested in growing in cultural awareness and leadership, it is written from the context of Epic Movement, the Asian American ministry of Cru Global — a missions organization with global influence. However, the purpose of this article is not to defend ethnic studies or ministry, or explain why you should be involved in it.
The purpose of this article is to help you evaluate your own view of culture. This article is for you, whether through understanding how your own culture bears a part of God’s image, or how we must all allow other people and cultures to transform us, in order to truly know God’s character and heart. This article is about showing a better alternative for fruitful leadership and mission — through a richer understanding of culture and context.
This is a new charge for all people, regardless of your cultural knowledge or experience, to embrace your own development as a leader. Consider reading this article as a first step towards that direction. None of us can afford to miss out!
Introducing Contextualization: A Leadership Approach
Many writings and discussions about culture mention the term “contextualization.” For many, this may be a new term. Or even those familiar with it may have seen it defined in different ways. So what is contextualization?
First of all, contextualization expands the notion of “culture” to include “context.” After all, culture is not just about ethnicity, but socio-economic class, gender, age, and any category that distinguishes one person from another. Every group of people is a complex representation of countless cultures and subcultures. On this level, one might call every person and group “contextualized.”
However, not every person is aware of their contexts. Not every group is intentional in helping people lead in light of those factors. And true contextualization is an approach that fosters awareness and intentionality, when it comes to culture. Anything less is a diluted form of contextualization.
Take, for example, a group of Asian Americans that rarely discusses culture or differences between its members. Some might consider this gathering “contextualized” just because they are grouped by ethnicity. However, these Asian Americans might never wrestle with how their ethnicity impacts life, leadership, and mission. As such, this group is no more “contextualized” than a group of, say, Caucasians who do not discuss culture either. Just because a group is similar in culture, does not make it truly contextualized, unless there is awareness and intentionality involved.
On the other hand, consider a group that is entirely Vietnamese American, but is so aware and intentional in their approach, that they discuss not only ethnicity, but generational, socio-economic, and gender differences within their community. Such a group that others might consider to be mono-cultural would actually be more aware of differences, than an ethnically diverse group that never discusses culture or context. It would be much closer to the heart of what contextualization truly means.
Therefore, I want to define contextualization as a leadership approach that fosters awareness of the reality and impact of context, and through intentionality in community, helps people live and lead out of that awareness.
We can look at it another way. Culture is inescapable. It is in all of us, and around us. It shapes our past and present, as well as our very thoughts and decisions. However, what we choose to do with culture is up to us. We can either ignore it or minimize it, or we can allow it to teach and shape us. Contextualization, as defined above, is a way we can choose to take the reality of culture seriously, and let it lead us to more fruitful and rewarding relationships, perspectives, and mission.
Contextualization and Identity Based Leadership
Why is contextualization so vital? It is the central process by which people understand their unique God-given identity — and the most effective leadership and fruitful mission flows from that. When we begin to grasp and steward our distinct gifts and backgrounds, passion and purpose follow. We start to recognize how being Native American or Latino, or being a woman or man, gives us a perspective and strength that could not come from another culture or context. We also see how unawareness or devaluing of these differences can lead to unfocused, non-purposeful, and even unethical leadership and mission. The process or approach of contextualization catalyzes all of this!
While some do contextualize in this way, more often than not we give less attention than we should to culture, context, and differences. Why is it so challenging to lead and relate to others in this way?
There are a number of reasons, but one stands above the rest. We must understand that there are few forces more powerful, and more relentless, than the temptation to oversimplify and choose what is easiest. Humans and organizations that don’t recognize or resist this, will usually default to unawareness and conformity. Moreover, many people just want to be told “what to do.” It is easier to follow a list of practical steps, than to truly engage in learning. That is why it takes leadership for us to move towards awareness and intentionality. It takes great integrity and persistence to recognize and resist these temptations.
This is not just a reminder for majority culture leaders. Even statements traditionally associated with contextualization in ethnic minority circles, like “taking a message (i.e. the Christian gospel) and putting it into a language and context that Asian Americans can understand,” can tempt us to uniformity. We too hastily assume or accept that all Asian Americans perceive the gospel through one language or context.*
*Moreover, we can forget that the “message” itself is always rooted in a cultural context, and we must be aware of our own cultural influences in reading it (i.e. reading the Bible through an American cultural lens).
That is why it is so important to emphasize that this process of identity “discovery” or “formation” will look different for each person, though it is lived out and fostered through authentic community. Contextualization is not about being prescriptive or didactic about “what is true” about a particular culture — as some ethnic-specific books or curricula might lead you to believe. It is not about creating a culture-specific version of every concept or tool out there (i.e. the “African American” way to resolve conflict, etc.). That is because contextualization is not about fostering conformity. It is about creating space for differences to be recognized and expressed, because even within one ethnic cultural group, we are truly not all the same!
Now, we can (and should) create examples of material that is culturally-influenced, which provide a model for the result of the process of contextualization. But we must take care to never be overly definitive in our presentation of these models, because that can rob others of their own process of identity discovery and leadership formation, which are the desired results of true contextualization.
As we live out contextualization, then, it should open our hearts to new visions of God’s purpose for our leadership and mission. For instance, ethnic minorities in ministry might grasp their cultural intelligence and empathy to lead those within their own ethnic group, or their linguistic skills to minister overseas. Or they might see the value of their bicultural strength to lead in majority culture settings — not out of tokenism, but because of all they bring in their background and gifts.
Contextualization is far from a burden that we endure for the sake of other people — it is a gift of God that opens our eyes to who we have been designed to be! When properly understood and lived out, contextualization is an approach that leads to the most long-term fruitfulness in leadership and mission.
Contextualization and “Pragmatic” Mission
Within Christian circles, most conversations about contextualization appear in discussions about domestic and international missions and evangelism. The central question posed in American majority culture settings is: “Can we truly reach every person, if we do not bring the gospel to other cultures and parts of the world?” Rising minority demographics are frequently cited, calling contextualization “strategic” and necessary because of those statistics. The most common slogan of contextualization is an application of I Corinthians 9:19-23: “To become all things to all people, so that all might be reached.”
But these mindsets reveal a subtle error in the way contextualization is framed — that the primary motivation to contextualize is for strategic objectives. In other words, contextualization is a pragmatic “means to an end.” We only care about culture, to the extent that it helps us achieve our goals — not because it has value and dignity in itself.
Here is one illustration. Consider a Caucasian male missionary who goes overseas to Japan. Because he has had great success in evangelism in North America, he does not see the need to do things differently abroad. His approach and methods, and the way he measures success and fruitfulness, are based upon his own cultural paradigm.
Over the next few years, he finds that very few people are accepting the Christian faith, so he decides to enroll in a course on Japanese language and culture. His willingness to learn is commendable. It is important to acknowledge here that in matters of culture and mission, doing something is (usually) better than doing nothing.
But God calls us to more, and this man has missed the true heart and meaning of contextualization, in two significant ways: (1) his overly pragmatic motivation to engage in contextualization, and (2) his superficial application (and understanding) of what it means to contextualize.
First, the reason this man takes the time to learn about culture and differences, is because what he is doing is not “working.” Contextualization is optional to him. If things were “working,” he would not necessarily be compelled to engage in it, nor feel the need to do anything differently. Under this mindset, contextualization is a means to an end, and only necessary when a person perceives that it will help them achieve their strategic objective or end.
In other words, people engage it not because it is fundamental to how they should be leading in any culture or ministry, but because they recognize they can not achieve their strategic objectives without it.
In this common framework, contextualization is viewed as “extra” or optional, rather than indispensable. In majority culture ministry settings, you hear statements like, “I’d love to learn more about culture and ‘ethnic-related’ things, but I can’t handle any extra work. Maybe I’ll think about it when I get things under control.”
Or, “Contextualization and culture sound interesting, but how much time should we really spend on it? Is it not more important to get out there and do what we already know, to share the gospel and do the work of God?” Or, “Why do I need to do anything differently? Our ministry is doing just fine. We are seeing great results.”
This is also why majority culture ministry leaders can feel like they are pulling teeth to get people to learn about contextualization or culture, or engage in ethnic ministry!
Ethnic ministry leaders can treat contextualization as optional as well. It is easy to want to push it aside for the sake of simplicity, especially when overwhelmed by the complex work and difficulty contextualization can bring. It is easy to grow tired of having to explain or defend the importance of culture to others. It is simpler to avoid the inevitable tension that comes from bringing attention to differences, and learning from them.
These are litmus tests that reveal our own view of culture and pragmatism. Again, we need to ask ourselves: is culture only important to the extent that it fills a strategic need or serves an objective, or does it have dignity and value in itself? Will we only evaluate how we do things out of pragmatic need, such as when our own goals seem to fall short?
The Dangers of a Superficial View of Contextualization
But there is another, equally dangerous problem in our earlier example of the missionary to Japan — his application (and hence understanding) of what it means to contextualize. It is easy for him to think that contextualization and learning are about enrolling in a language course. The reality is, this man could become fluent in Japanese, and study all the books and customs he wants, and yet not ever question or change deeper paradigms — such as his approach to ministry, or the way fruitfulness is measured. He could add his new head knowledge to what he is already doing, almost as an additional “tactic.” And many do just that.
In this way, leaders can keep contextualization at a distance — by defining it in more cognitive ways, or associating it with more superficial categories such as: knowledge of language and customs, an appreciation of exotic foods, or even cultural sensitivity training. But true contextualization is not something one can learn in a seminar, panel, book, or similar ways we might consider “transferable.” It does not just add to what we already know, but reveals deeper cultural realities that make us re-evaluate our hearts and beliefs.
Moreover, contextualization and mission aren’t just about what we do to transform others. In so many Christian circles, the focus is almost exclusively on the “target” group of the mission. Only rarely is there discussion about our own transformation. But that is what true contextualization and mission are about — allowing ourselves to be transformed by people and contexts, as God reveals Himself in them. This happens through relationships with people who open our eyes and hearts to new realities, and ways of thinking about things. And the beauty of this, is that God uses this process to bear even greater, long-term fruit: through relationships built on trust and mutual honor, and through methods that last because they are borne out of a natural context. True contextualization does not avoid or distract from mission. It leads to the most fruitful kind of mission.
Examples From Scripture and Missions
In The Crescent Through the Eyes of the Cross, Christian author Dr. Nabeel T. Jabbour (an expert on Muslim culture) writes about the importance of context in shaping those who are on mission. He writes of Old Testament prophet Jonah, and New Testament ministers Cornelius and Peter, as people whose hearts God wanted to transform away from ethnocentric pride and prejudice. He writes: “In Acts 10, we read the story of Cornelius and how God, through an angel, directed him to find answers to his yearnings. God could have easily given Cornelius the full message that he needed to hear through the angel. Instead, God wanted Peter to get involved and in the process become transformed. Peter could have ended up becoming an ethnocentric Jew if he hadn’t gotten the exposure to the Gentiles that God desired for him” (96).
Dr. Jabbour also writes about how honoring context and people bears long-term fruit on mission. He describes stories wherein missionaries urge Muslims to convert to Christianity without proper regard for the impact such a conversion will have on their family, job, and place in society. Not only does this tear apart many lives, but it forces many former Muslims to leave their home country — effectively removing them from their context, and any positive impact they might have had. He contrasts this with actions that seek to honor families and the culture, and the lasting and far-reaching impact this can have. Dr. Jabbour shares an illustrative story based upon Muslims he had ministered to:
“Three years after our initial contact, Ali put his faith in Christ… During the two and a half years we were reading the Bible together, I did not take him out of his context… I was reaching not only Ali but his family as well. After Ali put his faith in Christ, he did not change his name to Steve or Peter. He was still Ali, who now loved Jesus and whose life was being transformed” (210-11).
Strategy, Ethics, and Power
So why is it so easy to treat contextualization as optional or superficial? Again, remember that we face constant temptation to oversimplify and choose what is easiest. In the name of efficiency (or just following what we are told to do), we focus on “how to get things done” (strategy) without also asking “how things ought to be done” (ethics).
So, for example, ministry leaders will ask, “How can I send more people to overseas missions?” without asking, “Do we have the resources and capacity to set these people up for success in a different context? Would they truly grow as leaders and be fruitful?”
Strategy is not bad in itself; we must carefully consider tactics and “how to get things done.” The problem is when strategy takes precedence over ethics (or is uninformed by it). And in large part due to societal influences, we are often very deficient in bringing ethical concerns and vision to what we do in ministries and in organizations.
In some ways, this is not at all surprising. Ethical questions demand more from us, than strategic ones. They can challenge us in the very way we see ourselves and other people; in the way we approach leadership and life. They can compel us to change in deeper ways of the heart. And who likes to be challenged? Who likes change of that nature? It is uncomfortable. It takes humility and sacrifice, especially for those in power who are used to doing things a certain way, and dictate the culture of what is allowed or not. It requires us to consider that times have changed, or that things are different for other people. It may involve reconsidering definitions of “success” and “progress,” as well as approaches of ministry we hold dear.
It is far easier to stay within the reality we are comfortable with, and forge ahead in our strategic objectives and plans. It is easier to minimize ethical questions as “abstract” or “impractical.” But true leadership brings awareness to the ethical dimension, and matters of the heart — as Jesus always did.
Reframing Mission: Contextualization That Honors And Transforms
A few years ago, the purpose of Epic Movement (as a contextualized ministry) was described as “bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to every Asian American student and faculty.” This is part of what ethnic ministries are after: but consider how limited this statement is, in vision and scope.
The focus of the statement above is clear: reaching Asian Americans. They are the “target group,” and strategic objective or “end,” of the mission. But is that all there is to mission? Is that all there is to why we do ministry?
When we only focus on the “end” of the mission, it is so easy to minimize ethical considerations of how we treat other people, and whether or not our methods truly honor God. We fall short of the standards God has called us to, as leaders who should always evaluate how they love and serve. As we honor people and their culture, we honor God’s handiwork, in each person who bears His image. When we contextualize, we recognize and communicate to others, “I see the work of God in you.” When we contextualize, we understand that valuing culture and treating people with dignity go hand-in-hand.
Today, the purpose of Epic is stated differently: “bringing the gospel to the world through every Asian American student and faculty.” This seems like a subtle distinction, but it is a huge one.
Our purpose in Epic as a contextualized ministry is to help students and faculty see and understand their unique identity, so that they might bring all of who they are to living out the mission of God. The mission is not just about to whom, but through whom the gospel is being shared. It is not just about what God wants to do in others, but in us as we engage on mission!
That is the heart behind true contextualization: it is not about learning a special tactic that allows us to bring our agenda to other people. It is about our being transformed more and more into who God created us to be, because that is a vital part of His mission. It is about our being transformed through relationships and stories of people and cultures different from our own, because God created every culture to reflect some aspect of who He is. That is the difference between a ministry of imperialism and a ministry of incarnation. When we only focus on others’ transformation, we blame a lack of fruit or results on the “hard hearts” of the people who just will not see or hear our message. When we see the need for our own transformation, we acknowledge and take responsibility for the “hard soil” of our own hearts, which may be unaware, or slow and reluctant to re-evaluate and change. We grasp that perhaps we are the ones inhibiting the Word of God to truly take root and shape — as God intended — for it to bear fruit in each culture and context.
And that is the problem with mission that is lived out apart from true contextualization: it is not transformative for the one on mission. It does not keep people connected to whom God has created them to be in their backgrounds, gifts, and passions. And because it does not foster learning from different people and contexts, we limit our own capacity for all that God would want to teach us about Himself, since we are all created in His image. We stunt our own growth in our understanding of who He is. It is not hard to imagine how such an approach to mission cannot sustain motivation for leaders to endure, let alone lead to long-term fruitfulness.
But God invites us to so much more! If we have the courage and integrity to evaluate our own hearts and approaches, we can experience a transformation in the very way we view people, ministry, and God Himself! For as we begin to experience and honor diverse cultures and contexts, we are reminded that the kingdom of Jesus Christ cannot be simplified to look like any single human kingdom or culture that we know, but is rich with the beauty of many nations and tribes of the world.
So where do we go from here? Regardless of where we are in our cultural journey, we must resist the temptation to dismiss contextualization as optional, or culture as a topic primarily for ethnic activists or international missionaries. God calls us to take responsibility for our own growth and development, as we think through connections to our leadership, ministry, and any next steps. Let us not rob ourselves of this very process, that God invites us into. This is how we gain a picture of leadership and purpose that flows from our God-given identity, which will allow us to endure. This is the beginning of the foundation of a life that builds relationships of trust and honor, which will lead to long-term fruitfulness in any context. That is God’s master plan and design: that as we allow Him to transform us through people and contexts, others might also be transformed. And through relationships and culture, we move towards more fully bearing the image of our Creator, individually and communally. That is the true meaning of contextualization, and the true heart of culture.
For Reflection or Discussion:
1. What is your cultural background (i.e. ethnicity, socioeconomic class, geographical, generational, etc.)? Thinking about your past contexts, to what extent did they value, ignore, or discourage conversations about culture?
2. Had you heard of the term “contextualization” before reading this article? If so, what was your definition or understanding of it? How might this article confirm or challenge any of what you had thought or heard previously?
3. The article states that we often focus on “how to get things done” without also considering “how things ought to be done.” How might you have seen this in various areas of society or within organizations?
4. In your own words, how would you describe the difference between trying to contextualize for strategic purposes, or because you truly value culture and people?
5. Think about a person or cultural context different from your own, that you have ministered to. How have they changed you? How has God used them to open your eyes to new dimensions of Himself?