Volume 44 - Issue 2

Contextualizing the Faith: A Holistic Approach

by Scott Moreau

Scott Moreau is Academic Dean and Professor of Intercultural Studies at Wheaton College Graduate School, where he has taught for twenty-eight years. Prior to that, he spent ten years serving cross-culturally in Africa. Moreau has published extensively on the subject of contextualization, including Contextualization in World Missions: Mapping and Assessing Evangelical Models (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2012). Contextualization in World Missions comprehensively summarizes the major presuppositions, orientations, and disagreements that have characterized the contextualization debate since 1972. The book furthermore maps a variety of evangelical approaches to contextualization based around the role of initiator (e.g., facilitator, guide, herald, pathfinder, prophet, and restorer). Contextualizing the Faith is a sequel to this earlier book, which both expands and applies Moreau’s model.

In the Chapter 1, Moreau explains that contextualization lies at the intersection of faith and culture and “refers to how people live out their faith in light of the values of their society.” Rather than restricting contextualization to simply the kerygma or even theology, Moreau’s concept of contextualization is refreshingly broad and is said to occur in everything the church does, as well as the way it does it (p. 2).

From this broad conceptualization, Moreau organises his approach to contextualization by basing it around seven dimensions: Social Dimension (chs. 2–5); Mythic dimension (ch. 6); Ethical Dimension (ch. 7); Artistic and Technological Dimension (ch. 8); Ritual Dimension (ch. 9); Experience Dimension: The Supernatural (ch. 10); and the Doctrinal Dimension (ch. 11). The book concludes with projections on the future of contextualization (ch. 12). These seven dimensions “frame a holistic and healthy approach to planting, growing, discipling, developing, and nurturing a local gathering of believers into a healthy church” (p. ix). The burden of the book is to explain and illustrate each dimension, utilizing the general same approach for each: “(1) an introduction to the dimension (or component), (2) a discussion of how that dimension shows up in Scripture, and (3) selected examples of what contextualization of that dimension entails” (p. 10). A representative sample below of these dimensions will illustrate the book’s general approach.

The Social Dimension concerns “how people connect to each other” (p. 11). As the dominant dimension in Moreau’s model, it consists of four components: Association and Kinship; Exchange: Economics; Learning: Education; and Organizational: Politics. Association and Kinship (ch. 2) contains two related concepts needing contextualization. Association refers to the idea that human beings are created as relational creatures. Thus, their associations are determined by factors like choice and birth. Kinship relates to marriage and extended biological relationships.

The Social Dimension as Exchange: Economics (ch. 3) concerns different types of capital that exist in societies, such as: monetary, political, social, and spiritual. The Social Dimension as Learning: Education (ch. 4) favors the term “learning” over “education” to indicate that learning can be both formal/direct and indirect. It not only involves acquisition of knowledge, but also values and skills (p. 54). The Social Dimension as Organizational (ch. 5) considers how individuals organize themselves and their various leadership structures. This section is relevant to society and church settings.

In the Mythic Dimension (ch. 6), myth defined as “any real or fictional story, recurring theme, or character type that appeals to the consciousness of a people by embodying its cultural ideals or by giving expression to deep, commonly held beliefs and felt emotions” (p. 101). This dimension is an oft-neglected area of contextualization. Myths have important psychological and social functions. These include strengthening individuals and societies in times of uncertainty as well as being a “social glue” that holds society together (pp. 101–5). Common themes or paradigms in myths include adventure, brokenness and redemption, suffering and sacrifice, coming of age, heroism, and love. Identifying, understanding, and subsequently contextualizing societal myths are important. Doing so helps to locate “contact points” for evangelism and communication, “conflict points” between gospel and culture, and to identify syncretistic tendencies.

The Ritual Dimension (ch. 9) incorporates the ritual actions that are embedded in society for purposes such as establishing courtships, initiating us into new communities, caring for offspring, celebrating birth, mourning loved ones, and so on. Moreau highlights three categories of ritual. First, intensification rituals are designed to intensify a person’s identity or bonding to others or set of beliefs (e.g., birthdays, anniversaries, pilgrimages, national parades, Communion). Second, transition rituals mark a person’s transition from one state to another (e.g., birth, puberty/coming of age, graduation, marriage, parenthood, retirement). Third, crisis rituals deal with unexpected or unfavourable situations (e.g., drought, famine, illness, loss of job). One challenge for Christians in contextualizing rituals is determining whether a particular ritual can be practiced unchanged, adapted for Christian use, or replaced altogether (p. 173).

This book has many strengths. First, it approaches the topic from an evangelical perspective, consistently drawing readers back to a careful reading of Scripture as normative for contextualization. Second, it has a logical structure and layout, with sidebars included in each chapter containing questions designed to help people apply ideas from the chapter. Third, its approach is holistic (rather than atomistic). The book provides a richer, more nuanced picture of contextualization than is generally found in related literature. Fourth, whereas Contextualization in World Missions is theoretical in nature, Contextualizing the Faith has a stronger practical component, consistently focusing helping readers learn to contextualize. For example, many chapters have associated case studies to ground the material in a real-life situation. Fifth, it takes into account that many Majority World Christians live as religious minorities. Contextualizing the Faith is imminently practical, spurring Christians to consider how to contextualize their faith in the context of other religions and in ways understandable to adherents of those religions (p. 4).

The book poses more questions than it answers. In that way, it functions more as a workbook than a textbook. But for the thoughtful reader, it offers a wide lens for evaluating and exploring possibilities for contextualization in their particular context.

The breath of Moreau’s contextual approach gives room for a wide readership. This book will be particularly valuable for students and teachers of missiology, mission agencies, mission practitioners, and church leaders.

Andrew Prince

Andrew Prince
Brisbane School of Theology
Toowong, Queensland, Australia

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