From the tattooed man in leather and chains who has a ministry to bikers, to the Sunday school teacher who served communion in the form of Kool-aid and cookies, the dangers are abundant and complex. Should we use a musical instrument that is native to the culture even if it is the common instrument used in demon worship? How do we explain the concept of the “Lamb of God” in a place that does not have sheep?
The danger is that either a truth will be lost or an error will be taught. However, to fail to contextualize is to do harm both ways, if Christianity remains cloaked in customs and illustrations that are obscure and misleading where they are not familiar. We do not choose whether or not to contextualize; we have only the challenge of doing it the best that we can.
Probably the biggest danger, and fear, of contextualizing the gospel is syncretism, which, in this context, is the combining of dissimilar religions into one. Such a fusion results in a religion markedly different from those which are joined together. When we preach the gospel, we dare not alter it and thus eliminate its power to change lives!
Going to a place where people worship idols and saying that God is just like them, but more powerful, would be a form of syncretism. It would reduce God to being an idol unable to save us. Using polytheistic religious songs of the people to worship the Lord would also be syncretism. It would be using songs that exalt pagan deities to praise God. Interpreting Christian doctrines in terms of other religions (using the word “karma” to refer to God’s providential dealings or judgment) would be another form of syncretism.
The greatest danger in contextualization is misrepresenting the Biblical message. What is cultural? What is essentially Biblical? There are times when the answer may or may not be clear. In trying to contextualize the message of the gospel, we may actually do damage to the essential message.
We all look through a lens colored by our own context. When we as American middle-class Christians seek to take the gospel message to any other place, we are faced with the difficulty of discerning what is American vs. what is essentially Christian. As we transfer the gospel message to another culture, we are in danger of picking up or leaving behind elements of that message.
We should seek to draw people back to what the Bible says, to help them understand its meaning, and trust the Holy Spirit to apply the truth in their local context.
Dangers regarding contextualizing of the gospel include miscommunicating the biblical message. This results when the presenter does not truly understand the culture of the recipients and apply or relate Scripture to it. Too many Americans assume that they understand culture, when in fact their perspective simply reflects their ethnocentrism (believing that one’s own cultural standard is best) or worse yet, their egocentrism (believing that one’s personal ideas are best). Cultural learning is a must. If we are out-of-touch with the culture, dangerous theology and biblical misunderstanding will result because we cannot properly relate it to Scripture. One might even end up teaching heresy! I find it incredulous to have an American who has no prior experience with the host culture of the people to get off a plane and, after seeing some “foreign sights,” begin preaching to the people. We must do better than that.
There are various dangers in the contextualization of the Gospel, but none more fearful than that of syncretism: 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).
The primary danger of contextualization is the watering down of gospel.
1. "When the western missionary, whether intentionally or unintentionally, causes Christian practices to take on non-Christian meanings.
2. When cultural accommodations violate the clear commands of Scripture.
3. When the uniqueness of the Christian Gospel is traded for closer relationships with other world religions or secularism" (Phil Thompson).
"The concern in contextualization is that the gospel must not simply root itself in the soil, it must also judge it. There has been a tendency to regard culture and the status quo as sacred and inviolable. But every culture is subject to the fall and needs to be brought under the judgment of the scriptures. since the context is constantly changing either by new expressions of the depravity of man or by the positive effects of the advance of the gospel, the process of contextualization is continual" (Samuel Rowen).
As I mentioned in my previous response, contextualization requires bringing together the horizon of the Gospel with the horizon of Culture, never losing sight of either one. One danger is that in our effort to make the Christian message meaningful we will lose sight of one or the other—usually the Gospel. Another danger is that we our messaging will create confusion among those we are reaching. For instance, it is not uncommon in many conservative contexts to misunderstand the line in the Nicene Creed that affirms belief in the “holy, catholic church.” We know that this phrase simply means that we believe in the universal Church and that it is holy. Nonetheless, without explanation, we may cause confusion and hinder the Christian message. A third danger is that Culture would transform our Gospel rather than the Gospel transform the Culture. For instance, many of the seeker-sensitive churches of the early 2000s removed the cross as a symbol in their sanctuaries. Willow Creek at one time even removed the Bibles. These are the dangers of trying to be relevant while losing sight of the true Gospel.