Duane Elmer was serving as president of a Bible school in a foreign country. One Saturday afternoon he noticed that the grass had not been cut, so he did it himself. He thought that his action would model Christ-like humility and impress the observers with his willingness to work. He felt proud of himself as people passed by and observed his toil. However, when the students and staff found out, they were upset. They said his action made people think that the school’s authority structure was so weak that the president could not order anyone to cut the grass. It also implied that the organization was small and insignificant because the president had to do such a menial task. He tried to make things look better through the next few months by standing outside looking authoritative as people worked. (Cross Cultural Communication, by Duane Elmer)
Several years ago I read about missionaries who went to a certain African tribe. They spent some time observing the obviously agricultural culture and lifestyle of the group. Men and women worked in the fields, planting and harvesting crops. The men also hunted. And the missionaries especially noted that these people raised sheep.
Since it was apparent that the tribe would understand things related to sheep, the missionaries determined that they could effectively present Jesus by describing Him as the Good Shepherd. Indeed, Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14).
However, their presentation quickly failed. People were not impressed with the Good Shepherd, choosing not to entrust their lives to Him. When the missionaries investigated further, they learned why: The tribe’s sheep herding duties were assigned to children and to those who were mentally deficient – and who would trust any of them as leader or savior?
One danger in attempting to contextualize is obscurantism – adding to the gospel some idea, expression, or requirement external to it. For example, a person might teach that certain musical genres or evangelistic methods are essential features of the Christian faith.
Several years ago a missions group mandated that all of their missionaries and national pastors remove all facial hair. The mission’s reasoning for doing so was largely a reaction to the American “hippy” culture of that era. However, this caused great difficulty for the nationals. They could see no biblical requirement for it. Also, in their culture at that time only homosexual men did not wear facial hair. What were they to do? Violate the mission’s order, or violate their conscience?
The mission was guilty of obscurantism and put the pastors in an untenable situation. This was a failure to contextualize and an unnecessary hindrance to the work of spreading the gospel.
I blew it! As a young, inexperienced missionary I had tried to contextualize, but failed miserably. One Sunday while teaching Sunday School, I wanted to pay appreciation to a caring —albeit, temperamental— church lady in the class who cared for our toddler son, Allen. I said, “I want to thank Sister ________ for caring for Allen while Joy (my wife) is teaching. You could say she is Allen’s . . . [I thought ‘babysitter’ . . . no . . . that was an American word. YES! Being in a British Commonwealth country, I got it! So, finishing my statement] “You could say she is Allen’s ‘nanny’” (a good British Commonwealth word). Sister _______ looked stunned. Sensing a problem, I quickly remembered that the local application of ‘nanny’ meant human excrement! Everyone in the class heard this new missionary say that “she is Allen’s excrement”!