Contextual Missiology

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23 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    I am admittedly a curmudgeon…bit all this missionality and conceptualization does nothing without a strong sense of identity and the power of the Spirit.
    Both seem to be lacking everywhere I look…

  2. Duane Arnold says:


    Yes, the trouble is the lack of identity among those who wish to be contextual. When I say lack of identity, I mean not only “tribal” or denominational identity, but theological identity as well. Everywhere around me I see people whose “theology” is essentially, “the last book I read” or “the last conference I attended”. As a friend of mine wrote to me, this is what has led to “ashes on the go”, or inviting those who have not been baptized to communion (common in many Episcopal churches), and so many other abuses. The standard is not “content” but “success”…

  3. Martin Luther's Disciple says:

    I have been tossing this article around in my mind since it was posted. First I will say props to Duane for the thought. 🙂

    The reasons I don’t call myself evangelical or even protestant today is that they have no attachment to what they originally meant or the positions they promoted. I feel the same today about “Contextual Missiology” – what it means and what it delivers are not even close.

    Nowhere in these movements do I see the “context” as “you have a sin problem that has doomed you to an eternity of separation from God” – nor do I see the mission to be “and Jesus Christ is the absolute only way to solve that problem.”

    Oh they may challenge people to be nicer, and more hungry people may be fed etc, they may preach to an inner peace and a rise in spirituality – but none of that is the gospel.

  4. Duane Arnold says:


    When I read the Laussane Covenant, I say “yes”. That, however, is miles removed from the “contextual missiology” that is being practiced today. They allowed for the shaping of content, whereas today it has led to the abandoning of content.

    For instance – “ashes on the go”. What is the content of having an ash cross on your forehead without the acknowledgement of sin, penitence or mortality? We have adopted the form (ashes) to a busy life style, but in so doing we have removed the content. It becomes void of meaning…

  5. Jean says:


    I would give room for contextualization under the rubric of adiaphora, properly understood. How do Anglicans regulate contextualization of worship?

  6. Duane Arnold says:


    Generally speaking, they don’t regulate it… We are in the same boat. Contextual and missional have lost their original meaning and now tend to be used as an excuse for trying _____________ (fill in the blank).

  7. I don’t want to get too far off track of the great original post. But I have an observation without a solution. It has to do with identity and theology. Michael said, “but all this missional and contextualization does nothing without a strong sense of identity and the power of the Spirit.” Duane added to it with, “When I say lack of identity, I mean not only “tribal” or denominational identity, but theological identity as well.”

    A lot of bandwidth on this blog has been spent on groups, particularly Calvary Chapel (historic), that have had a strong sense of identity and theology for better or for worse. That isn’t a criticism and I think Michael would agree with that. The takeaway is that groups that have a strong sense of identity and theology tend to be labeled (or really are) as divisive and isolationist. I’m not saying CC is/was or isn’t/wasn’t. That is my point.

    My point/observation/question is what is an example of a past or current group (or individual church) that (1) has a strong sense of identity and a clear theology that isn’t divisive and/or isolationist, and (2) is successfully being missional and contextual? Would we consider underground churches like in China or Islamic countries as such? Can a church/org in a country with religious freedom be a healthy example of not divisive/isolationist with clear identity/theology and missional/contextual?

    That isn’t a rhetorical question (at least not to me).

  8. I’m not saying CC is/was or isn’t/wasn’t. That *NOT* is my point.

  9. Steve says:

    Wow, this is one of the most challenging articles yet published here. I need to revisit this a few times. Not sure I agree with knowing our own tradition opposed to others. I think we need firm grasp on all the traditions. This is blazing a trail that has no one has walked on before. New traditions are being established so not sure dogmatic understanding of our own tradition is that important but rather more important is having a firm grasp on all the traditions and church history in general. However truth is Paramount and that is where we need to start.

  10. Reuben says:

    “Those who wish to engage culture in this manner should first be firmly rooted and grounded in the body of truth they are wanting to share. The boiling cauldron of culture is not the place for “on the fly”, or “spur of the moment”, or “the last book I read” theology. They should have a firm grasp on Christian doctrine, on Scripture, on Church History.”

    How many startup churches would not have imploded within 3 years if this were not law prior to even starting…? God knows…

  11. Michael says:


    I think the whole missional/contextual narrative is a steaming crock.
    The vast majority of these plants fail and fail quickly.

  12. Michael says:

    I’m going to write more on the identity issue as my friends are tired of hearing me harp about it. 🙂
    I just got back from a trip though and it will be awhile…

  13. Duane Arnold says:


    Yes, identity is important, but it must be an identity grounded in theology and, yes, history. This has much to do with our understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit who has not left the Church, but grows the Church through the ages. We ignore the work of the Spirit in the past at our peril…

  14. Matt says:

    It seems to me that it’s important to parse between contextual mission and missiology which remains grounded in Scripture from that which simply uses words such as “contextual” or “missional” as buzzwords to advance something which may be more akin to syncretism. The reality is that the Scriptures themselves as replete with culturally contextual approaches in communication of the Gospel – consider, for example, Paul’s shift in approach in Acts from that used in Jewish congregations to that found when addressing the Lystrans or Athenians. In the former case, there was already a significant “critical mass” of knowledge of the Hebrew Bible; in the latter, Paul had to use bridges (in Athens) and/or just go back to creation to begin the story (Lystra).

    Scottish missiologist Andrew Walls presented two of the best concise “rules of thumb” in determining an appropriate approach to a given context, held in tension with one another: The “indigenizing” principle, in which the Gospel can always be “at home” in any cultural setting, but *always* held in tension with the “pilgrim” principle in which the Gospel is never completely “at home” in any given cultural context, but will and must always speak with a prophetic voice.

    As Walls (and others) have noted, too, historical example is important, in part because this furnishes both healthy and unhealthy examples of what this may look like.

  15. Duane Arnold says:

    Let me see if I can make this a bit more concrete through an example. I’ll use the one that I know the most about – Anglicanism.

    Historically, there has been a good deal of latitude in Anglicanism. You could be “low” (evangelical), “high” (Anglo-Catholic) or “broad” (mainstream). Regardless of brand, Anglicans held to the threefold authority of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Despite differences in approach, The Book of Common Prayer was the standard form of worship – it was “common” to all. Anglicans also believed in an educated clergy. Decisions, even for the world-wide communion, were on the basis of consensus. This was the sort of Anglicanism that reached beyond the British Isles and went round the world. It had different expressions in Africa, or the Americas, or the Indian subcontinent. The prayer book was translated, local customs were given due regard, content was adapted to context. Anglicans knew who and what they were.

    This all began to break down in the 1960s and 1970s. The US church ordained women (not talking about the right or wrong of this) breaking consensus with the world-wide communion. New alternate services were brought forward. Tradition was considered a dirty word and being “scriptural” increasingly was identified with a form of fundamentalism. Increasingly, Anglicans no longer knew who they were. Numbers also began to fall. To reverse that trend, Anglicans embarked on a who range of contextual experiments – new liturgies, contemporary services, LGBTQ inclusion, less stringent education for clergy, the abandoning of consensus as a norm… the list could go on.

    The point is, that by losing content they no longer had a body of faith and practice to contextualize. It became “every man (or woman) for themselves”. The criteria of being missional was “what works”. In the process, they have lost a sense of corporate and, in some cases, individual identity. Trying to explain what an Anglican is today has become a daunting task – even for us who are Anglicans. How much more difficult is it for those we are trying to reach. It has been reduced, as in evangelicalism, to “I like this church and this pastor…” and very little more. Not a body of truth and practice, not a way in which to order one’s Christian life, not an identity which one carries from the church into the world. It has become temporary. It is here today, gone tomorrow. Many no longer know who or what they are in terms of their faith and the corporate expression of that faith.

    In other words, in the attempt to be “contextual” and “missional” we are almost exactly the opposite, because we have lost the content.

  16. Duane Arnold says:


    Well said…

  17. Martin Luther's Disciple says:

    The damage done by “Contextual Missiology” runs through a long timeline. Look at the damage done by the late Peter Wagner in the 80s and into the 90s when he was at Fuller writing and teaching his Signs and Wonders material – along with John Wimber. They were teaching this nonsense out the the Missions department – which led to Third Wave theology (think Toronto Blessing – barking and laughing in Church). All of this was to grow / evangelize the church through experience and not through sound witnessing / teaching / preaching.

    Our culture is so obsessed with having fun and nothing but fun. This is the sole purpose of the Church Growth Movement. Again, people don’t want to be bothered with the “serious side” of God / Christianity – so we evangelize them with what they want, not what they need.

    Heaven forbid that a person unacquainted with Jesus should walk into a Christian church and see a cross. But this contextual evangelists need to remember, what saves a person is what keeps them save.

  18. Patrik says:

    I live and ‘work’ in North Africa. Very good, well said Mr Duane… thank you.

    “It was assumed that those who took part in contextual missiology were firmly grounded in not only classical Christian theology” … and
    “It also assumes a somewhat profound knowledge of that body of truth and practice, as well a profound knowledge of the context into which that body of truth and practice is being placed. As with language translation, one is required to have an intimate knowledge of both languages in terms of vocabulary, grammar, nuance of meaning and, in some cases, even the slang and colloquialisms of each.“

  19. Duane Arnold says:


    Thank you! For contextualization to work, it really does take an in depth knowledge of both content AND context. In our current age, it is thought that either can be mastered quickly. In truth (and I know this from experience) you can live in another culture for years and still have only a “surface knowledge” of the context. That is not even to mention having an in depth knowledge of the content one is hoping to share. In the modern American context, we think that we can produce “instant” missionaries, “instant” worship leaders, “instant” church planters… the result is the chaos we see around us.

  20. Outside T. Fold says:

    Oh my, but this topic does take me back. I so agree on the importance of understanding one’s own culture and context.

    (and zounds, MLD calls out C. Peter Wagner — yep, I knew him when, or before when— and yes, I audited most of that first MC510 class before I left to go overseas on a short term mission. Ah, memories. And then, more recently, some time after I’d left The Fold, I learned more about what all Wagner had gotten hisself up to ???? after he’d moved on from FTS SWM.)

    I am glad for the time I spent at that institution being put through the rigor of learning about my own culture and context. Even now, here, as I am Outside The Fold.

    If I were to enroll in a dot-edu now and study anew of what it is to be a person in a christian faith (or culture) in a particular historical time and context (after all, isn’t a particular time and context the heart of what christian people refer to when they speak of the incarnation? It certainly is from a missiological stance), I’d start looking at the 17th century new world context.

    What happened in 1619, 400 years ago on this mississippi river continent, and how things morphed and changed in the decades to come. So that 72 years later, in the Year of Our Lord 1691 in the British Colony of Virginia, the men in the Virginia House of Burgesses wrote up legal definitions of various types of people. What they used to define as christian changed, and they legally defined a cohort of people white. All out of economic convenience because for those at the top of society, chattel slavery is rilly rilly convenient for those who enumerate enslaved people among their property and capital.

    I think that for any contextual missiology that we white people in these United States would do, we have to start there. Duane’s 16th century example of Jesuits in Asia is highly respectable. But those Jesuits weren’t involved in the transatlantic slave trade, which set off innumerable events which define our current context here. If you are curious or interested, I commend to you all the podcast series “Seeing White.”

  21. Duane Arnold says:

    Outside the Fold

    “The Mission” will give you some idea of the Jesuit missions in South America… what a story and, what a tragedy…

  22. Outside T. Fold says:

    postscript. Now watching the PBS documentary on Reconstruction. (available online as well as on PBS). This, too, is something that helps to define current context.

  23. Duane Arnold says:

    Outside T. Fold


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