CSQ Article

A Pastoral Perspective on Contextualization

An Interview with Pastor "Peter"

An “On the Ground” Perspective

Jackson Wu conducted an interview with “Peter,” a pastor in eastern China, asking about the following issues dealing with contextualization in China.

Wu: Do Chinese feel a tension between Christianity and being Chinese? Does becoming a Christian imply greater difficulty in being Chinese?

Peter: One definitely feels tension and stress. Looking at traditional Chinese society, Christianity forbids things like burning paper to, kneeling before, and otherwise worshiping ancestors. Many Chinese people see Christianity as “Western” and in conflict with Eastern culture. So, they feel that we Chinese must defend and uphold Eastern civilization.

People naturally see Christianity as a Western religion because it was brought to China by Western missionaries. Obviously, Christianity and Chinese culture are not truly in conflict; it only seems so superficially. However, this is not something most unbelievers ever think deeply about.

So, a misunderstanding exists on two levels. First, because of Christianity’s historical expansion, people believe it is a Western religion. Second, Chinese people are not accustomed to the way Christians express their faith. Christians do not engage in tomb-sweeping, paper burning, or other activities associated with idol worship. They seem to have no filial piety. To Chinese, Christians’ behavior makes the whole family lose face. On top of that, Christians appear unpatriotic when they prioritize faith over country. The overall effect is that some Chinese see Christians as a threat.

Wu: How familiar are Chinese church leaders with the concept of “contextualization”? What are their impressions?

Peter: The average Christian is probably not familiar with the word “contextualization.” Only those who have studied theology understand it. For the latter, they see it as “localization” and “indigenization.” In general, they see it, not as changing the truth, but as adapting how we transmit the truth to fit the local culture. People tend to ignore contextualization and simply copy Western theology wholesale. I believe that contextualization transforms every aspect of theology and practice, as we’ve seen recently with Jayson Georges’ book The 3D Gospel.[1]

Wu: Do you think Chinese Christians have developed contextualized, Chinese theology? Or do you think theology among Chinese believers remains largely Western?

Peter: Our theology is still Western as Chinese Christians don’t yet have the ability to develop Chinese theology. We are still in the learning and accumulation stage which means we have largely just copied Western theology.

How is theology in China still Western? For one, we express the concept of sin in guilt/justice terms and ignore shame and honor. There are few Chinese scholars with any significant understanding of theology, so Chinese Christians remain unable to develop Chinese theology. That’s not even to speak of normal believers, who have no concept of “Chinese theology.”

Foreigners can catalyze contextualization and help Chinese people see its value. People need to be trained in such things as theology, exegesis, preaching, how to respond to culture, and so on.

Wu: What are some obstacles to Chinese contextualization?

Peter: Too few people understand, are capable of, or even value contextualization. It’s neither important nor urgent to them. So many people believe sharing the gospel is the important thing while contextualization merely is a matter of packaging. What they don’t realize is that contextualization actually gives us a more robust understanding of the gospel. So, we have an issue of numbers–– not enough people are promoting contextualization. On top of that, people misunderstand contextualization. They accuse those who do contextualization of changing the gospel or embracing heresy.

Wu: What do Chinese need to learn about contextualization to serve as effective missionaries?

Peter: They need to know the importance of culture in missions, to better understand their own culture, and to respect other people’s cultures. Chinese Christians generally stress evangelism and not contextualization, viewing culture as a mere add-on. They do not understand the good and bad things in their own culture nor how their culture inclines them to view issues from a certain viewpoint yet overlook others’ perspectives.

Chinese people have a bit of a superiority complex—they feel proud of their own culture’s 5000-year history and can look down on other cultures. They see anything different as wrong or bad. For instance, many Chinese people believe that people who eat with their hands are disgusting and crude. How does one disrespect another’s culture? You do it by believing your own culture is the best, and anything that differs is bad.

Wu: How can foreigners contribute or hinder contextualization in China? 

Peter: Foreigners can try to develop contextualization in China, but they must be diligent not simply to import content from their own culture. For instance, some missionaries strongly emphasize denominationalism. In China, they simply replicate their denomination’s traditions, doctrines, and practices. However, much of those things are simply Western cultural traditions, not biblical mandates. This is not to say that Western theology is wrong, only that those things are their own traditional practices.

How can foreigners initiate contextualization with Chinese? I think two steps are (1) to do more training (in contextualization, hermeneutics, biblical theology, etc.) and (2) to write and translate more high-level theological books.

Wu: Suppose a distinctly evangelical, Chinese theology existed. What biblical and cultural themes would it address?

Peter: Of course, it would include sin, the law, the gospel, forgiveness, salvation, and atonement. Chinese theology would generally work from an honor/shame perspective (face, face-saving, etc.) as shown in Georges’ The 3D Gospel. Other crucial themes would include group identity, collectivism, and the spirit world.

Wu: What do you think foreigners misunderstand about the needs of the Chinese church?

Peter: Foreigners mistakenly believe that the Chinese church is poor and needs money. When foreigners continue to give money to Chinese churches, those churches become dependent on foreigners rather than self-supporting. They take less responsibility and are less willing to sacrifice and follow God themselves. This cannot be a good thing for the localization of Chinese churches. Chinese people already are enamored with money, so giving excessive money will only poison believers’ spirits.

Do you know how foreigners could really help the Chinese church? People need standardized theological training. I want to see foreigners publish deeper, theological literature that goes beyond topics like leadership, prayer, marriage, and family. Additionally, Chinese people need to develop the ability to think critically, instead of accepting wholesale everything their denomination says and opposing the different views of other denominations. They need the humility to realize that not all of their denominations’ views may be correct. “Different” does not automatically mean wrong. I want to see them listen to each other with humble and open attitudes, even being willing to cooperate and serve together. Foreigners can help equip Chinese churches to go out and spread the gospel to other countries and peoples.

Some missionaries who come to China are not well equipped for the work. Perhaps, they are just average churchgoers who were driven by love and dedication to share the gospel in China. That love is, of course, valuable, but because they lack formal training, they are limited in language, theology, and various other aspects related to their mission. They will often simply preach their own denomination’s viewpoint without giving a fair and objective perspective. What happens? The believers simply mold to that denomination and do not think for themselves.

Another problem is that some missionaries minister to meet their own needs. That is, a missionary comes to build his own church. He gathers believers who revolve around him rather than helping believers give themselves to the Chinese church. As a result, when he leaves, many believers go astray and are dejected. Or, they become an isolated church disconnected from other bodies of believers.

Wu: Thank you for sharing with us your understanding and suggestions regarding contextualization in China.

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Brad Vaughn

Brad Vaughn

Brad Vaughn (formerly known by the pseudonym Jackson Wu; PhD, Southeastern Baptist) is the theologian in residence with Global Training Network. He previously lived and worked in East Asia for almost two decades, teaching theology and missiology for Chinese pastors. He serves on the Asian/Asian-American theology steering committee of the Evangelical …View Full Bio