Principles for Better Contextualization

Augustine implemented the great missiology he received from Gregory. That missiology, as Tim Tennent has pointed out, can be summarized with three words: Adaptation, Gradualism, and Exchange.

  • AdaptationAdopting a cultural form for Christian purposes. In Augustine’s case, he adopted heathen temples and turned them into church buildings. Gregory wrote to him: “Detach them from the service of the devil and adapt them for the worship of the true God.” Many Christian leaders and Christians would frown on using a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall for a church building because their conception of church is so narrowly conceived. Since my first day in Austin, I began praying that God would give us the abandoned male strip joint called La Bare for our church. We are currently meeting in a downtown theatre where we frequently pick up beer bottles off the floor before people arrive. The bathrooms are covered in graffiti and smell terrible, but the aroma of Christ fills the Hideout Theatre every week and is slowly changing that part of the city. Not only have we detached the theatre from less than admirable ends, we have also boosted sales in the adjoining coffee shop, ministered to the homeless outside, and adapted the space for the worship of the true God. Adaptation isn’t about being cool; it’s about adopting cultural forms, creating common cultural space for mission, and using these forms for Christ-honoring purposes.
  • GradualismImplementing Christian ideals slowly, recognizing that individuals are undergoing an entire worldview shift. Don’t expect radical holiness from your new converts. If they have embraced Christ but still smoke pot or occasionally drink too much, don’t beat them up for their behaviors. Instead, shepherd their hearts, lead them into the gospel, and allow their inner joy to transform their outer joys. Gregory wrote: “If we allow them these outward joys, then we are more likely to find their way to the true inner joy… It is doubtless impossible to cut off all abuses at once from rough hearts, just as a man who sets out to climb a high mountain does not advance by leaps and bounds, but goes upward step by step and pace by pace.” Allow for the gradual transformation of the gospel, especially in post-Christian contexts. What you think is normative holiness, probably isn’t the norm. It’s not about leaps and bounds, but steady advance in grace.
  • ExchangeCreating an entirely new cultural form in exchange for an existing idolatrous one. It is one thing to use pagan temples for church buildings, it is quite another to participate in pagan sacrifices. For example, if your people consistently go to happy hours to get wasted and have a social life, create a more God-honoring context for socializing. Gregory wrote: “People must learn to slay their cattle not in honour of the devil, but in honour of God and for their own food…”



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