I remember it as clear as yesterday. Ahmet had left Islam and decided to follow Jesus. In the Middle Eastern country where I served, this was not illegal, but it also wasn’t easy. After a few months of walking with Jesus, Ahmet approached me and said, “Chris, now that I’ve become a Christian, tell me what our religious holy days are.”
I knew exactly where he was coming from. Ramadan alone is thirty days of celebration. True, Muslims fast during the day, but from sunset to sunrise scrumptious spreads, visiting friends and family, and a celebratory atmosphere abound. Add to Ramadan Eid al-Fitr (the festival marking the end of Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha (the festival of sacrifice), and the total number of Islamic religious holy days surpasses forty, not even counting the minor ones.
So, what my Christian from a Muslim Background (CMB) disciple was really asking me was something like this: “As a Muslim, I had a religious calendar with religious festivals that I followed. There was a religious rhythm to life and a flow to time. That’s what I’m used to. But now that I follow Christ, I need a new calendar and religious tradition that regiments and celebrates time. So, what does Christianity have to offer?” Unfortunately, as a non-liturgical and non-Anglican missionary at the time, the best I could serve up was Christmas and Easter—just two—compared with the forty-plus holy days in Islam. At this, my brother in Christ looked at me, almost incredulously, as if to say, “Is that the best you can do, just two?”
God used this brief conversation (among other things) to launch me into an examination of Anglicanism. The more I studied and the longer I lived in the Middle East, the more cognizant I became of Anglicanism’s contextualizabililty to the cultures of unreached people groups (less than 2.0% evangelical Christian) and frontier unreached people groups (less than 0.01% evangelical Christian). While my sixteen years of missionary experience comes from the Islamic world, my tenure directing Anglican Frontier Missions (AFM) has convinced me of Anglicanism’s contextualizabililty (put another way, transferability and “overall fit”) into Hindu-, Buddhist-, and tribal-majority cultures as well.
What is Contextualization?
Henry Venn, preeminent Anglican missionary statesman of the nineteenth century, pioneered the three-self model as a guideline for effective church planting in cross-cultural contexts. Venn proposed that all cross-cultural church plants need to develop self-evangelization, self-government, and financial self-support to become sustainable and truly indigenized. (Subsequent missiologists developed a fourth category, self-theologizing.) But how exactly is this done? How do missionaries take the gospel which they have received in their own cultural milieu and translate it into another culture, sometimes vastly divergent from their own? The answer to this question is “contextualization.” Contextualization has two phases.
1. Contextualization Done by the Missionary
In Living Among the Breakage: Contextual Theology-making and ex-Muslim Christians (2016), Eugene, OR: Pickwick, pp. 14-20), AFM missionary Duane Miller discusses the two phases of contextualization. The first phase is “directed contextualization”—contextualization directed by the missionary into the culture of an unreached people. Directed contextualization is necessary because while the truths of the gospel are unchanging, the “human situation,” that is, the cultural contexts within which individuals receive and grow in Christ, vary significantly.
In his blog, Ed Stetzer writes, “All people live in a culture of some sort. There is no neutral position that might allow a person to stand in a cultural vacuum and make objective pronouncements on the cultures of others.” Thus, a missionary who takes the gospel to an unreached people group must first identify the non-essential beliefs, rituals, stories, traditions, art, etc., that are attached to Christianity in the missionary’s own culture. Then she or he needs to gather information about the unreached culture in order to contextualize (that is, translate) the gospel from their home culture into the new culture. For contextualization to be effective, missiologist Paul Hiebert (Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, p. 188), asserts it must occur on at least four levels:
- The communication of the gospel (Bible translation, evangelism, and preaching)
- Spiritual formation
- Church worship forms
- Christian ethics.
Anglicanism’s contextual utility lies especially in levels two and three, spiritual formation and church worship forms (liturgy).
2. Contextualization Done by the Indigenous Church
The second phase in contextualization, “organic contextualization,” is contextualization done by the recipients of the gospel message and not the missionary. Miller emphasizes that organic contextualization is theology by, theology from, and theology with the local, newly planted church. And so, with this understanding of contextualization in hand, we proceed to discuss the contextualizabililty of Anglicanism in the area of tradition.
The Contextualizability of Anglicanism on the Mission Field: Providing a Cultural-Religious Tradition Within Which to Follow Jesus
A few years ago, I talked with a colleague named Frank (alias name) who has labored for years in an Islamic Central Asian country. Frank arrived in Central Asia as a non-denominational, charismatically-oriented church planter with a big heart to see his unreached people group come to Jesus. Some years after God had used him to plant an indigenous church, Frank returned from home assignment in the U.S. to Central Asia to discover something shocking: the indigenous church leaders were dressed in an unfathomable manner—they were all wearing Almy clergy shirts! Stunned, the first question he managed to ask them was how in the world they acquired the clergy shirts in this remote Central Asian region. His next question, though, was much more significant, “Why are you wearing them?”
They responded that they were incredibly thankful for his sacrificial lifestyle, leaving the U.S. and living as one of them, learning their culture and language. They were also grateful that he taught and modeled Jesus, and that he genuinely walked in the power of the Holy Spirit. But they explained that when they decided to follow Jesus, Frank had unwittingly asked them to turn their backs on one thousand years of their cultural-religious tradition without providing them an alternative. “Just Jesus and me” might appear to be enough for the new believer in the U.S., but these Christians from a Muslim Background (CMBs) clearly needed Jesus incarnated into some sort of cultural-religious tradition appropriately contextualized into their culture. Thus their response, “In our culture, religious leaders dress religiously. That’s why we’re wearing clergy shirts…and the collars too.”
These CMBs from Central Asia, as well as the CMB I referred to earlier who inquired about Christian holy days, both understood that Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6) and embraced him. But now that these individuals had accepted Jesus, they were looking for a religious tradition within which to serve and follow Jesus.
Unlike many in the West, CMBs implicitly link form with meaning, the symbolic with what it symbolized.
Unwittingly, these CMBs were now engaging in organic contextualization, asking crucial questions regarding the socio-religious relationship between holy days and structure/rhythm of time and their new Christian reality. They viewed these questions of tradition somehow connected to their spiritual formation, devotion, and worship (liturgy), even if they couldn’t quite articulate why.
Because religion and religiosity was highly visible and functional in their societies, they were searching for a kind of functional substitute for Islam’s fasts, feasts, celebrations, ceremonies, and garb to express their new faith and connect them to the historic and universal Church.
In short, they were asking for us missionaries to do theology with them, helping them to apply Scripture and the perennial tradition to their inherently tradition-rich culture. This is organic contextualization at its best. Before my co-laborer Frank and I became Anglicans, we had no answer for these types of questions. Our directed contextualization was insufficient: We were children of the Enlightenment, secularized missionaries raised on a secular calendar, ministering to innately religious people who viewed time religiously and elevated custom and ritual.
But as I began to discover the Anglican faith tradition, with its seasons (beginning in Advent and concluding with Ordinary Time), colors, rhythms, saints, vestments, and other traditions, I began to realize that Anglicanism’s respect and reverence of the perennial tradition is one of our strengths in frontier mission fields.
The “tradition-friendliness” of Anglicanism, as long as tradition does not contravene the Word of God (Article XX), makes Anglicanism uniquely suitable for directed and organic contextualization in non-Western milieus.
Sacrament and liturgy are two other contextualizable treasures within Anglicanism that make intuitive sense to the majority, non-Western world.
However, space limitations do not permit me to address them in this article, but the interested reader can learn more in chapters 13-15 in AFM’s silver anniversary book, Shadows from Light Unapproachable.
A Concluding Challenge to All Anglicans
To be clear, I’m not asserting that Anglicans are leading the charge in frontier missions. In fact, para-church mission organizations have been at the forefront of frontier missions since the conclusion of World War II. I’m also not claiming that we Anglicans excel in catalyzing church planting movements among unreached people groups, although the Anglican Church of Nigeria is a wonderful exception. Finally, I want to avoid the impression that I am speaking about Anglicanism in a triumphalist and hubristic manner, or that we can go it alone without the global Church.
What I am asserting, however, is that Anglicanism, despite all its faults, is a supremely contextualizable faith tradition that can practically assist new believers from Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and tribal backgrounds in spiritual formation, church worship forms (liturgy), providing a tradition within which to follow Jesus, and above all, in making Christianity their own.
Accordingly, if you know Anglicans in your church who feel a call to frontier missions, encourage and challenge them to do missions Anglicanly!
New Wineskins Missionary Network is leading the ACNA’s Global Mission Initiative, one of the six ACNA ministry initiatives, as well as coordinating the Anglican Global Missions Partners. The Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders (SAMS) exists to support and serve the Anglican Church throughout the world through sending short- and long-term cross-cultural workers. And Anglican Frontier Missions’ charism and calling is equipping and sending short- and long-term missionaries to birth church planting movements among unreached people groups that still lack a visible and viable indigenous church within their culture.
“Doing frontier missions Anglicanly” is not only AFM’s vision. It’s also an approach to missions that makes theological, missiological, and contextual sense.