I was a missions major in college. We talked about the importance of expressing Christianity in culturally appropriate ways. After all, Christianity in South America need not look like Christianity in the United States. The process of tailoring Christianity to a particular culture we called "contextualization."
Contextualization especially comes to the fore when it comes to worship styles. Should missionaries translate western worship songs into native dialects, or should they encourage nationals to compose their own worship in their own style? Contextualization encourages the latter. Every missionary has to be conscious of contextualization.
You can even see contextualization in missional churches in the United States. Mars Hill in Seattle may be an example of a church contextualizing itself to the indie-rocker youth of urban Seattle. Willow Creek may be an example of a church contextualizing itself to the corporate-ladder boomers of suburban Chicago. (See below for why I say “may be.”)
Another thing we are conscious of in missions is "syncretism." Syncretism is contextualization gone wild--when you take blatantly non-Christian elements of a culture and try to shoehorn them into Christianity.
For instance, polygamy is a huge challenge for contextualization. Polygamy is acceptable in many cultures. What does a missionary tell a new convert who has 2 wives? Divorce one? Only sleep with one? What if both wives have children? Do you kick one set to the curb? Does Christianity allow for polygamy? How does 1 Corinthians 7 apply?
However one chooses to answer that question, most would agree that it is wrong for an already-converted Christian to marry a second wife, even in a polygamist culture. That would be syncretism, as the New Testament advocates monogamy.
So, the challenge of missions is being "contextual" without being "syncretistic."
I am reading The New Shape of World Christianity by Mark Noll. It's a great book about how American Christianity compares to global Christianity. Ours is an age of a post-Christian West and a post-Western Christianity, and there is no reason for us to assume that American Christianity is normative.
In the book, Noll points out the challenge in identifying syncretism in other flavors of Christianity. He writes, "The contrast between the West and the non-West is never between culture-free Christianity and culturally embedded Christianity, but between varieties of culturally embedded Christianity." Great point! Just because another culture does something different does not make us orthodox and them syncretistic. It could be the other way around!
So, I have a question for you. Let's imagine for a second that you are a first-century follower of Jesus. Maybe you are even the Apostle Paul. You are caught in a time machine that not only carries you into the distant future (2009), but also lands you in the USA in a typical suburban evangelical church. What practices do you label syncretistic, and what do you label contextual forms of orthodox Christianity?
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