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Petersen-12Summary: This article is the third in a triad: Nationalizing, Internationalizing, and Contextualizing. After recognizing the uniform approach of our early years, as we projected our American experience into other cultures—which was both natural and typical of that era—this article traces the acceptance of “contextualization” among evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s. How did we embrace this? What did our cross-cultural experience and the Scriptures teach us? We look at the lessons we extracted. In one sense, the biblical study that we called the Scriptural Roots of our Ministry (SRM) may be viewed as a large multi-country initiative towards contextualization. Finally, we note the swirling currents of the 90s that led us, in God’s timing, to The Core.


Contextualization and Early Navigator History
Missiological Context
Navigator Response to Missiological Trends
Jim Petersen on Cultural Adaptation
Developing Unity in Diversity, 1980s
Practical Challenges and Theological Tensions
Petersen’s Seminars on Contextualization
Contextualization and the Decline of Christendom, 1990s
Influence of Power and Status Imbalances

“We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”
Acts 15:1

Contextualization and Early Navigator History

This is an arena in which heavy words have become part of the jargon of missiology: indigenization, enculturation, adaptation, accommodation, incarnation, multiculturalism, contextualization.

To contextualize is to appropriate the fullness of Jesus Christ in and for one’s cultural context. When this is faithfully carried out, the purity and mobility of the Gospel are protected.

However, Navigators have been less concerned with the terminology but deeply committed to the redemptive love that is modeled for us in the life of our Lord and summed up in the claim of the apostle Paul: “. . . I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23). Our quest is clear: We strive to sustain the purity and mobility of the Gospel.

First, some brief notes on our early history.

Dawson Trotman was deeply moved by the words of the Lord in Isaiah 49:6: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” So, in simple terms, our goal was to participate in reaching every nation in obedience to the Great Commission.

Looking back on our stance in the 1950s, Waldron Scott wrote that Nav missiology was essentially non-contextual. There was the eternal message of the Gospel and there was the timeless universal method of The Navigators.1

Thus, for the first twelve years that we were sending American missionaries to other countries (1948-1960) we were not convinced that they needed to learn a language. Trotman felt that the mission could be accomplished in English. However, for Lorne Sanny, the turning point came at our staff conference in Hong Kong in 1960: He became convinced that we had to work in local languages.

For a few more years, until around 1964, we did not think much about context. Basically, what we were attempting is what Warren Myers later called “a total transplant,” helping those in other countries copy what we had successfully done in the US. However, we began to explore the implications of appointing non-American staff, and even “national” Representatives.2 It dawned on us progressively that clashes between culture and the Cross should be on the basis of scriptural principles rather than cultural perspectives imported by foreigners.3

Missiological Context

Secondly, let’s pause to look carefully at the general missiological setting.

Pioneer missionary thinkers, such as Roland Allen (1868 – 1947), had popularized the concept of “indigenous” churches that would be “self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating.” Allen’s concern, writing in 1912, was that, “Everywhere, Christianity is still an exotic. We have not yet succeeded in so planting it in any heathen land that it has become indigenous.”4 However, even when these three “selfs” were conscientiously applied, the foreign orientation persisted, “only lightly cloaked by the appearance of indigeneity.” Maturity was still often perceived as properly mimicking Western customs and procedures.

David Bosch (1991) puts it well: “Theology had been defined once and for all and now simply had to be ‘indigenized’ in Third World cultures without, however, surrendering any of its essence. Western theology had universal validity, not least since it was the dominant theology, which had already been stated in its final form.”5 Bosch, while recognizing the benefits that Western missionaries stimulated in areas such as the position of women and advances in education and medicine, demonstrates that most advocates of missions were blind to their own ethnocentrism:6

They confused their middle-class ideals and values with the tenets of Christianity. Their views about morality, respectability, order, efficiency, individualism, professionalism, work and technological progress, having been baptized long before, were without compunction exported to the ends of the earth.

They were, therefore, predisposed not to appreciate the cultures of the people to whom they went . . . the unity of living and learning; the interdependence between individual, community, culture and industry; the profundity of folk wisdom; the proprieties of traditional societies . . . all these were swept aside by a mentality, shaped by the Enlightenment, which tended to turn people into objects, reshaping the entire world into the image of the West. [They were] separating humans from nature and from one another and ‘developing’ them according to Western standards and suppositions.

The same concern registered later in the Lausanne Covenant (1974:7

Culture must always be tested and judged by scripture. Because man is God’s creature, some of his culture is rich in beauty and goodness. Because he is fallen, all of it is tainted with sin and some of it is demonic. . . . Missions have all too frequently exported with the Gospel an alien culture, and churches have sometimes been in bondage to culture rather than to the Scriptures. . . . We also acknowledge that some of our missions have been too slow to equip and encourage national leaders to assume their rightful responsibilities. Yet we are committed to indigenous principles, and long that every church will have national leaders who manifest a Christian style of leadership in terms not of domination but of service.

This echoed the Apostle Paul’s instruction to Titus to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5). Presumably, they were local men.8

Although the Lausanne Covenant does not use the term contextualization, it was in play during this 1974 Congress. For example, Dr. Byang Kato, in his paper on “Cultural Context and Religious Syncretism,” mentions that it is “a new term imported into theology to express a deeper concept than indigenization ever does. . . . It is an effort to express the never-changing Word of God in ever-changing modes for relevance. . . . The New Testament has given us the pattern for cultural adaptations. The incarnation itself is a form of contextualization.”9

“The Willowbank Report—Gospel and Culture” (1978)10 reflected on how missionary practice in much of the nineteenth century assumed, often unconsciously, that the young churches that they courageously planted in foreign settings should closely copy the traditions of the sending churches—based “on the false assumptions that the Bible gave specific instructions about such matters and that the home churches’ pattern of government, worship, ministry and life were themselves exemplary.”

As the report brought out, evangelicals should work progressively to address situations in which local believers “are still almost completely inhibited from developing their own identity and program by policies laid down from afar, by the introduction and continuation of foreign traditions, by the use of expatriate leadership, by alien decision-making processes, and especially by the manipulative use of money.” The danger was and is that such a pattern of influence may be invisible to the incoming missionaries, because for them it is natural. Thus, it is assumed to be biblical.

“Contextualization” was still a new term, less than ten years old, when defined by Bruce Nicholls in 1979 as “in harmony with the cultural context and dealing with the local issues of a society.”11 Culture, any culture, is both a carrier of and a barrier to the Gospel.12 It carries shafts of light from the Creator God, and yet it is inevitably tainted by human sinfulness. Thus, we can agree with Bruce Nicholls: “The Gospel is never the guest of any culture; it is always its judge and redeemer.”

The task remained: To preserve the essential meanings and functions which the New Testament presents for the Church, but to express these in forms that were dynamically equivalent to the originals yet appropriate, indeed redemptive, in local cultures. As Charles Kraft wrote in 1979: “Holding to religious forms that have lost their intended meanings, as the Pharisees did, is superstition.”13

Two principles are in tension. We must “contend for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3)14 but we must present it in a way that is challenging and relevant for each culture and generation, else it will have little purchase. It is in this sense that the Catholic Robert Schreiter argued that all theologies are local.15

This “dynamic equivalence” model flowed out of productive work in Bible translation. However, the analogy between Bible translation and church formation is not exact: The translator works from a detailed text, but the church-planter works out of a series of glimpses of the early church in operation. Also, instead of a controlling translator, the entire community of faith should be involved in receiving and exploring how the Gospel may freshly be transmitted.

A few years later, it was still necessary to develop a more biblical worldview. Thus, in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin (1989) helpfully defends the relatively new term “contextualization”:16

The reasons for dissatisfaction with these [older] words are twofold. In the first place, they have tended to relate the Gospel to past traditions and to underestimate the forces in every society which are making for change. In the second place, they have sometimes seemed to imply that what the missionary brought with him was the pure, unadapted Gospel, and that “adaptation” was thus a kind of concession to those who had not the advantage of having a Christian culture. . . . The word “contextualization” seeks to . . . direct attention to the need so to communicate the Gospel that it speaks God’s Word to the total context in which people are now living and in which they now have to make their decisions.

One further point, often overlooked. Contextualization is a neutral concept, not merely flowing toward what is foreign or exotic. An American, for example, might choose to contextualize to the politics of Washington, D.C., or the ethos of Walmart.

At one point, Nav leader Waldron Scott voiced the opinion that American Christianity was highly indigenous, but poorly contextualized.17 This is an insightful distinction.

Among evangelicals, contextualization18 has been a flexible term that serves to embrace the variety of changing contexts within which the trans-cultural Scriptures are deployed. In later Navigator circles, we referred simply to the fruitful interaction between text and context.19 This is acceptable as long as we bear in mind that three cultures are in play. As John Stott writes, “It is this interplay between the three cultures—the cultures of the Bible, of the missionary, and of his or her hearers—which constitutes the exciting, yet exacting, discipline of cross-cultural communication.”20

Or as Newbigin writes: “True contextualization accords to the Gospel its rightful primacy, its power to penetrate every culture and to speak within each culture, in its own speech and symbol, the word which is both No and Yes, both judgement and grace.”21

Navigator Response to Missiology Trends

After this extended general introduction, what did Navigators do?

During the 1960s, it was in Brazil that Navigators most carefully began to follow indigenous principles. Their pursuit was practical, flowing out of the challenges of connecting with the secular Brazilian students. Under the evolving guidance of Jim Petersen and Ken Lottis, an entire style of ministry developed in which students were attracted into a “gang of friends,” or turma. This proved very relevant in such a relational culture. Because local church patterns, Protestant or Catholic, would have been quite a stretch for new Brazilian believers, our strategy was to draw people to Jesus through inviting them to explore the Scriptures, especially the Gospel of John, without laying on them expectations of becoming “religious.” In this crucible, the distinction between forms and functions matured. This model was to become vitally important in our history.

In the early 1970s, Waldron Scott brought the theory of indigeneity and dynamic equivalence into the general purview of The Navigators. Drawing from his studies under Dr. Kraft at the Fuller School of World Mission, he gathered his observations in two papers.22
Then, after the Lausanne Congress in July 1974, Scott applied his experience through a small Navigator seminar on indigeneity in Lebanon. Five Arabs and Armenians participated, as well as our director, Bob V. Participants began by discussing published articles on aspects of indigeneity in Cameroon, Taiwan, India, Brazil, and, once familiar with the basic concepts, proceeded to assess the level of dynamic equivalence among our ministry at the American University of Beirut. Using scales developed by Scott, a spectrum from -3 to +3, the average score was +1. This seems quite credible, although it should be borne in mind that AUB had a distinctively Western flavor with instruction in English. Among the conclusions surfacing in a very detailed analytical report23 were:

  • The group felt that, with respect to indigenous beliefs, Navigators in Beirut had achieved a high degree of dynamic equivalence to New Testament values and doctrines.
  • However, the more closely a person was tied into the overall Nav work, the more foreign he felt that work to be.

This second observation is disconcerting. It can be partially explained by a sense that the more one learned of the norms and requirements and expectations of the international Navigators, the less conformity to them was visible in Beirut. The nationals were feeling decreasingly like themselves as the outline of a global organization impinged on them. Their quest for indigeneity was under pressure. We were already decentralizing and seeking to be sensitive to a diversity of contexts, and we certainly recognized uniformity as undesirable, across cultures, even if it could have been secured. Yet, there was a long road ahead for us to tread.

Mike Treneer makes a practical distinction arising from his pioneering ministry in Nigeria. We realized in the late 1970s, he explains, that indigenizing (or nationalizing) by appointing a national as the national director24 who had a national team was not enough. However, contextualizing moved us from: Do we want a Navigator ministry in Nigeria? Do we want a Nigerian Navigator ministry? We have embraced that shift.25

From his experience in Asia, David B. recalls: “I left Malaysia in 1974 for cross-training in Australia . . . and found that much that I used to do in Malaysia did not work in Australia. . . . Then, the practical side of contextualizing became clear when I started working among focus people in Malaysia, even though it was my own country.”26

In describing his own journey, Jim C. writes: “Paul’s sermon to the Jews in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14-41) was very different from his message at the meeting at the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31). Contextualization will affect not only our message but our lifestyles and the ways we minister.”27

In his interview, Mike Treneer added that what the IET28 accomplished in the late 1980s was “to move contextualization from a side show in The Navigators to the front and center of our ministry. It went hand-in-hand with the Global Society and the principle of subsidiarity. The big legacy words for that period were trusting, releasing, coaching, and modeling. [The IET] modeled what we now call the ‘alongsider’ model of leadership. . . . The focus was the lost in the nations. . . . The key was what should happen locally.”29

Jim Petersen on Cultural Adaptation

In 1977, Jim Petersen wrote on cultural adaptation, explaining that he was avoiding the term “indigeneity” because it was often used to talk about the forms that a ministry should take, forms that grow out of a culture and develop on the basis of felt needs.30 However, what he had in mind was a broader pursuit, namely the entire process of adapting our ministries to other cultures. Thus, he chose the title “cultural adaptation.” His paper is rather seminal. He identifies five stages to be worked through and explores how they are best addressed as a ministry develops:

  • Cross-cultural ministry by individuals
  • Intra-cultural ministry by individuals
  • Corporate ministry by groups

Using illustrations from his experience in Brazil, he looked at the five stages that he called rapport, comprehension, dynamically equivalent response, ongoing relevance and, finally, mature interdependence in which the responsibility for a people shifts from the shoulders of the foreign missionaries to the national leaders. Only thus can one leave behind “a band of disciples who are both responsible and productive.”31

The term “adaptation” needs to be handled carefully. It may carry a sense that the outsiders (missionaries) grasp the initiative in altering their practice to fit the receiving context. However, I would argue that the initiative should come from our local disciples, albeit fertilized by the vision that God has given The Navigators.

Scott soon departed from our staff, the Brazilian ministry flourished in isolation, and there the matter largely rested until Sanny’s introduction of the second edition of the Fundamentals of The Navigator Ministry in 1982. This text included a section32 on adapting ministry forms to the culture of the hearers. It argued that the mobility of our ministry from one culture to another and its ultimate effectiveness within a culture depends in part upon our ability to perceive and respond to different cultures: “Although we cannot function without form, specific forms, methods and tools are limited in their acceptability. They must be contextualized.”

In simple terms, contextualization33 presses toward a fruitful interaction between text and context, given that sound hermeneutical principles are followed.

Our work on clarifying and adopting four progressive stages of ministry, starting in 1981, demonstrated that embracing a cultural component was now broadly accepted. For example, stage 1 required “cultural orientation” and stage 2 included the understanding of local cultural patterns, leading in stage 3 to the emergence of relevant and reproducible ministries.

Developing Unity in Diversity, 1980s

In the early 1980s, Warren Myers had drawn together a pilot group34 of Nav leaders to explore the freedoms that we had to contextualize, within the orbit of our transcultural vision. We realized that uniformity was stifling, but how best to develop unity in diversity? Should we retain standard requisites for new staff, across cultures? Would we benefit from a shared “philosophy of missions?”

Among the conclusions emerging from this discussion were:

  • For many Westerners, what is on paper tends to become policy, with relationships being secondary: the reverse in the developing world.
  • Our middle leaders must learn to be discriminating filters between our central HQ and our national ministries.35
  • We should fit the job to the man, having chosen wisely, though we have tended to try to fit the man to the job.

Treneer commented that the expectations placed upon our middle leaders continued to rise, and that we had neglected those disciple-makers who are not equipped to become staff. Dave Grissen urged us to bring back some balance by designing a profile of a related laborer. Doug Sparks added that the harvest is the training ground for laborers and leaders, so that the selection of leaders should arise naturally out of the needs of the harvest (1 Corinthians 9:20).

Participants at Christ Haven recognized that “professional” missionaries would be inhibited as we spread into restricted countries. Furthermore, there are many contexts in which “lay” missionaries will cost much less and have a much more reproducible lifestyle. How do we make our volunteers feel as much a part as our professional staff?

Posing this question reminded the pilot group that we do well to avoid a preoccupation with raising up staff. Our emphasis is primarily not organization but movement. It includes the equipping and encouraging of disciple-makers, some of whom the Lord will call into our organization. This breadth of ministry (serving the whole family of God rather than an inbred concern for staff and organization) is also important so that the staff whom we raise up have the same kind of vision. The selection of staff should not be forced by us but come from the Lord. The disciple grows into the larger ministry. We should give all emerging leaders the same kind of training, regardless of whether they will join the staff. We want every person to become his or her best for God.36

This Christ Haven group saw contextualization as having two major areas: the message (theological contextualization) and the messenger (cultural contextualization). Thus, regarding the message, we need to consider both the form in which we present it and the meaning of the message. Then, regarding the messenger, we must consider his or her lifestyle and ministry style.

Contextualization is a dynamic balance between simply transplanting the practices and theologies of the “senders” and syncretism which assumes that the practices of the “receivers” are normative. It enables the maximum flow of the ministry because it clarifies those aspects which are transculturally essential. This implies that we should look toward the formation of an ekklesia that is contextually planted, developed, led, and reproducing. This is what will have the seeds of a movement.

Meanwhile, it is significant that Navigators were apparently still wedded to the Matthean expression of the Great Commission.37 A revealing example comes in the summary of the 1980 consultation, where a paragraph on social involvement is included under contextualization. Thus, “The key to changing our society is not through evangelism in partnership with social action but only through raising up a new kind of disciple. . . . This new kind of disciple lives like the king (Matthew 5-7) and speaks for the king (Matthew 28:18-20). . . . Social change will not come through simply inaugurating social action, but will come as an outcome of obeying the authoritative mandate (Matthew 28:18-20).”38

The text continues: “In the developing nations, this is a very important subject, and a biblical position must be known. Fulfillment of the one great, authoritative mandate (Matthew 28:18-20) will produce a new kind of disciple who, within his sphere of influence, will be committed to social justice and to the changing of his society. This will include concern for and generosity to the poor.”

It is noteworthy that The Great Commandment is absent from the text, precisely where we would expect “love your neighbors as yourself” to be prominent, and Matthew 28 is surely not “the one great authoritative mandate.”39

The document adds that the disciple should be aware of the major issues of his society and be relating effectively to such issues. “In the third world, he will be primarily aware of multinational corruption/greed/oppression/dishonesty. . . . His attitude will be one of generosity combined with wisdom. He has practical solutions. For example, alms, relief, setting aside say $50 per month for the poor, a “poor fund” at the church. The spirit of Galatians 6:9-10 is prevalent.”40

Two Brands of Contextualization

Care is required. D.A. Carson41 remarks that “broadly speaking, there are two brands of contextualization. The first assigns control to the context: The operative term is praxis, which serves as a controlling grid to determine the meaning of scripture. The second assigns control to the Scriptures, but cherishes the “contextualization” rubric because it reminds us that the Bible must be thought about, translated into and preached in categories relevant to the particular cultural context.”

In other words, text has priority over context. Jim C. adds wisely that “the whole believing community should be involved in this challenging task.”

Practical Challenges and Theological Tensions

Following the Christ Haven discussion, George Sanchez drew together a consultation on global planning in May 1981 in Penang, Malaysia. Warren Myers led this interim meeting in which nine of our field leaders selected participants and firmed up the agenda for the main Consultation on Special Groups to be held the following March, in Penang. They also outlined for the first time four stages of ministry, each of which focused on a key issue regardless of the numerical size of the work in that country. Thus:

  1. Penetrating Issue: fruitfulness
  2. Developing Issue: commitment by nationals
  3. Consolidating Issue: national strategy
  4. Established Issue: biblically rooted, culturally relevant42

It is encouraging to see this wider view of discipleship emerging, but it is still only partial and awaits the much richer understanding that God gave us in the 1990s and beyond. By the time that they gathered in Penang in March 1982 for our consultation on special groups,43 our participants had (presumably) studied some 270 pages of stretching and insightful preparatory material on thirty-nine topics, written by some of our most experienced pioneers, of seven nationalities.44 It is perhaps disconcerting to observe that all the authors were Nav staff.

Why so much effort, so much complexity, might be asked? Bearing in mind that The Navigators originated in and was still largely colored by American ways of thought and action, some words by Eugene Nida, a noted linguistic and cultural anthropologist, are worth quoting:

Of the more or less two thousand cultures in the world, the culture of the Western world can perhaps be described as the most “aberrant” of all. The highly specialized nature of the culture, based on its technology, urbanization and industrial development, has resulted in a way of life that is perplexing to many people in the Third World. It is this aberrant cultural development that makes us, as representatives of that culture, so difficult to understand and to appreciate. For those who must deal with cultural pluralism in our world, certain features of our Western culture stand out as most likely to create problems; these are impersonal attitudes, pressure for success, mobility and secularization.45

A decade after the term contextualization was introduced by Coe, it was spreading in Nav circles. Thus, we find two papers on contextualized ministry models in the preparatory material for our COSG.

Ken Lottis described progress since the ministry in Brazil began in the 1960s. His paper explored the pioneering cell group that he introduced in July 1977 in Curitiba. He gathered a pilot group of couples who met not only for Bible study but “to enable people to live the Christian life in every dimension . . . where the realities of day-to-day living could be integrated in submission to the authority of God’s Word.”46

Ken ends his paper47 as follows:

A cell group ambiance is a flexible form that can generically meet the needs of adult believers for edification, equipping, and evangelism. The leadership skills required are not complex and can be learned in a training conference, then sharpened by experience and further training. The group can divide and multiply as evangelism takes place and new leaders emerge. A cell group structure provides for nearly infinite growth in a city or country, with a local leadership team banding cells together for conferences. A cell group that is part of such a larger structure can provide the biblical sense of Body in a dynamic and pragmatic fashion.

Doug Sparks presented his paper on “Contextualized Reproducible Ministry Models,” or CRMMs. He describes how CRMMs should be tuned to local realities in terms of work and ministry lifestyle and be well-related to the Body and to society. After describing five stages of developing a CRMM, he ends as follows:

Consistent simplicity in structure and working marks a CRMM. Trained leaders can staff them without undue difficulty. Yet it remains a quality ministry. . . . Quality goes hand-in-hand with productivity. . . . When standards of quality and simplicity are consistently met, a CRMM, through the laborer-leader and his band of laborers, begins to help fulfill effectively our mission—the Great Commission.

However, the Lottis and Sparks papers do not do justice to the intense discussions at the COSG on aspects of contextualization. In fact, we find in the record the following additional material:

  • Perspectives on Contextualization (Several)
  • Biblical Illustrations of Contextualization (Petersen)
  • Process of Contextualization (John R.)
  • Contextualization of Materials and Methods (Discussion)

Jerry White48 attended the COSG and provided an extensive report for our US leaders. Some excerpts:

As people spoke and shared, it was as though a great sigh of relief went through the group as if to say, “others are experiencing and feeling the same things. I’m really not out in left field.” We in the more developed Nav works tend to forget the tremendous isolation most of these leaders experience. Not isolation from friends in the ministry, but isolation from other leaders experiencing some of the same problems. . . . Perhaps the most significant outcome of the COSG was affirmation for many people struggling through similar issues.

Contextualization is not without its dangers. In the extreme, it becomes syncretism—changing not just the form, but also the content and understanding of the Gospel. The opposite of syncretism is to transplant—to make no adjustments whatever to the local culture or context. The hard question is: To what extent do we contextualize? There is total agreement that we must, but not so close in understanding as to how much. This is especially crucial in the Hindu and Muslim worlds.

. . . Perhaps the most difficult issue at the COSG was regarding establishing local fellowships. . . . Various experiments were described and discussed. No one tried to reach a conclusion, but all were deeply concerned that the fruit of our ministry be adequately cared for. . . . Everyone was painfully aware of the potential divisiveness of this issue. There was a strong feeling that we must keep staff mobility as a focus to prevent us from getting bogged down, but the need remains to provide nurture where none exists locally. . . .

Our concern for contextualization accelerated rapidly during the early 1980s. Our leaders rated it as our seventh priority in 1984, and it rose to our fourth priority the following year. By INC 5 in February 1986, participants pinpointed progress in contextualization as the most indispensable of some twenty issues and challenges that we faced, the development of our Global Society coming second.49

Several reasons. First, quite a few of the 165 participants of twenty-one nationalities50 who gathered for our International Leadership Conference in 1980 felt that the center had pushed too hard for universal imperatives.51 Secondly, as Jerry White recalls,52 there was a growing resistance to authority. Thirdly, mature voices from around the Navigator world were adding their perspectives.53 Fourthly, the old methods were becoming less effective: We were wrestling with declining fruitfulness in many countries.

Therefore, during INC 5 in February 1986,54 Jim Petersen sponsored a progress report. Drawing from 1 Thessalonians 1:4-10, he suggested five stages of cross-cultural communication:

  • Rapport: “I want to hear what you have to say,” v. 5-6
  • Comprehension: “I understand what you are saying,” v. 5
  • Equivalent response: “It means the same to me as it does to you,” v. 6
  • Relevance to life: “The message impacts on my life,” v. 9
  • Mature co-laborship: “I assume my part in the growth of the Gospel,” v. 7-8

He argued that “the issue in contextualization is the truth and mobility of the Gospel.” It is making sure that the Gospel is clear of cultural and traditional attachments as it is carried into a host culture, and it also means taking care that it remains undistorted by the culture of those who receive it. The Gospel plus anything at all becomes a non-Gospel. Therefore, the communicator needs to know well the difference between:

  • Universals and particulars
  • Function and form55
  • Primary and secondary truths

Jim took the council (1986) through the outline of the contextualization seminars that he had already conducted in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.56 Essentially, what he offered was a biblical framework for crossing cultures, into the world, in the context of the Kingdom of God. Recognizing the Kingdom gave us new freedom to contextualize; this emphasis came to prominence through the Scriptural Roots of our Ministry.57

Clearly, there was a growing awareness of the need for contextualizing in our Worldwide Partnership. Many of our national ministries were looking for help. Contextualization should be a natural process, rather than a theological exercise, as we respond to the Scriptures and to the leading of the Spirit.58

Sometimes, it must be admitted, the struggle of our Westerners to serve others in contextualizing their ministries shows that we were largely talking to ourselves. To illustrate this, Wong Kim Tok, when asked what he made of The Core (the Navigator Calling, Values, and Vision) responded:

I didn’t gravitate to it for various reasons, one of which was that I couldn’t understand why Westerners keep on devising new things every few years. The same things they’ve just discovered, some of us had discovered decades earlier. My classic example is the importance of family. The day we received Christ, we prayed for our families to come to Christ. . . . It’s part of our lives to do so.59

Petersen’s Seminars on Contextualization

Although Andrew Walls has wisely written that, “It is a delightful paradox that the more Christ is translated into the various thought forms and life systems which form our various national identities, the richer all of us will be in our common Christian identity,”60 it did not always feel “delightful” in our grassroots debates. In fact, we had grown from twenty-four nationalities of staff in 1973 to fifty nationalities in 1993. In the latter year, we were working among 129 ethnic peoples and using 120 languages of ministry, in ninety countries.61 The cultural mix was fermenting!

Drawing from lengthy experience in Brazil and sustained biblical reflection, Jim Petersen had been traveling outside Latin America to give us practical field-oriented seminars on contextualization,62 building out from three foundational steps:

  • The messenger understands his own culture so he can be free to adapt to those he seeks to win (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
  • The messenger understands the essential truths of his message so that it is preserved in its purity throughout the communication process (Galatians 1:6-8).
  • The messenger and the hearers work together to develop new ministry patterns that are biblical and relevant to those who believe, and attractive to those whom they seek to win (Titus 2:10b, 11).

In launching a ministry, we have understood that how and where one starts has much influence on where one ends: it is influential, but not determinative. Is there also a bias depending upon whether one starts from our unity in Christ and moves to embrace diversity or starts with the experiential reality of diversity and pursues unity?

It seems that the former better reflects the biblical priority. The coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh issues from the perfect unity of our Triune God63 to welcome all nations into the one family of God. The world wrestles with the second approach—trying to corral our differences into a coherent and amicable consensus—and often fails.64

Contextualization is a move from the one Jesus towards the many whom He came to recover and redeem and restore.

Contextualization and the Decline of Western Christendom, 1990s

During the 1990s, we felt the increasing urgency of contextualizing our lives and ministries in pursuit of God’s calling. Our desire to sustain an appropriate unity (not uniformity) in the tumbling torrent of diversity was prominent.

In most countries in the global North, we were experiencing the end of Christendom, which made the set of our hearts to convey a pure and mobile Gospel much more challenging.65 Many believers were gradually accepting every emergent cultural trend, lest they be judged bigoted or ignorant. The speed of change accelerated.

Navigators pursued a variety of solutions, from the gentle warmth of the “inner frontiers” mission in Western Europe to the crusading vision of The Commission in Russia and beyond.

How did we strengthen ourselves in the Lord, when so much was fragmented and so many were unresponsive? As regards contextualization, two initiatives stand out.

The first was an exploration, primed by the views of many of our best practitioners, of what emerged as The Fundamentals of Navigator Missions.66 This was driven by the need to distill afresh the resources available to us in the Scriptures. After all, the Scriptures are our only transcultural manual for reaching the nations.

This FONM67 offered six Bible studies designed to serve those who set out to minister cross-culturally. Especially relevant here were:

Extracts from intro to study 2: The Gospel

Effective missions, however, depends on an uncompromised Gospel. It must address the whole character of God. Without a clear vision of the holiness of God and His demand for righteousness and justice, Christ’s work on the cross becomes unessential.

There is a Gospel crisis in missions today. We have tailored the Gospel message to make it more marketable. The emphasis on making quick decisions for Christ and on numerical counting of converts prompts us to take shortcuts. All too often the result is people assenting to Christianity but not experiencing the life-changing Holy Spirit of God.

Effective missions also demand an uncluttered Gospel. The nations require a Gospel that is free and unencumbered.

Taking the Gospel across boundaries requires scrutinizing our own traditions as well as those of the new culture. Only when the Gospel is free of add-ons does it become truly transforming to new believers within their culture.

Extracts from intro to study 3: The Mobile Function of the Church

As we take the Gospel across cultural boundaries, we must be alert to issues such as: A) How do we keep the Gospel free of our own traditionalism or syncretism as we plant it in new soil? B) How do we handle the truth in such a way that it confronts the fallenness of the culture so that people abandon their beliefs and wholeheartedly turn to God? C) How can the light of the Gospel be reflected by those who believe in such a way that those who surround them can see the glory of God?

The second initiative was a way of thinking about our streams of ministry that was summed up in what we called the Four Quadrants.68 This helped us not to polarize (a prevalent problem) or to reject contextual solutions different from our own practices. Originated by Mike Treneer, this tool gave us perspectives on the issues and posture that each segment or kind of ministry in our partnership presents to the others. The segments were:

  • Major Senders
  • Missions Partners
  • Missions Frontiers
  • Internal Frontiers

Actually, there was a cluster of Nav developments that culminated toward the end of the decade, including:

  • January 1998: Practitioners conference on the pure Gospel (Cyprus)
  • May 1998: Acceptance of our commitments by the International Team
  • May 1998: Fundamentals of Navigator Missions (six topical studies)
  • February 1999: International gathering on Ekklesia-Oikos (Malaysia)
  • May 1999: Introduction of the Four Quadrants
  • May 1999: Full launch of Fundamentals of Navigator Missions
  • June 1999: Ministering with Catholics (US task force)

As regards contextualizing, the introduction of the FONM was the most significant development; but, as regards acceptance of our own diversity, the Four Quadrants were most useful.

Influence of Power and Status Imbalances

It was only around the turn of the century that we increasingly realized the influence of the “power and status imbalances” that are so often built into our thinking and practice.69 Borrowing the words of Hansung Kim as a typical concern in missions, we realized that:

It is not unusual to see a multicultural team where the leader is a Westerner and the majority of the members are from the majority world. And yet, the majority world members may feel that they are not heard.70

This is because of many structural advantages built into the very ways that mission organizations are comprised, their origins and the languages and organizational cultures they employ. In general, power differentials are at work in any exchanges across boundaries of culture, class and gender. A biblical example of this tendency can be found in Ecclesiastes 9:14-15:

There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man.71

During an interview in 2010, Okorie Kalu had this to say:

The budding church in Antioch would have found it difficult to attain the level they attained as a missional community if they had not contextualized. If we don’t contextualize, what tends to happen is that we lose the purity of the Gospel. When we lose the purity of the Gospel, we immobilize the Gospel. So, I think God provides for contextualization. Yet, in the context of contextualization, we must guard against syncretism.

In the wider body of Christ in Africa, in Nigeria where I live, in particular, the church is now in danger of syncretism. We must guard against this.72

Looking back in 2011, Mike Treneer commented: “[Contextualization] has led us on a journey which has been very painful, but a very good journey. I would say it feels like giving birth. I’m not sure the baby is quite delivered yet. I have great hopes.”73

Navigating Cross-Cultural Missions

In 2016, our International Executive Team published Navigating Cross-cultural Missions, drawing from the experience of some thirty experienced Nav leaders from around the globe. This study guide is especially designed for those who are seriously considering or have already decided to pursue medium-term or long-term missions as a vocation, to help them “thrive and be fruitful” in a challenging and complex calling. Contextualization is covered specifically in pages 55-61 but underlies much of the scriptural foundations that are presented. Already, this guide is being translated into several languages.

“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone,
to win as many as possible.”
1 Corinthians 9:19

By Donald McGilchrist

6959 words

See also articles on:
The Kingdom of God
Our Enabling Global Society
Stages of Ministry
The Scriptural Roots of our Ministry
Several Ministries in One Country
The CoMission
Church Planting
Apostolic Pioneering
Fundamentals of Nav Missions
Cross-Cultural Missions
The Approach to The Core


  1. Source: Double Helix, p. 229.
  2. Representatives were our foundational staff, appointed by our general director and qualified for service around the world. By 1964, forty-five of our 243 staff were representatives.
  3. Summary Notes for COSG 1982, prepared by Marvin Smith, p. 2
  4. Quotation from “Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?” in Classic Texts in Mission & World Christianity. Anderson of the American Board of Foreign Missions and Venn of the Church Missionary Society advocated this formula as a recipe for planting denominational churches. See Bosch’s Transforming Mission, p. 331-332.
  5. David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology and Mission, Orbis 1991, p. 427. Paul Hiebert, (in loc) refers to the period 1800 to 1950 as the “era of non-contextualization, as far as Protestant missions are concerned.”
  6. Bosch: loc cit, p. 294.
  7. The Lausanne Covenant, World Wide Publications, 1974, selections from paras 10 and 11. Page 43 was signed by almost all participants in this first Lausanne Congress, including around a dozen Navigators present.
  8. As regards the challenge in Crete, we may recall Titus 1:12, which says, “Even one of their own prophets has said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’”
  9. Byang Kato in Let the Earth Hear His Voice, the collected papers from the congress, p. 1217. Kato’s paper was followed by five short regional summaries on evaluating cultural practices by biblical standards, p. 1229 to 1294.
  10. Quotations from “The Willowbank Report—Gospel and Culture.” Lausanne Occasional Paper 2, LCWE 1978, especially pages 23-25
  11. Bruce J. Nicholls, Contextualization: A Theology of Gospel and Culture, Intervarsity Press, 1979, p. 29. The term “contextualization” had been introduced by Shoki Coe in 1972 in Ministry in Context, published by the WCC Theological Education Fund.
  12. This is explored in “The Universals: Bible and Culture,” September 1981 paper by McGilchrist.
  13. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, Orbis, 1979, p. 331.
  14. This concept was captured in what is known as the Vincentian Canon after St. Vincent of Lérins (died before 450 A.D.): quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (“what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”).
  15. Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies, Orbis, 1985. Different theologies are bound to emerge because different cultures ask different questions. He argues provocatively that, “What has counted for theology since the thirteenth century in western Christianity has been dominated by a university model, with its emphasis on clarity, precision and relation to other bodies of knowledge . . .” p. 4.
  16. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin, Eerdmans, 1989, p. 142. Bishop Newbigin returned from India to England, age sixty-six, in 1974 and began a new career by calling Western churches to act as missionaries to their own cultures. He proceeded to write prolifically on contextualization and the end of Christendom. He has been immensely influential in the countries of the West.
  17. It is remarkable that, as early as 1973—only one year after the term was coined in Geneva—Scott provided a brief case study of “A Pioneer Contextualization in 1605 A.D.” This looked at Roberto de Nobili and the penetration of India. It can be accessed on page 275 of the papers prepared for our COSG in 1982.
  18. A personal account of how contextualization plays out in the life of a committed Navigator can be found in appendix A (p. 205-211) of Jim Chew’s book When You Cross Cultures, NavMedia, Singapore, 2009.
  19. For a useful introduction and bibliography, albeit embedded in a critique of some current practices, see “Contextualization of the Gospel Among Muslims” by Coleman & Verster in Acta Theologica, 2006:2, p. 94-115. See also What is Contextualization? by John Harrower, Bishop of Tasmania, BCA, 2001.
  20. Authentic Christianity, Inter-Varsity Press, UK, 1995, p. 333.
  21. Newbigin loc cit, p. 152.
  22. “The Navigator Approach to Indigeneity in Brazil” and “A Device for Evaluating the Dynamic Equivalence of Navigator Ministries in Cross-cultural Situations.” Both were written at the SWM during April to May 1974.
  23. Report on indigeneity seminar in Beirut, Waldron Scott, 1974.
  24. This awkward phrase was in use during the 1970s, after which we largely moved from national director to country leader.
  25. Source: paraphrased Treneer interview on September 13, 2011.
  26. Source: David B. interview on August 2, 2011.
  27. From “Reflections on Contextualization: My Personal Journey,” Jim Chew, 2008, in When You Cross Cultures, NavMedia, Singapore, 2009, p. 208. See also note 17.
  28. Our International Executive Team, based in Colorado Springs.
  29. Source: Treneer loc cit.
  30. In fact, Scott had avoided the term “indigenous” in his “Strategy for the 70s.” Subsequently, in December 1973, Henrichsen explained that he also had avoided the term “because it often connotes autonomy.” We were not church planters and were committed to operating as a global family. See CPC Notes, p. 29.
  31. Jim Petersen, “What Do We Mean By Cultural Adaptation?”, October 28, 1977. This was followed by his paper on the “Biblical Basis for Cultural Adaptation” of April 14, 1978.
  32. FOM 2, April 1982, section V on forms, p. 33. Sanny had worked closely with Petersen on the development of the FOM. In FOM 1 (1978), contextualization had been less explicit.
  33. An article in IBMR Volume 41, January 2017 (p. 29-40), entitled “Contextualization in Pentecostalism: A Multicultural Perspective” by Allan Anderson is instructive, and offers a case study of Pentecostal contextualization in South Korea, showing both its strengths and its weaknesses.
  34. Thirteen men participated in this preliminary discussion at Christ Haven Lodge in Colorado. All were cross-culturally experienced: Myers, Petersen, Treneer, Bob V., John R., Smith, Salvador, North, Janzen, Clark, Blanch, Grissen, Hall.
  35. At this stage, all these filters except Doornenbal and Chew were Americans. Thus, the “filtering” could be culturally biased.
  36. Source: “Summary of Insights from Developing Nations Consultation,” February 1980.
  37. Taken from notes of Third World Evaluation Conference probably written by Myers on February 18, 1980, p. 2. Present: Petersen, John R., Treneer, Myers, Bob V.
  38. Bosch, (loc cit, p. 339) points out that in each period in the history of the Church, there was a tendency to take one biblical reference as the missionary text. Thus, the patristic era (John 3:16), medieval Catholicism (Luke 14:23), the Reformation (Romans 1:16), premillennialism (Matthew 24:14), and so forth.
  39. Bosch (loc cit p. 340) suggests that the prominence of Matthew 28 flowed out of its use by William Carey in his 1792 tract “An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen” in which Carey “demolished” the conventional interpretation of Matthew 28:18-20.
  40. Notes of TWEC, p. 6-7.
  41. The Church in the Bible and the World, WEF 1987, p. 220, quoted by Jim Chew in loc cit, p. 25.
  42. For more on these stages of ministry, see separate article “Stages of Ministry.” They were adopted by the December 1982 IMLT and accepted by the April 1983 IET, then updated, after input from Africa, by the March 1987 IET.
  43. Sanny was supportive of the COSG, seeing it as a strategic interaction among the leaders of developing countries and as part of the process of sharpening our philosophy of missions.
  44. Australian, American, Brazilian, Dutch, Briton, Filipino, Singaporean. Also present were a Canadian and Lebanese.
  45. “Why Are Foreigners So Queer?” an article by Eugene Nida in IBMR, July 1981, p. 104.
  46. Ken Lottis focused on six aspects of the desired ambiance, each of which happens to begin in Portuguese with the letter A. These were friendship, caring, acceptance, nourishment, admonition, worship. He refers to the encouragement given by option C under relating in the text of FOM 1.
  47. See COSG papers, Lottis on p. 67-69, Sparks on p. 70-75.
  48. Source: excerpts from Jerry’s letter of March 26, 1982 to Jack Mayhall. Curiously, he was the only participant from among the US Navigators.
  49. International Navigator Council 5, appendix L.
  50. Ministering in thirty-six countries; twenty-three or 14 percent were women.
  51. See section on Strategic Global Imperatives for the 1980s.
  52. Interviews of March 6 and 13, 2012.
  53. The twenty-eight participants at COSG 1982 were of nine nationalities, many of them pioneering new expressions of our vision.
  54. See section 12 of papers for INC 5 in February 1986. The five stages he outlined are similar to what he had proposed in 1977.
  55. It is fascinating that the preface to the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer offers an essay on “Ceremonies, Why Some be Abolished and Some Retained.” While recognizing that “without some ceremonies [(i.e. forms!)] it is not possible to keep any order or quiet discipline in the Church,” the author observes that every country should only use “such ceremonies as they shall think best to the setting forth of God’s honor or glory . . .” We cannot live without forms and ceremonies, but they are usually not transferable between cultures.
  56. For Jim’s notes that he distributed to our US leaders in his August 1986 seminar at Glorieta, see McGilchrist’s H2010 file on “Nationalizing.” He started by explaining that we focus on contextualization for a simple reason: the purity and mobility of the Gospel. Aldo Berndt contributed a study on contextualization from Galatians.
  57. The final international edition of the SRM became available in January 1990. See separate article, “Scriptural Roots of Our Ministry.”
  58. Paul Hiebert warns that “in an effort to fit into a new cultural context or translate the message into new cultural forms, we have forgotten that ‘the Gospel is not a message to be understood, but a call to be obeyed.’” See Missiological Education for a Global Era, p. 39, in the Christian Scholar’s Review XXXV 3, Spring 2006.
  59. Wong Kim Tok, interview on January 17, 2012
  60. Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, Orbis 1996, p. 54.
  61. Source: “Ministry Growth in 75 Years,” prepared for the US Anniversary Book by McGilchrist, December 2008.
  62. See, for example, seminar on contextualization for US central division staff, February 1988.
  63. Theologically, one difference of emphasis between East and West, in wrestling with the mystery of the Trinity, is that the Western churches typically start from the unity of the substance, whereas the Eastern churches start from the difference of the persons.
  64. Note also that Nav staff Christopher Morton supplied some reflections on contextualization for McGilchrist on May 7, 2008, after reading Al Bussard’s paper on “The Dilemma of Western Energy.”
  65. Certainly, Christendom had disadvantages. It tended to move our support from divine to political power, it led us from the margins to the mainstreams, it often replaced missions by maintenance and, most dangerously, it caused us to feel at home and even important in society. For more on this, consult the article by Alan Kreider in the April 2005 IBMR, p. 59-68, titled “Beyond Bosch: The Early Church and the Christendom Shift.”
  66. This FONM has been replaced by an updated study guide entitled Navigating Cross-Cultural Missions, as of 2016.
  67. Other elements in the FONM were “Our Commitments” and an “Outline of Missionary Tasks.” These were approved by the International Team in 1998, followed by a revision of the Bible studies in 1999. Neil G. was the project engineer, assisted by Jim Petersen and Donald McGilchrist.
  68. See paper on “Several Ministries in One Country.” Our first discussion of the Four Quadrants was by the International Team in May 1999.
  69. For an extended treatment of various types of power distance, see pages 23-47 of Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, which is a study of intercultural cooperation by Geert Hofstede, McGraw-Hill, 1991.
  70. Quoted by Edwin Zehner in IJFM 27:2, Summer 2010. Kim is a theologian who has written, for example, on the status gap between Jewish and Aramaic speakers of Greek in Acts 6:1-7. Zehner’s IJFM article examines status and power distance among believers in Thailand.
  71. This illustration suggested by Zehner in loc cit. The power distance between the elite and a poor man was too great to bother to thank the latter!
  72. Okorie Kalu, interview of November 18, 2010. Okorie is a Nigerian Nav leader who has served for years in Zambia and in other African nations.
  73. Source: Treneer loc cit.
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