Poor contextualization results in syncretism—the blending of ideas to the extent that the core meaning is changed beyond recognition.
By D. Scott Hildreth
Some of the most controversial conversations among missiologists revolve around the topic of contextualization. This idea touches on a variety of practices. But at its most basic, it refers to a theological and missiological process that presents the gospel in both word and deed, using forms that are appropriate for people of a certain cultural context. When done well, contextualization demonstrates the relevance of the gospel and results in indigenous expressions of the faith.
The truth is, anyone who attempts to share the gospel practices some degree of contextualization. Many have read about missionaries learning languages or studying other cultures and worldviews in order to eliminate foreign and irrelevant trappings in their gospel presentations. However, contextualization also happens when a student pastor incorporates slang or movie references in a message or when the pastor chooses a sermon series and preaching style so his congregation experiences the power of the gospel. The anticipated outcome is for listeners to accurately understand and embrace the tenets of the faith.Our efforts at contextualization result in syncretism when we allow the point of contact to determine how the message is received and influence the meaning of fundamental doctrines, according to Lesslie Newbigin Click To Tweet
However, when done poorly, contextualization results in syncretism—the blending together of ideas to the extent that the core meaning is changed beyond recognition. According to missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, our efforts at contextualization result in syncretism when we allow the point of contact to determine how the message is received and influence the meaning of fundamental doctrines. The Bible is full of warnings against syncretism. For example, Colossians and Hebrews warn readers against mixing paganism or Judaism into Christianity.
Syncretism in 21st century United States
In the U.S., we see the most prominent form of Christian syncretism in the prosperity gospel movement. Here, our materialistic and consumer culture has influenced core elements of Christianity so much they are no longer in line with orthodox Christianity. For many, the benefits described in most of the commercials on television define Christianity. Prosperity missionaries blend Christian words and ideas with consumer ideals and create a new and different gospel. Some examples of this are assertions that:
- Earthly gain is the measure of God’s blessing
- Being declared right with God is demonstrated by material wealth and physical health
- God’s favor can be influenced by human effort or purchased by financial giving
- Sickness, poverty, and material struggles result from lack of faith
- People can force God to act in certain ways by giving, praying, or performing religious rituals
While it is true syncretism has been a problem for people of faith since the beginning (thus the many biblical warnings), a recent study from Lifeway Research shows a growing number of church attendees in the U.S. are embracing prosperity gospel teachings as if they reflect genuine Christianity. The study compares beliefs to a similar study in 2017 and shows several alarming trends.“Prosperity missionaries blend Christian words and ideas with consumer ideals and create a new and different gospel.” — @dshildreth Click To Tweet
The number of respondents who believe it is necessary to do something for God in order to receive material blessing has almost doubled since 2017 (26% to 45%).
Three in 4 churchgoers (76%) believe God’s will for them includes financial prosperity. And over half (52%) believe giving more money to their church or another ministry is the path to prosperity. These statistics are significantly higher than in 2017.
While there may be many reasons for these alarming increases, each of us needs to do our part to make sure we are not contributing. Most of us can do little to silence those who push these false teachings. However, one of the best ways to confront bad missions is to simply do the right thing better. So, in a culture bombarded by poorly contextualized, syncretistic versions of the faith, what can we do?
1. Prioritize personal spiritual development and be students of the Word
Syncretism advances as people struggle to find how previously held beliefs fit within a new-found faith. In many ways, it is normal for former Muslims or Latter-day Saints to struggle with the idea of the Trinity, in the same way we’d expect a recovering addict to struggle to overcome their previous temptations.
The same can be said for each of us. We live in a context exploding with materialism and consumerism. It would be unusual for us to be unaffected. But like the fish who doesn’t know he’s wet, we don’t recognize the influence of our own culture.
For this reason, we need an outside perspective. For the Christian, the only sure path is the Word of God. The Scriptures are God’s Word. And God gave us His Word to shape doctrine, belief, and right living (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The psalmist reminds us God’s Word is the light on our path (Psalm 119:105) and the means for our avoiding sin (Psalm 119:11).
2. Intentionally share the faith as God gives opportunity
I am sure there are cultural trends that make the prosperity gospel more appealing. However, we should also remember there are many powerful, prominent, and well-funded missionaries propelling these false beliefs. Every day, podcast preachers, television and radio teachers, and news pundits push a message that does not conform to the faith that was “delivered to the saints once for all” (Jude 3, CSB).
In this context, our role is to be missionaries of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. We have a story of how God’s great grace intercepted our lives and gave us hope and joy in this fallen world. At the same time, people around us wrongly believe their path to righteousness is through their own effort—whether religion, charity work, kindness, or some other human achievement.“The syncretistic message of the prosperity gospel may ‘feel’ right, but this is only because it conforms to the base standard of our world.“ — @dshildreth Click To Tweet
The syncretistic message of the prosperity gospel may “feel” right, but this is only because it conforms to the base standard of our world. However, it is our privilege to tell those around us about a God who loves them and who demonstrated this love by sending Jesus as our way home. We have a more compelling message, so let’s be more intentional about sharing it.
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