John Piper tweeted (yes, that’s a word in my vocabulary now) yesterday, “Harder and just as urgent, alongside contextualization, is category creation.”
Almost all modern missionary training emphasizes the importance of contextualized ministry. That is, as we enter another culture, we must give careful thought to how to communicate the Gospel so that it is comprehensible and impactful to the inhabitants of that culture. How do we portray the Gospel so that it is perceived aright?
For example, in China, the most basic form of contextualization is translating the Gospel message into the Chinese language. We don’t use the English word for God. We use the Chinese word. In this way, the Gospel changes out of its English clothing and into more suitable Chinese garb.
But the work of contextualization is not finished there! The very concepts of the Gospel and the way we communicate them may not be rightly perceived by Chinese people. What does a Chinese person think of when I use the word ‘sin’? What do they think about the afterlife? How do they conceive of justice? Or forgiveness? Or faith? Thus, the missionary sorts about through the available cultural information for comparable concepts – some Chinese clothes that will fit!
Perhaps because China presents the missionary with such a mountain of cultural information (due to its civilization’s millennia-spanning history), the possibilities for contextualization seem almost endless! Many scholars, theologians, and ministers have mined this cultural mountain and emerged with all sorts of insights that very often help to dress the Gospel in more suitable apparel for communication in China.
So what does Piper mean by ‘category creation’? If I understand him correctly, he means that there are times when a missionary casts about for a culturally-relevant analogy to Gospel truth… and finds nothing very suitable! In other words, there is no category in the culture that lines up acceptably with the category of scriptural truth. In these cases, Piper points out that we need to create a new category for our hearers – to add new information to their culture that didn’t previously exist!
Again, with a culture as sprawling as China’s, you might think this scenario would be quite rare. But I have found the opposite to be true. There are precious few categories of Gospel truth that find ready equivalents in the Chinese culture. This might be owing to the great distance between the culture of China and the culture in which the Gospel was first couched.
Thus, for example, though there are a handful of Chinese words that could translate ‘God’, and while there have historically been great debating between Christian workers in China over which term is the most suitable, the fact is that none of the terms line up completely. There is just no word that a Chinese person can hear that will give them an accurate view of God as revealed in Scripture! The same could be said for almost any basic concept that is woven into the Gospel message.
So how is this category creation achieved? Well, some linguistic innovation is almost always needed. Missionaries have to tinker with words until they find that they are communicating the Gospel with maximum accuracy. But even if we invent a whole new set of words for the people in our culture, we still have to explain what we mean by those words. Teaching is absolutely irreplaceable.
This is what Piper means by ‘harder,’ I believe. If it was just a matter of rearranging existing cultural information, the communication of the Gospel might be a simpler task. It’s harder to sew your own clothes than it is to rummage through someone else’s closet. But that’s exactly what category creation is. It’s recognizing that all of the material available in the cultural closet has been distorted by sin. And it is constructing the true categories of the Gospel ‘from scratch’ before the very eyes of the locals.
This means something quite radical for the modern missionary. Much missions training focuses on contextualization, or what conceptual info is already in the field for the missionary to use. But all missionaries have to learn that there is some stuff you just can’t get on the field! Peanut butter M&M’s for one thing. But the major categories of the Gospel are unavailable as well. The missionary must pack some serious theological truth in his bags when he comes. It is far more important for the missionary to be a theologian than to be an anthropologist. They should be better qualified to teach at a seminary than to host a National Geographic special! Such criteria, however, is not the norm for most missions organizations.
Three final notes. One, this doesn’t mean a teacher-missionary is against contextualization. Quite the opposite! He rejoices to find a ready-to-wear garment! That’s one less thing he must construct himself! And he feels free – as Paul seems to do in Athens – to fill in nebulous cultural concepts with his own Gospel teaching! So culture may assist in Gospel ministry, but it can not be allowed to limit it!
Two, whenever you’re deciding what to wear, it’s best to just put something on and be done with it! Endless missionary debating about whether or not it’s best to talk about ‘shame’ or ‘guilt’, whether it’s better to say ‘shen‘ or ‘shangdi‘, whether or not it’s wise to connect such-and-such myth to the Gospel, is probably not fruitful. The truth is, whichever way you decide on these questions of contextualization, much teaching will still need to be done by the missionary. Better to get right to it!
And three, category creation is ultimately a work of God. This is perhaps what is most dangerous about an overemphasis on contextualization. It imagines that if we could just phrase the Gospel right, Muslims and Hindus would welcome it with open arms! But the Gospel is never truly understood correctly by unbelievers! They reject it as a thing most distasteful. Only when the Spirit of God opens eyes does the category of ‘sin’, for example, become crystal clear! Only when he works does the category of Christ’s atonement become beautiful and desirable. Let us then contextualize as we are able, but proclaim the transcendent categories of the Gospel, trusting God to do what only he can do!