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The Contextual Nature of Mission

Les Henson

One of the church's problems today is that it is program orientated instead of mission or contextually orientated. Too often, we take programs developed in another context and seek to use and adapt them to our ministry context. But, programs developed elsewhere never quite fit into the Australian context.

Such an approach is different from Paul's, which was both contextual and missional in its orientation. Paul developed his approach to various groups and situations according to the context into which he was ministering. His message remained largely the same, while the starting point, terminology and how he communicated it differed in each new context. Paul's communication strategy is found in 1 Cor. 9:19-23: "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jew I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law, I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men 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."

Here, Paul develops his philosophy of mission and ministry and his communication strategy. At first, it seems to be very relativistic. What does this approach mean for the absolutes of the gospel stated clearly in the Scriptures? The communicator must first earn the right to speak, and when speaking he, or she must do so out of knowledge of the situation. So, presenting the gospel as meaningful to those who hear the message. It is not moral relativism but rather an application of cultural understanding to the effective communication of God's truth. It is cultural relevance, not cultural relativism.

When preaching in the synagogues as in Acts 13, he uses the Old Testament Scriptures and demonstrates how Jesus was the promised Messiah. When preaching to the Gentiles as in Acts 17, he spoke to them in the philosophical terms that were familiar, and he begins from their knowledge of the unknown God. This matter of being relevant or appropriate was central to Paul's missiological method. Paul understood that the purpose of communication is to communicate. Paul understood receptor-oriented communication and developed his message to address his audience's needs while remaining faithful to the gospel. He also understood the need for presenting his message according to the needs of the audience, developing his vocabulary or terminology; accordingly. Thus, his approach was contextual instead of program orientated. Paul concludes the passage in 1 Cor. 9 by saying, "I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings."

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