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The concept of contextualization is central to the mission of the Christian Reformed Church, to communicate the gospel in word and deed in ways that make sense to people within their local cultural and geographical context. Our chief desire as a church has always been to present Christianity to people in such a way that it meets their deepest needs and penetrates their view of the world, thus allowing them to follow Christ and remain within their own culture (Our World Belongs to God, Art. 1,17,32).
Partnership as Foundation for Ministry Contextualization
The Structure and Leadership Task Force (SALT) was made up of CRCNA thought leaders from Canada and the United States. The Task Force members sought to embrace an administrative and organizational model that would transform the way in which the ongoing effort of mission and ministry contextualization could best be supported by the organizations, agencies, and institutions that make up the Christian Reformed Church. The SALT Task Force after much deliberation arrived at the concept of partnership.
For the past 25 years, CRCNA administration has been more or less centralized in Grand Rapids. The executive director, as the sole corporate leader, was positioned at the top of a leadership pyramid. While this was efficient in many ways, it ran counter to the felt ministry need of the local and regional church. It perhaps has never been possible for any single administrative leader, board, institution, or agency of the Christian Reformed Church to fully engage in ministry contextualization on behalf of all others in Canada or the United States.
The SALT Task Force envisions an administrative and organizational structure that serves the needs of the many CRCNA ministry partners who each strive to achieve mission contextualization in the many diverse cultures and locales that make up the ministry settings of the CRCNA. By implementing the recommendations in the SALT Report, decision-making will be less centralized, and the new office of the general secretary will coordinate and facilitate the work of many partners who are engaged in ministry contextualization. It will reside more so in the leaders of the local church, classis, and among the boards of the institutions, agencies, and their administrations.
Why this focus on ministry contextualization in Canada?
We believe the answer to this question is in understanding the cultural paradox of our faith. We recognize, on one hand, that our practice of faith has been shaped by our own culture and context. On the other hand, we assume that our culturally conditioned interpretation of the gospel is the correct understanding of the gospel. This understanding has led the church to equate our culturally conditioned versions of the gospel with the kingdom of God.
An example of negative consequences of this cultural paradox comes from the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. Church-run residential schools were instituted with the government’s blessing and support to convert Indigenous children to Christianity by isolating them from their families, community, and culture. The discovery of many unmarked graves on the properties of these church-run residential schools has had a profound impact. Truth and reconciliation with Canada’s First Nation people have meant that Christians in Canada must learn afresh the ways in which its cultural attitudes, beliefs, and policies have affected the mission of God in adverse ways.
The CRC Canada Board recently created two new positions to help our churches understand the ways in which it has been shaped by Canada’s culture: the senior leader for Indigenous justice and reconciliation and the senior leader for anti-racism and intercultural conciliation These leaders will help the Christian Reformed churches in Canada understand what it means to bring the gospel to Canadians and allow them to follow Christ while at the same time living transformative lives within their own society and culture.
Ministry contextualization is often referred to in conversations about the ministry of the CRC in Canada. This does not mean that Christians living in Canada must become more like Americans, but rather it is meant to enable Canadians to become better Canadians by becoming better Christians. And for Canadians, to become better Christians is to become more culturally aware.
This approach to the cross-cultural nature of Christian mission and ministry goes back to the early church in the book of Acts. Christians then had to break free from Jewish cultural trappings and made the important decision at the Jerusalem Council that one could follow Christ without first becoming culturally a Jew (Acts 15).
The CRC in Canada is learning that having discussions about ministry contextualization is hard work. Ministry contextualization is a fine balancing act between a necessary involvement in culture, being in the Canadian situation, and also remaining outside with a critical Reformed perspective.
When Christianity is not contextualized or contextualized poorly, then people are culturally offended, turned off to inquiring more about who Jesus is, or view well-meaning CRC leaders with suspicion or as cultural misfits. When we present the gospel in word and deed and when we organize ourselves along appropriate cultural patterns, people are more likely to be confronted by the offense of the gospel, exposing their own sinfulness, tendency toward evil, oppressive structures, and behavior patterns within their culture.
Ministry contextualization as a focus is not a new concept to the Christian Reformed Church either in Canada or the United States. The SALT Task Force believed, however, that for contextualization to occur in local and defined national and cultural settings, more autonomy ought to be granted to local leaders and CRCNA ministry organizations and educational institutions. The very administrative and organizational patterns of the CRCNA ought to better reflect its historic confessional understanding of the mission of God and the way in which God in Christ seeks to transform individuals, communities, institutions, and culture.
Related Article: A Letter to Our American Partners: Canada as a Distinct Ministry