Collaborating with Nationals in Church Planting, Part 2 – Contextualization


In this three-part series, Sa Zhong Zi makes a case for the necessity of partnering with locals in ministry. Today, the author discusses the roles of our primary and subordinate identities in partnership and encourages readers toward “directional koinonia.” If you have not yet read Part 1, make sure to do so in order to better understand the author’s full argument.

Sa Zhong Zi (meaning “sow seeds”) is the pseudonym for an American assisting with the support and strengthening of the Chinese house church.

Partnership Must Be Contextualized

It would be an enormous mistake for me to take what I have experienced and try to duplicate the same experience in another city in China or another country in some other part of the world. There have been so many variables at work that we had no control over. The timing of how I met local leaders, the economy, the political climate, the needs of the church at this time, the resources available, the churches’ particular stages of growth, and many other variables were factors that none of us had any control over. All of these were factors in the outcome of our ministry efforts and all of them were orchestrated by God. If, for example, the timing of when I met our two “Sherpas” was earlier or later, things might have turned out very differently.

Both secular and Christian bookstores are littered with “how to” books written by people who experienced success and then wrote a book to explain how others can experience the same success. Whether it’s running a business, church planting, or some other form of ministry, the mistake is to try to focus on the experience and ignore the variables.

I am painfully aware that I am treading dangerously close to the same territory of focusing on the experience and ignoring the variables. My aim, however, is to bring out one particular element that I think cannot be absent from a fruitful cross-cultural ministry. That element is the partnership between the foreign workers and the local church leader. The way I suggest going about this partnership is to understand the context you serve in and choose a partnership style that is fitting. Generally speaking, partnership styles range between a more hands-off, facilitative approach and one where the foreign worker needs to play a larger role in leading. No matter which partnership style suits the context best, it is crucial to carefully consider what that partnership will look like in great detail before launching into it.  

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What I would like to focus on primarily within this topic are three factors. First, I would like to propose it is essential to have a robust theology of contextualization.  How one approaches the culture into which they have been called and how they present the gospel is crucial. Second, a healthy philosophy of partnership. In working with a multi-cultural team of both nationals and foreign workers, it is critical to avoid patronizing the local culture, and unintentionally promoting the foreigner’s culture as synonymous with gospel living. Finally, there is a profound need for wisdom in choosing national partners. Not everyone who is willing to work with you is a good fit and spending time getting to know your local leaders is absolutely essential. I will address this third point in detail in my next article.

A Theology of Contextualization

I mentioned earlier that Sherpas are indispensable because they know the landscape and don’t need to acclimatize, both of which are crucial to mountain climbing. Similarly, when it comes to cross-cultural ministry and church planting we need the help of local leaders to help us navigate the cultural landscape. In gospel terms this equates to contextualization.  

More than twenty years ago, when I was a young teacher in China, I would frequently visit our Foreign Affairs Office to take care of certain essential matters. I would practice my Chinese with the non-English speaking staff and one of the men who knew Russian, but not English, would speak with me. He had learned Russian in the days when China and Russia were close comrades. He was occasionally sent on business trips to Central Asia and one time he brought back a “tubeteika” cap, the kind that are worn by many Muslim men worldwide. One day while visiting the office he handed me the hat as a gift. I was very honored and proudly put the hat on display in my room but quietly I wondered, “Why would he give me such a nice hat?”

Years later after I got married, I showed the hat to my wife, who is Chinese. After I put the hat on, she said to me, “Never wear that outside while we are together.” Why was she so adamant? Was it because the hat was a Muslim hat and we are Christians? No. The hat was a green hat and in Chinese culture the one who “wears the green hat” is a husband whose wife is cheating on him. Lesson number one in contextualization is that things are not often what they seem.

In discussing contextualization, it is crucial to do the foundational groundwork of presenting which things are trans-cultural (universal truths that apply to all cultures at all times) and which are subject to change. This discussion could take up an entire book and I cannot do it justice by offering a full discourse here.  Nonetheless, it can be simply stated that the universal truths are the fundamental aspects of the gospel that Christians have agreed upon for centuries, including the existence of God, the fallen nature of man and sin, God’s image within mankind, and the need for redemption. There are many others, of course, but without a clear understanding of what these universal truths are, we run the risk of departing from the life giving message that makes the gospel what it is.

In addition, there needs to be a very robust theology of how we contextualize. There are multiple very thorny issues currently being debated on the field. The current debate over the Insider Movement regarding ministry to Muslims is one such example. I have had a decent amount of interaction with those who do ministry among Muslim minority groups in China and some of the issues being discussed are issues that touch upon what is universal and what is cultural. Some are suggesting ways that over-contextualize the gospel and some under-contextualize. How much is too much and how much is too little? The specific details are thorny and there is much disagreement in the missionary community on this issue.

The answers to difficult questions about contextualization do not come quickly and we should not expect to be able to understand such an issue in depth unless we do a proper amount of research. To be sure the discussion of universal truths and how to contextualize are intimately related. It would be wrong to draw too sharp a distinction between these two topics, but for the sake of discussion it is helpful to categorize. To approach this issue, however, it helps immensely if we have a robust theology of contextualization to help us avoid the obstacles and pitfalls that have plagued previous generations when similar types of issues have been addressed. 

To begin – why contextualize? I am operating off the assumption that contextualization is unavoidable and that we are constantly contextualizing but to answer the question directly, we need only look at the Bible. The Bible gives us many clear examples of how its own message is contextualized. First, the Bible itself is written for us in three different languages. When God’s word transitioned from Hebrew and Aramaic to Greek, the implicit assumption is that there are many cultures and contexts that God’s word will be speaking to and language itself is a contextual issue. The explicit message is that of fulfilled prophecy. God’s word foretold the day when the chosen would include those outside the confines of the nation of Israel. 

Second, the kinds of words used to communicate God’s truth teach us about contextualization. To call Christ the logos would have connected very much with a Greek audience who understood the deeper meaning of logos, but there was also the risk of confusing the meaning with a word that had profound pagan origins. John used this word under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit despite those risks and contextualized the concept of God’s Messiah using a profoundly Greek word and concept. The universal truth of the gospel comes through the lens of the cultural context by the power of the Holy Spirit without being altered or diluted.

Third and finally, perhaps the most explicit example is Paul’s message to the Greek intellectuals in Acts 17. Paul makes the point that God is the sovereign Lord they are looking for in their searching for ultimate truth by putting it in a language and context that the Greek audience would understand. Again, there were risks of communicating the message in a way that could be misunderstood by the local listeners, but my point is simply that contextualization is a given. How we contextualize, however, is where we really need to roll up our sleeves and get busy.

How do we do contextualization? This topic is much broader than we can cover in an article of this scope, but I find it immensely helpful to draw from the work of Timothy Keller in his book Center Church. Keller gives us a very helpful paradigm through which to start doing the heaving lifting of contextualization. His paradigm operates off the idea that there is no such thing as a Christian culture outside of the culture of any particular people group. 

In other words, Christianity always functions within a particular culture of a nation or people group; therefore, when we take the gospel into a culture we are not working off a blue print marked “Christian Culture.” We must approach the culture by understanding the areas where the gospel both affirms and challenges the values held dear by the culture we are seeking to reach. He writes, “This is why it is so important to enter a culture before challenging it. Our criticism of the culture will have no power to persuade unless it is based on something that we can affirm in the beliefs and values of that culture. We can challenge some of the wrong things they believe from the foundation of those right things they believe. As we have said, each culture includes some rough areas of overlap between its own beliefs and Christian beliefs.”  

Philosophy of Partnership

Partnership is not a term foreign to the Bible. Paul and Barnabas were partners in their missionary endeavors. Even cross-cultural partnership is not something strange to the pages of scripture. Based on our understanding of Philippians 1:4-5, Christians share a common understanding that true partnership (κοινωνίᾳ) among believers is based on our koinonia with God through Christ. Our union with Christ corporately and individually must be the key factor in informing our unity with one another. Using this as our foundation, we see that “partnership” is something that is written into the DNA of our faith.

Therefore, we ought to naturally gravitate toward partnering with other believers; however, theoretically believing partnership is important and actually partnering with others are two different things. We can’t ignore the pages of scripture where we see that even in the early church, problems arose with partnering. Paul and Barnabas split up over a difference of opinions and two thousand years of church history shows us much disunity. My point is simply this; partnership is not always something that happens easily and we should not be naïve about how Christians partner.

What does it look like for a western agency to partner with a Chinese house church to send out workers to Thailand? How does a Korean church partner with a Chinese foreign worker to do cross-cultural ministry within China? How does a team in Cambodia function with Filipinos, Caucasian Americans, and second generation Korean-Americans and Chinese-Americans? Questions of communication in a common language, financial provision, cultural expectations and many others are complicated. In addition, there are issues of theological and ministry-style differences. One can get so burdened by the complexity of these issues to the point that we just throw our hands in the air and give up. Is it possible to come up with practical, biblical principles and guidelines that would help us to better understand how to work toward that koinonia

I believe there is and I would like to point us toward that end in something I will call directional koinonia. “Directional” refers to a starting point and a goal. The starting point takes seriously the different identities that define much of who we are but that often lead to separation and fracturing of koinonia (denominations, theology, methods, and even culture and language to name just a few). I call these identities “subordinate identities.” The goal of biblical koinonia must be pursued with a biblical, spirit-filled wisdom, recognizing that we will never fully realize the consummate unity with one another in Christ until the new heavens and new earth, but always striving toward that goal. Koinonia refers to what we already possess as part of our identity in Christ – a common identity, a “primary identity.” The ultimate goal, of course, is that we bring glory to our Lord as both individuals and as a unified body both on this earth and in the new earth.

The primary identity and subordinate identity are God-given blessings. Acts 17:26-28 make it clear how we should view that subordinate identity as part of God’s sovereign plan when it says:   

“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”

In determining the time and location of both of our community (nation, culture, language) and our individual lives, God shapes our subordinate identity and calls us to seek him. This biblical text is crucial for us understanding the role of our subordinate identity in directional koinonia. As Christians we cannot afford to think of either our primary or subordinate identities in fundamentally negatives terms since God is the one who pre-ordained them.  

Since it is often in the realm of our secondary identity that we experience the greatest level of breakdown in Christian koinonia (e.g. racism, factionalism, sexism), it is crucial to address the subordinate identity with wisdom and spirit-filled guidance.  We are called to reflect upon what aspects of our subordinate identity unnecessarily prevent koinonia while not abandoning our own subordinate identity altogether. Abandoning our subordinate identity would be perilous and even unbiblical.  

To provide an example, I have reflected on my own experience in my calling to be a foreign worker. In my pursuit of understanding the context and culture to which I sought to minister I made some crucial errors related to my subordinate identity. God called me to minister in China in 1986. I set about studying the language, learning the culture, and ministering among the Chinese in mainland China. In 1993, after seven years of ministry to Chinese, I met a young Chinese woman from Taiwan who is now my wife.  We shared the same passion for reaching China and over time we grew in our love for one another.  

We were married in 1996 and the real adventure of cross-cultural understanding began. Of course, we experienced conflict, but I often felt a profound inability to understand the nature of that conflict. After two years of marriage I realized something about myself that was causing a tremendous amount of tension and confusion in me. I realized that I had been expecting myself to essentially become Chinese in order to win my wife’s love and approval. This unwittingly prevented us from understanding the true source of our marital conflict. When I felt the freedom to be who I was (a white American who grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., who loved God, loved China, and loved my wife) our marriage and communication began to experience a level of profound richness and understanding that we did not have before. As long as my understanding of her love for me was based on how “Chinese” I could become, it prevented us from experiencing a true intimacy that comes when we accept one another’s secondary identities. It prevented our koinonia. This example has implications for us as we seek to partner together. To share a common task is not enough. We need to learn how to grow in our understanding of one another. 


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Further Reading

Signals of the Coming Kingdom: A Letter of Encouragement
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How I Prayed for Forgiveness
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Building a Biblical Church: The Institution Is Not the Goal
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