The relevance and suitability of Tim Keller’s contextualization for Reformed evangelical ministry in urban South Africa
Rapid urbanization, postmodernity and African Traditional Religion (ATR) pose significant challenges and opportunities for gospel ministry in South Africa. Reformed churches appear to be struggling to come to terms with these realities. The causes of declining impact and faltering witness could be several; but a sub-biblical, inadequate and superficial understanding of contextualization could be one among them. Contextualization is a vital and essential component of authentic Christian ministry, yet it is fraught with dangers. The issue is how to engage faithfully and meaningfully with contemporary culture while remaining faithful to historic, orthodox Christianity in the Reformed tradition. Conservative pastors and missionaries tend to ignore the inevitability of contextualization, and under-contextualize, which results in a superficial engagement with culture, and thus irrelevance. On the other end of the spectrum are those who over-contextualize in the desire to be relevant, and who employ questionable methods and gimmickry. In this manner the central tenets of the gospel are jeopardized, and this results in syncretism that incorporates elements from other religions into Christian religious faith and practice, resulting in a loss of integrity and ultimately in assimilation to the surrounding culture. Missiologists have long argued that the West should be considered a mission field and that Christian pastors should take the stance of cross-cultural missionaries. Keller’s model of contextualization is worthy of careful consideration in urban South Africa. Keller has the appropriate theological convictions, and he is a practitioner with a proven track record. His value lies not only in his solid biblical-theological basis for his model of contextualization, but also in the fact that he posits a comprehensive, holistic model of contextualization in the Reformed tradition. While many conservative pastors tend to limit contextualization to the verbal proclamation of the gospel, Keller contends that all of ministry should be contextualized. His emphasis on holistic contextualization may dovetail well with the urban South African context, where socioeconomic issues, like the poor, unemployed, immigration, and health and education needs, and growing trends of agnosticism create significant opportunities for ministry. The specifics of Keller’s methodology cannot simply be translocated from New York to urban South Africa — this would represent a colossal failure in terms of contextualization. But in terms of principles, his model of deliberate, biblical, comprehensive contextualization could be utilized with great benefit in the burgeoning cities of South Africa.
- Theology