Dangers of High-end (C5) Contextualization

  1.  Mistaking form with meaning: The missionary does not always understand the difference between these two things. Form cannot always be extracted from meaning nor can it always be imbued with Christian meaning (i.e., we cannot always “redeem” pagan elements of culture).
  2.  Pride in the missionary’s own inventiveness: Evangelical missiology is subject to “faddishness” and a desire to be “cutting edge.” Some missionaries seem outright boastful as they relate how closely their practices mirror Islam. Evangelical missionary journals disproportionately focus on these “cutting edge” novel practices. However, if these two religions are so much alike, why would anyone convert in the first place?
  3. An over-emphasis on new “keys” to evangelism: Certainly we are to be practical and we are duty-bound to seek out all legitimate means to take the Gospel to the world. An unbiblical pragmatism, however, has infected evangelical missions. A philosophy that begins and ends with “whatever works” greatly influences evangelical missiology rather than beginning with Scripture first and, only then, looking for what is effective.
  4. Removing legitimate stumbling blocks: If a Muslim audience respects the Prophet Isa, this does not equate to salvation. Missionaries can only remove Christ as a “rock of offense” among Muslims by removing all evidences of His deity. Many praise the Prophet Isa, but this praise is far from adequate and is not true worship. When Muslims speak of their deep respect towards the Prophet Jesus, I always contradict them on this point, informing them of their deep abiding disrespect for Him. They fail to treat Him as He truly is – God of very God – and they fail to fall down and worship Him, the only respectful thing to do in light of His deity.
  5. Questions of ownership regarding the name “Christian”: Christ proclaimed that if anyone denied him before men He would deny them before his Father in heaven. Large groups, however, are being encouraged not to refer to themselves as Christians at all and to remain rooted to their own cultures in such a way that they are indistinguishable, hidden followers of Isa. When asked, they are encouraged to respond that they are Muslims, often without any further qualification. This method is claimed to be better than “missionary extraction-ism,” where new converts are pulled out of their social circles and lose the ability to influence those closest to them.

This is a false dilemma. Most new converts can still influence their families and former friends even if they publicly identify as Christians, at least in Indonesia. Even if this charge of extraction-ism were true, which is worse: an extraction-ism out of a persecuting culture or a denial of the ownership of Christ over a person’s life?

6. Dangers of accepting false authorities or giving credence to lies: Taking their cue from Paul’s use of pagan poets, some missionaries use local authorities and “holy books” as jumping off points in evangelism, such as the Camel Method mentioned in part two of this article. Again, bridges may not be wrong to use, as long as unbiblical writings are not given undue respect or authority. Bridges are made to be crossed and not lived on. The inquirer must quickly be moved to their new source of authority – the Scriptures alone.

This “crossing” process sometimes stagnates or is inadequately encouraged by Western missionaries. Timothy C. Tennent, in his article “Followers of Jesus (Isa) in Islamic Mosques” references a study of “C5 believers.” Despite a professed belief in Jesus as “the only savior” by most, “96% still believed that the Qur’an was one of the four holy books from heaven…66% even said that the Qur’an was the greatest of the four.” Almost half of those interviewed were non-Trinitarian. Those interviewed were not new laymen but were experienced local leaders of these “Jesus Movements” (i.e., they were the missionary success stories being reported), they were presumably the most knowledgeable concerning the content of their new faith. And yet, upon further investigation, they miss the mark by so much.

7. Issues of ecclesiology and the ordinances: The doctrine of the church is often stunted or sacrificed entirely in the name of contextualization. Some missionaries advocate the delay of baptism, even for long periods of time. Delay may be permissible, but not for years and years. At some point this must be counted not as a delay but a disobedience. The goal in delaying is not to hide one’s new identity in Christ, but to allow time to gather in other souls to share the event together in order to strengthen believers who face persecution and increase group cohesion.

Also, to be joined to Christ is to be joined to His body. The necessity of fellowship is a must. It was in the midst of persecution, after all, that the writer of Hebrews urged believers not to forsake the assembling of themselves together.

I do not want to place any extra burdens on the backs of believers. Baptism, regular worship and the Lord’s Supper, however, are transcultural divine commands. As Timothy C. Tennent summarizes: “We cannot have a Christ-centered theology of mission which does not place the church at the center of Christ’s redemptive plan.”

8. Issues of broader Christian fellowship: The kingdom of God is a unified kingdom. Yet, many contextualized groups cannot and will not fellowship with the broader body of Christ. Being a Christian is a legal option in Indonesia. Christianity is a recognized religion, though local persecution sometimes occurs and it often proves difficult/impossible to change one’s identity card from Muslim to Christian. Nonetheless, Christian churches are built legally and people gather in these with only sporadic persecution.

How do visible believers, who (1) assemble in the name of Christ, (2) are fed by the biblically appointed officers of the church, (3) follow the ordinances of Christ in baptism and the Lord’s supper, and (4) assemble on the Lord’s day for regular fellowship relate to those who, while giving some respect to the Prophet Isa, do not assemble as commanded by Scripture nor own the name of Christ in a way that makes their witness clear and public? How can such a hidden believer be a light on the top of a hill? If believers are known by their fruits, what does this say if believers are indistinguishable from their local communities?

What is the place of secret believers? What level of persecution is needed before it is acceptable? The New Testament, especially the first epistle of Peter, seems to advocate a visible witness despite severe persecution. We certainly pray for those in areas of persecution. I do not wish to downplay it. In Indonesia, however, Christians can legally worship and do so in most parts with only occasional persecution. Persecution does occur. The adoption of persecution-mode strategies, however, are often being employed where they are not needed for the sake of avoiding family disapproval rather than death.

How far can we advocate strategies whereby one neighbor goes to church on Sunday and is a registered Christian and another neighbor, one house away in the same kampung, is encouraged by a Western missionary to pray to Isa but discouraged from joining an existing local fellowship of Christians? This very situation occurred less than two kilometers from my home when I lived in Bandung. As Timothy Tennent asks, “Can someone say ‘yes’ to Jesus and ‘no’ to the visible church?”

Some Final Points to Consider 

• Paul’s “becoming all things to all people” is not a blank check. We can’t become Muslim to reach Muslims.
• To love Jesus is to love his followers and to seek broader fellowship whenever possible. Therefore, mission efforts which bypass or dissuade new local believers from the fellowship or the ordinances of the local church are to be suspect. The Bible knows nothing of a “churchless Christianity.”
• The level of persecution experienced in the New Testament was, in general, more severe than in many Muslim contexts. Trying to minimize persecution through wise policies is different than trying to eliminate persecution through forsaking one’s verbal and visible witness to Christ. Example: to pray the ritual Sholat in the mosque in order not to be identified as a Christian is akin to the early church offering incense publicly to Caesar but muttering, “I love Jesus” under their breath to try to offset their sacrilege.
• We may exercise patience and sympathy as new believers grow, but for Western missionaries to persuade new believers (as a missionary strategy) to visibly stay a Muslim is to hinder that new believer’s necessary growth.

As an illustration, when my friend Ajat believed five years ago, his wife Ayu was pressured by her rigid Muslim family to divorce him. Yet she saw the difference that Christ made in his life. Despite intimidation, and even having his name called over the local mosque loudspeaker as an apostate, Ajat loved his family. Ayu and his two kids came to faith, little Taqua and Syiva being eventually kicked out of their Islamic school for singing Christian hymns in the mosque. Ajat, as a new believer, did not know what or how to pray. So he prayed to Jesus while going through the motions in the mosque. Very quickly, however, he abandoned this practice. Ajat’s wife believed and wanted to attend church, but did not know what to wear. She came to worship for months fully cloaked in her Muslim garb. As she learned of her newfound liberty, she began to visit us unveiled, stating that she knew she was free to be veiled or be unveiled, as long as the principle of modesty was guarded.

  • In the letter to the Hebrews, we read that believers are not to forsake the assembling of themselves together. Evangelical missionaries, in the name of contextualized missionary strategies, however, are advising new believers from Muslim backgrounds to stay separate from other Christians.
  • The missionary can be secretive, if there is real danger, but should not purposely take on a policy of referring to himself as a Muslim. There is a difference in being secretive and being deceptive.
  • Christians, even during heavy persecution, have generally always “owned” the name of Christ and tried to fellowship with the broader community.

• Jesus says “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.”

Matthew 10:32-33
  • Excessive delay or ignoring baptism is disobedience.
  • Some “high end” contextualization strategies (referred to as C5 practices) are Western driven and often locals don’t agree. Ironically, contextualization is not contextual in many local contexts.
  • Saying the Shahada, doing the Sholat, calling Muhammad a prophet, and referring to the Qur’an as an inspired authority are bridges too far.
  • Using the Qur’an as a bridge may be permissible. Just remember: bridges are made to be crossed. Get people reading the Scriptures as soon as possible. We must not give undue authority to uninspired books, nor should we attempt to ground our teaching on the Qur’an.
  • A perfectly contextualized strategy still does not guarantee converts. There is no “golden key” to evangelism.
  • Some cultures are fed up with Islam. Why try to make Christianity wear Muslim clothes in these contexts? Stress the differences!
  • The issue of identity is key. Do converts see themselves as belonging to Jesus? And if so, they will want to follow Him even if their communities reject them.
  • Evangelical missionary schools give undue weight to teaching contextualization. However, cretinism is condemned much more harshly in Scripture but comparatively neglected in these same schools: “They worshiped the LORD, but they also appointed all sorts of their own people to officiate for them as priests in the shrines at the high places. They worshiped the LORD, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought” (2 Kings 17:32, 33).

Four Antidotes to this Poison

Take action! Faced with the knowledge of these alarming practices, do not sit idly by. Below are three ways to act:

  • Research this topic further: I suggest reading Timothy Tennent’s, “Followers of Jesus in Islamic Mosques,” (Google it) to see the best critique of the Insider Movement published yet. Also, Roger Dixon’s, “Identity Theft,” in the EMQ (The Evangelical Missions Quarterly) discusses the removal of the term “Son of God” in Bible translations geared towards Muslims. Also the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) recently passed an overture entitled, “A Call to Faithful Witness,” condemning Insider Movement practices (again, Google it). Search for the online video, “Half-Devil, Half-Child,” about syncretism being advocated as missions strategy in the Muslim world. Also, be in contact with missionaries that you trust about these issues.
  • Screen your missionaries well and support worthy endeavors: If you starve a dangerous animal, it will shrivel and die. Ironically, many faithful churches are sacrificially giving to missionary causes that should make them furious. Many US churches, however, do not even know the names of the missionaries they support let alone the doctrines they espouse. There remains a vast chasm between life on the mission field and life in the US church.

Local churches! Get to know your missionaries. Ask them about their lives…and their methods!

3. Send solid missionaries: Discontentment with the present state of missions is not a cause for inaction. It is a cause for greater action. Who is going to write the journal articles to oppose these false teachings, if not us? Who is going to contend for the faith on the mission field if we do not send out our own? Who is going to teach and mentor the next wave of missionaries if we abandon the field to missionaries promoting such deviant theologies?

Come serve as a missionary in Merauke, Indonesia! Last month I passed through this city to deliver a sick tribal lady to the hospital there. She almost died in childbirth. On the ride back from the hospital I met a Muslim man who had just read John’s Gospel and wanted to discuss it. He pulled over to the side of the road and turned off his motor in order to better discuss the Trinity for over 30 minutes.

I will pay your airfare (one-way, of course) and help you rent a house and get established in language-school. In a year you can learn Indonesian.


We began this article with Martin Luther’s struggle against the errors of his own day. We now end this article with the following quote also sometimes attributed to Luther:

“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Wherever the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved and to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that one point.”

It is HERE that the battle is raging now! We must not flinch at this one point!