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Contextualization in World Missions: Mapping and Assessing Evangelical Models. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2012. 432pp. $22.03.
Certain subjects linger in a state of cumulative chaos, waiting for the right scholar to create a sense of order. The discussion of contextualization among evangelical Christians is such a subject, and Scott Moreau has proven equal to the task of systematizing its diverse parts into a balanced presentation. The undertaking requires both a comprehensive understanding of a multifaceted debate and the methodological rigor necessary to avoid reductionism. In Contextualization in World Missions: Mapping and Assessing Evangelical Models, Moreau combines these qualities in an orderly, economical rendition of the issues.
A. Scott Moreau has taught missions at Wheaton College for more than two decades. In addition to authoring or editing a variety of missiological works, he has been the editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly since 2001. A prominent evangelical missiologist, Moreau aims to “map” evangelical models of contextualization. Some prominent treatments of contextualization have lumped evangelical contextualization into a single category among a more theologically liberal array of options. Thus, the impetus behind his endeavor is the need for a truly representative analysis of evangelical perspectives. Moreau hopes his cartography will help readers explore the diverse regions of the evangelical “continent” of contextualization in order to make informed judgments about particular proposals.
The book bears a popular academic style that does not shy from technical content but consciously avoids scholarly wordiness. The real key to the book’s success, though, is its systematic and restrained exposition. The body comprises two sections of nearly equal length. The first section illuminates Moreau’s methodological concerns, and the second section is the substance of the proposal itself. Though Moreau’s descriptive endeavor is potentially fraught with subjectivity, in the first section he so thoroughly explicates the assumptions and criteria at work in his map that there is hardly any cause for uncertainty. Moreover, he manages to introduce working assumptions, such as the meaning of “evangelical” or the place of holism in contextualization, convincingly, without bogging down in topics that could be books unto themselves.
The proposal trades on Moreau’s credibility rather directly. He classified 249 examples of evangelical contextualization from published sources, according to seventy-nine criteria. In this process, he “discovered” six initiator roles (195). Moreau utilizes these six roles as his models of contextualization, cross-referencing them with other criteria to define exemplars of each model and their respective tendencies. The selection of these models, as well as the definition of the various criteria, is completely Moreau’s prerogative despite the clinical feel of his data analysis. By section two, though, the reader is convinced that Moreau is anything but arbitrary in his procedure, and his credentials certainly merit the benefit of the doubt. The skeptical reader may wonder, nonetheless, whether the source material could be organized into different categories, as Moreau cannot defend his choices in a work this size.
Moreau’s map seems to represent the major regions of evangelical contextualization. His models are Facilitator, Guide, Herald, Pathfinder, Prophet, and Restorer. One problem with these categories is that some examples fit equally into multiple models. Anticipating such objections, Moreau clarifies that his intention is not to communicate “that the individual never takes on other roles or that the method is constrained by that role” (175). Taken as typical rather than definitive, and in relation to the many other variables in Moreau’s dataset, the models are a powerful tool for “locating” contextualization efforts on the evangelical map.
One question lingers, primarily regarding the Restorer model. Although “the restorer comes to heal or deliver from bondage of any type,” most of Moreau’s examples have to do with spiritual warfare. Curiously, the evidence suggests that “evangelicals consider demons qua demons somehow immune to contextual or worldview considerations” (299). “A criticism of initiators as restorers,” states Moreau, “is that practitioners rarely discuss their methods as explicitly contextual” (307). The question, then, is why Moreau considers this a model of contextualization, when its presuppositions are acontextual on average and nearly anti-contextual at worst. It seems that the Restorer is a model of mission work rather than a model of contextualization. And this observation highlights a concern for the other models to a lesser extent. Approaches to mission that deal with issues in their contexts (such as spiritual bondage) are not thereby necessarily contextualized, as per Moreau’s own definition of contextualization (36). One danger of being as impressively thorough as Moreau has done is to be overly inclusive to the detriment of a limited notion of contextualization.
Because Moreau intends to systematize existing proposals rather than rehash them, the specific processes of contextualization in his models are never in view. He stays at a bird’s eye view of each exemplar, leaving the reader wishing for a more concrete understanding of each one, which would help clarify why each one is in fact an example of contextualization rather than just missions methodology. The book would be far more lengthy with that provision, though, and the bibliography is available.
A couple of other peculiarities are noteworthy. One, Moreau’s definition of evangelical appears to exclude Majority World evangelicals. There are a few exceptions, and he is aware of the issue (320–21), but it is clear that American evangelicalism is in view. This is due primarily to the use of published exemplars, of which there are far fewer from the Majority World. The point here is not that Moreau would chose to exclude Majority World exemplars given an alternative (although his definition of evangelicalism does have roots in American culture wars), but the fact that he cannot represent them severely limits the representativeness of his map. As with Europeans’ “discovery” of the Americas, once readers venture off the map, they may find the second half of the world—or more, in this case. Two, large portions of the book read as an extended exchange with Charles Kraft. Kraft is an influential and controversial missiologist whom Moreau could not wisely marginalize in these discussions, but at times it seems as though evangelical contextualization comes down to Kraft’s proposals and their dissenters.
One of the key successes of the book is that it makes evident the occasion of the contextualization discussion. The urgency of talking about particularly evangelical contextualization, and to a large extent the urgency of the dialogue with Charles Kraft, is a symptom of the ongoing shift within conservative Christianity toward critical realism. The mapping of contextualization models among evangelicals is fundamentally about establishing an epistemological continuum on which to locate contextualization efforts. Though evangelicals will need to move beyond Moreau’s descriptive contribution into critical and prescriptive proposals, they can now do so with the profound yet accessible insight he has provided regarding what is truly at stake.