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Contesting Culture: Contextualizing Worship in Northern Thailand
Contextualization has become a central topic within missiology over recent decades. Though the conversation has progressed, most theories and practices are still based on an insufficient understanding of how cultures function. This article first argues that contextualization is not so much about the act of communication between the missionary and the local community but the faith community’s contestation of the meaning of shared cultural symbols and practices, including those elements that supposedly lead to syncretism, as they are employed in service to the triune God. The article then narrates how the author’s mission team in northern Thailand has implemented this approach to contextualization in its communal worship practices.
“Christian practices are always the practices of others made odd.”
This statement by Kathryn Tanner is both a guiding principle and an apt description of our efforts at contextualization among the people of Phayao, Thailand. Our mission team believes that contextualization is central to our ultimate goal of joining God in calling out communities of faith who embody the reign of God in northern Thailand. Thus, the manner in which we engage in contextualization is of utmost importance.
Contextualization as Contesting Cultural Symbols
Even though the conversation surrounding contextualization in missions has progressed over the past four decades, the practice in the field continues to follow methodologies dependent on a modern perspective of culture.Four primary characteristics of this view of culture are: (1) cultures are clearly demarcated and distinguishable entities, thus, we can speak in terms of American culture versus European culture or Thai culture as opposed to Laotian culture; (2) cultures are basically static, therefore, symbols and practices have established and firm meanings; (3) cultures are monolithic, so cultural symbols are employed in the same way throughout a particular culture; and 4) cultural material can be clearly divided into religious and non-religious elements.
With these operative assumptions in place, the basic strategy for missionaries has been to strip the gospel from one set of cultural forms and practices and redress it in the congruent local symbols, being careful not to utilize material from the religious sphere. This act of translation or adaptation supposedly maintains a “pure” gospel while fending off any threat of syncretism.
The inadequacy of this approach to contextualization is twofold. First, the emphasis in the contextualization process is placed on the missionary’s ability to communicate clearly and safeguard against any distortions.This is too heavy a burden for the missionary. A more robust notion of contextualization
presupposes neither gospel nor culture—much less both gospel and culture—as preexisting, given realities that subsequently enter into conversation. Rather, in the interactive process both gospel (that is, our understanding of the gospel) and culture (that is, our portrayal of the meaning structure, shared sense of personal identity, and socially constructed world in which we see ourselves living and ministering) are dynamic realities that inform and are informed by the conversation itself.
Thus, the weight of the contextualization process must shift from the missionary’s communication to the local community’s struggle to make meaning of cultural symbols and practices in light of the gospel and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Second, developments in cultural anthropology reveal how this view of contextualization does not accurately represent the way that people engage with cultural symbols, forms, and practices.The meanings of symbols (e.g., language, rituals, behaviors, etc.) are neither static nor monolithic within a particular locale. Instead, “culture is the outcome and product of social interaction. Consequently, people are active creators, rather than passive receivers, of culture.” Or, as Tanner states, “cultural forms have the force of social directives only by way of human agents struggling over their meaning and social import.” Symbols within a particular context do not have fixed meanings nor do they merely “symbolize” some universal meaning. Cultural symbols and their meanings are constantly contested, nuanced, and diversified as particular communities within the culture employ them in various situations and contexts.
Therefore, contextualization is not an act of translating some universal meaning from one set of cultural symbols to another. It is, instead, an ongoing process undertaken by the community of faith as it engages the surrounding cultural symbols and practices. Furthermore, contextualization is the church’s continuous effort to contest and reimagine the very purpose and meaning, in submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of this shared cultural material.
This contest even includes material from the supposed “religious” domain. Utilizing “religious” symbols and practices has traditionally been frowned upon because it leads to syncretism—defined as the blending of symbols from more than one religious domain—thus an invalid expression of the gospel.The problem is that it is impossible to adequately delineate “religious” symbols from “cultural” symbols. It is a fairly arbitrary distinction. The reality is that our lives and cultures are not bracketed into distinct spheres (e. g., religious, political, familial, etc.). We are holistic beings living in fluid and interwoven networks of cultural symbols, forms, and practices.
Thus, the faith community’s concern is not eschewing local “religious” practices in an effort to uphold its distinct boundaries. Rather, as Tanner explains:
The distinctiveness of a Christian way of life is not so much formed by the boundary as at it; Christian distinctiveness is something that emerges in the very cultural processes occurring at the boundary, processes that construct a distinctive identity for Christian social practices through the distinctive use of cultural materials shared with others.
The fact that the church is in a culture means that it will employ symbols and practices that are loaded with previously constructed cultural-religious meanings. The crux of the matter is how the community uses and negotiates the meaning of the relevant material in light of its faith in the triune God.
An example from northern Thailand will illustrate this dynamic. The most common word for “worship,” specifically in relation to occasions of corporate worship, used by churches in northern Thailand is namasagan. However, the most common understanding of namasagan for non-Christians refers to the act of inviting a Buddhist monk to perform a ceremony. Thus, the cultural symbol namasagan has been contested and no longer has a meaning. Rather, it means something unique for the church because communities of disciples are reimagining its significance as they engage in the practice of worshiping Jesus Christ within their context.
In our evaluation of this usage, we could begrudge the fact that missionaries, years ago, chose a word that did not “mean” worship. Or, we could cry foul because a symbol associated with Buddhist monks was utilized by the Christian church. But, better yet, we could recognize that this is what happens in contextualization and continue to aid the local church in nuancing the meaning of namasagan as it is employed in submission to the Lord Jesus Christ.
In other words, the issue is not so much whether the church should use a particular symbol or practice but to whom the symbol or practice is in service. The truth is that syncretism is inevitable. Therefore, the potential danger is less a matter of which symbols and practices we utilize in worshiping, loving, and serving God and more about whether it is the God revealed in Jesus Christ who is the object of those symbols and practices.
The real threat is not syncretism but idolatry.
This is where the viability and effectiveness of contextualization is to be evaluated. Is the local community, in its use of cultural symbols and practices, being conformed more fully to the image of Jesus Christ, all the while relinquishing the various idols vying for their allegiance? And, ironically, the refusal to engage with material from any particular cultural sphere (e.g., religious, political, economic) creates opportunities for the idols in society and in people’s hearts to remain unchallenged by the lordship of Jesus Christ.However, employing such symbols and practices serves to highlight the fact that the call of the gospel is to bring everything under the reign of Jesus Christ—that is, “so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).
In Pursuit of Contextualized Worship in Northern Thailand
Our mission team has sought to implement this approach to contextualization over our four years in Phayao. We spent our first year dedicated solely to cultural research in order to equip ourselves for this endeavor. The insights we gained continue to fund our efforts at contextualization. I will narrate our journey, thus far, of contextualizing Christian worship in this locale. Though it would be helpful to examine other areas of our ministry, such as evangelism, discipleship training, and theological reflection, for this article I will narrow my reflection to the church’s communal worship practices.
One of the first attempts at incorporating local religious practices into our worship occurred while we were still meeting in homes on Sundays. Our desire for meeting in houses was to make the table central in our worship because communal meals are so important here. While there were advantages to gathering at homes, we soon noticed that performing religious practices (e.g., reading holy texts, praying, etc.)—defined as such by locals—in such an informal setting confused our visitors. Therefore, we tried to ease that tension by adopting a common element of local rituals and ceremonies.
Whenever Phayao people pray or chant, they always put their hands together, palms touching, in front of their chests (phanommuu). We noticed that visitors would often make this gesture whenever someone began to pray but quickly put their hands down once they realized it was not normative. Therefore, we decided to begin utilizing this practice in order to signify that this was indeed an occasion of worship.
Adopting this habit was certainly a positive change for our church, but it also revealed to us how much of our worship was not reflective of local acts of devotion and honor-giving. Though we enjoyed the hospitality and fellowship that occurred in our homes, we could not deny the significance of sacred space and ritual within the local culture. Thus, we set out to rethink our worship practices in order to draw upon devotion practices already deeply connected to the hearts and minds of our friends and neighbors.
We spent the next few months researching afresh temple practices and religious ceremonies and brainstorming ways in which to incorporate them into the body’s worship life. The first step in reimagining Sunday gatherings was to renovate a space to be used specifically for worship. We selected the large, empty room above the pizza restaurant that our team operates and began working to create an appropriate atmosphere.
The most significant elements to this were building a large cross to put in front of the sanctuary and setting up decorative tables, which are found in temples and other sacred spaces. We bought mats, as opposed to chairs, in order for people to sit on the floor, as they do at the temple and many other locations. We also set out to mimic the murals depicting stories and myths about Buddha that are painted around the interior walls of most temples. Though this is still a work in progress, our vision is to have multiple paintings illustrating various scenes from Jesus’ life on the four walls. The key to this, though, is for the style of art to reflect Thai sensibilities. For example, our first painting was based on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The people lining the street are dressed in traditional, northern Thai garb and many of them are bowing with their hands above their heads (grapwai). The gates of the city look like ancient Thai structures and, most significantly, Jesus’ appearance is very similar to other depictions of past Thai kings and holy men.
As we readied ourselves to transition Sunday gatherings into a more sacred occasion, as determined by our particular context, we had a unique opportunity to experiment with incorporating a local ritual into our communal life. My wife gave birth to our third child, followed closely by the birth of our teammates’ son. We wanted to have a baby dedication ceremony for both of them, so we decided to utilize the custom of tying a string around one’s wrist, a common ritual in many parts of Thailand. This practice is enacted during periods of transition or uncertainty, such as weddings, moving homes, and births, as a sign of blessing and protection. Our church gathered one evening, along with many non-Christian friends, to read Scripture and pray for the newest members of our community. We then invited each person present to approach the children, tie a string around their wrists and offer a blessing. While it was odd for those of us who were foreigners, it was apparent that this act resonated with our Phayao friends. The difference was that this string-tying ritual was performed explicitly in the name of Jesus Christ.
Soon after that initiation into contextualizing liturgy, we moved the assembly to our new space and began to incorporate various elements from the local culture, particularly components from the temple. Though we have adapted and altered some particularities over time, there are a few practices that remain consistent on Sunday mornings.
As people gather and spend time in fellowship downstairs, there is an invitation for individuals or groups to ascend upstairs and light incense before the cross. The norm at most temples is for people to light incense and offer prayers in the courtyard before entering the main temple. Incense sticks are also involved at funerals, when offering sacrifices to territorial spirits, and during various ceremonies. There is no one meaning connected to lighting incense, but it can be associated with giving honor, praying, and making sacrifices. We intentionally have never ascribed a specific meaning for lighting incense on Sunday mornings. Our intention is for the community of local Christians, over time, to reimagine and nuance the significance of this act in light of its use in relation to the triune God.
Also, we continue to phanommuu during prayers, though we now put our hands together in that manner whenever we read Scripture as well. Furthermore, once a passage is read, the leader will say, “The Word of the Lord.” The rest of the church then responds, “Satu,” followed by everyone slightly raising their hands and bowing their heads in order for their thumbs to touch their foreheads. Even though the meaning of satu is fairly close to amen, most churches in Thailand avoid using it in worship because it is associated with Buddhist monks. In order to connect to the larger Thai church, while also being culturally appropriate, we have chosen to incorporate both satu and amen in our liturgy.
One of the first non-Christians to visit on a Sunday after we had transitioned to this new style quickly picked up on the way we hold our hands during readings and say “satu” as a declaration of affirmation. During the service she leaned over to one member of our team and said, with a bit of surprise in her voice, “You do things just like we Thais do.” Her statement helped confirm that our worship was indeed becoming increasingly local.
In the midst of incorporating these “new” practices, which derived from the surrounding culture, we were also keenly aware of the importance of connecting local Christians to the larger Christian tradition. Thus, our worship is a mixture of local cultural material and practices performed in churches throughout the world and throughout history. For example, the Lord’s Supper continues to be a central element to our gatherings. Most Sundays we break bread and share the cup during a shared meal, though occasionally we do celebrate the Eucharist as a part of the ordered liturgy. Taking communion as a part of the communal meal resonates with local cultural values while also connecting it to the practice of the earliest churches. We also order our worship services around the common lectionary. Though we are not dogmatic in this practice, it does give us a concrete way to illustrate that our local congregation is a part of a global church.
Additionally, we have occasionally drawn upon the tradition of “passing the peace,” though we adapt it slightly for our context. Similar to many churches throughout the world, the leader asks for the peace of Christ to be upon the church and the church responds in kind. Then, members of the congregation turn to their neighbors and speak those same words to one another. Since this is a form of blessing, and words of blessing are extremely important in this culture, we adopted the local practice performed when receiving a blessing. This involves placing one’s palms together in front of the face while the blessing is spoken. Once the words have been uttered, the recipient then rubs her hands over the top of her head, as if washing the blessing over her.
Finally, baptism is a clear example of interweaving Christian tradition with local practices and symbols. Our church stands in the long tradition of Christian communities who stress the significance of baptism in the life of a new disciple and also for the life of the larger body. The baptismal ceremony begins with a confession of faith, followed by immersion. Upon exiting the water, most likely a nearby lake, one member of the church anoints the forehead of the new disciple with a paste created from water and powder. This ritual, known as jerm, is used among locals for new house dedications, in religious ceremonies, and other situations where protection and blessing are desired. We borrowed this act and combined it with the early church practice of anointing a new convert with oil. Thus, the new disciple receives the sign of the cross on her forehead to signify being marked for Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
The church then gathers around the new sister or brother, lays on hands, and prays over him or her. After sharing the Lord’s Supper together, each member of the church has the opportunity to bless the new disciple through the string-tying ritual, as described above. The mixture of contextual and traditional elements in the ritual of baptism enables the new disciple to reorient cultural symbols and practices into her new life of faith while also fusing her to Christ’s universal church.
Bowing to the King
Possibly the most significant cultural practice we adopted into our gatherings is bowing on the floor, or grapwai. Anyone who has spent time in Thailand knows how significant bowing is in Thai society. It is arguably the most important honor-giving action a person can perform, and yet, this practice is absent from the vast majority of churches.
Thais grapwai before people of high status and those who have shown extreme favor, such as parents or teachers. They also bow to territorial spirits, monks, images of Buddha, and the king. When we first began to worship in this new way, we intentionally utilized the form of bowing that locals perform towards the Buddha image as soon as they enter the main temple. This particular form involves placing one’s hands and forehead to the ground three times in quick succession. Because many of our practices derived from the temple and other religious ceremonies, we did not question whether or not this form was the best option. However, our eyes were opened to the significance of this choice only a few weeks after we had started.
One of our friends from a church in Chiang Mai came to visit on a Sunday and joined us for worship. We were anxious to hear what she thought about our new style since it would be vastly different from any worship she had experienced in her ten years as a Christian. After we finished and sat down for lunch, our sister shared her feelings with us, both positive and negative. Interestingly, her main feedback dealt directly with the manner in which we bowed. She explained that Thai people are taught from an early age the different forms of bowing and when exactly they should be employed. The manner in which we bowed as a congregation that morning is explicitly used for “sacred things,” which includes Buddha idols. The point of confusion for her was that all the texts we read during worship were about Jesus being king. She honestly and unassumingly asked us, “Why did you bow to a ‘sacred thing’ when you were intentionally making the claim that Jesus should be honored because he is our king?” We genuinely had not made that connection but knew this was something which we wanted to investigate deeper.
We asked our friend to show us how Thais would bow in the presence of the king of Thailand. The significance of her response cannot be overstated. As she imagined what would happen if Thailand’s beloved king entered the room, our friend’s entire demeanor changed. She was visibly overtaken by feelings of awe, joy, and devotion. She said that most people would be so overwhelmed by emotion that they would fall on the floor without much attention to correct protocol. She was so moved by imagining such a scenario that she never could show us the correct way to bow before a king.
We eventually did learn how to bow to a king and have since bowed in such a way every Sunday. However, the correct way to grapwai was not the most significant thing we learned that day. The big payoff came from observing how overwhelmed our friend became when thinking about bowing before the king of Thailand. The hypothetical scenario of falling down before the king evoked intense feelings of love and devotion, such as I have rarely seen in relation to Jesus. It is not that Thai Christians do not have deep love and devotion for Jesus. They certainly do. The problem is that the deepest way they can express those feelings is by bowing, a result of a lifetime performing this practice. Thus, when churches do not employ the act of grapwai in worship to Jesus, there is a huge section of the people’s hearts that are unable to connect to Jesus. And, conversely, their adoration and allegiance towards the Thai king and nation are less likely to be challenged by the lordship of Jesus Christ.
My narration of our efforts is not meant to prescribe a particular form of worship. It is intended to encourage intentionality in incorporating and negotiating the meaning of cultural material, in relation to the gospel, for every particular context.
Additionally, these choices we have made about worship are only the beginning of a long contest over the usage and meaning of various symbols and practices. Our desire, as missionaries, is to equip and empower Phayao Christians to continue doing contextualization as the church grows here. We hope that local communities of disciples will do the work of reorienting cultural symbols and practices towards the triune God. Our primary concern is not whether they continue using these forms, such as lighting incense or bowing, or decide to incorporate other cultural practices. It is, instead, whether or not the action is done in submission to God and God alone.
Ultimately, utilizing cultural symbols and practices, whether “religious” or not, can be truly beneficial because it puts the emphasis in the right place. It forces people to choose, first and foremost, not which practice they will engage in but which god they will call “Lord.”
May it be our king, Jesus Christ. Satu.
Eriksen, Thomas Hylland, and Finn Sivert Nielsen. A History of Anthropology. Anthropology, Culture, and Society. London: Pluto Press, 2001.
Grenz, Stanley J., and John R. Franke. Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Hesselgrave, David J., and Edward Rommen. Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989.
Priest, Robert. “ ‘Experience-Near Theologizing’ in Diverse Human Contexts.” In Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, edited by Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland, 180–95. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.
Rose, Martin. “Names of God in the OT.” In Vol. 4 of Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, 1001–1011. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Russell, James C. The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Cultural Liturgies 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.
Tanner, Kathryn. Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology. Guides to Theological Inquiry. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Van Rheenen, Gailyn. “Syncretism and Contextualization: The Church on a Journey Defining Itself.” In Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents, edited by Gailyn Van Rheenen, 1–29. Evangelical Missiological Society Series 13. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2006.
Zehner, Edwin Roy. “Unavoidably Hybrid: Thai Buddhist Conversions to Evangelical Christianity.” PhD diss., Cornell University, 2003.
1 Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 112–13.
2 See Darrell L. Whiteman, “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 21 (January 1997): 2–7, , for a description of how the practice of contextualization is lagging behind the theory.
3 David J. Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 1, is a representative example of this approach to contextualization.
4 As late as 2006, A. Scott Moreau, “Contextualization that Is Comprehensive,” Missiology 34 (July 2006): 325, , continues to define contextualization as “the process whereby Christians adapt the forms, content, and praxis of the Christian faith so as to communicate it to the minds and hearts of people with other cultural backgrounds.” Even Paul G. Hiebert, “Critical Contextualization,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11 (July 1987): 109–10, , while superbly critiquing the anthropological and philosophical problems with this approach to contextualization, still argues:
The leader must also have a metacultural framework that enables him or her to translate the biblical message into the cognitive, affective, and evaluative dimensions of another culture. This step is crucial, for if the people do not clearly grasp the biblical message as originally intended, they will have a distorted view of the gospel. . . . While the people must be involved in the study of Scripture so that they grow in their own abilities to discern truth, the leader must have the metacultural grids that enable him or her to move between cultures. Without this, biblical meanings will often be forced to fit the local cultural categories. The result is a distortion of the message.
5 This does not mean that linguistic and cultural proficiency is unimportant for missionaries. It is vital. See Robert Priest, “ ‘Experience-Near Theologizing’ in Diverse Human Contexts,” in Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, ed. Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 180–95, for the benefits of intentional cultural research for missionaries. However, the weight of contextualization does not lie with the missionary’s capability in communicating accurately. Even with the best training, the missionary does not have access to the full spectrum of meaning associated with a particular symbol or practice. Furthermore, as argued below, the meaning will be renegotiated over time.
6 Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 158.
7 Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Finn Sivert Nielsen, A History of Anthropology, Anthropology, Culture, and Society (London: Pluto Press, 2001), 162, explain that the idea of people possessing a “shared culture” began to be questioned as early as the 1960s, but it was not completely dismissed until the 1990s.
8 Grenz and Franke, 135.
9 Tanner, 50.
10 This is, in fact, the way it has always been. This is attested in the biblical witness by, among other examples, Israel’s use of various titles for Yahweh. Martin Rose, “Names of God in the OT,” in vol. 4 of Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1009, writes:
All the epithets and titles which in the course of its history, the faith of Israel combined with the name of Yahweh, cannot be referred to as original attributes of the Israelite worship of Yahweh; rather, they mirror—both together and individually—the history of the dialogue between the OT faith in God and the ANE world. In the course of history of this dialogue the movement of integration became gradually substituted by an opposite movement of demarcation and exclusivity.
Also, see James C. Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), for an historical example.
11 See Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Syncretism and Contextualization: The Church on a Journey Defining Itself,” in Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents, ed. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Evangelical Missiological Society Series 13 (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2006), 1–13. Interestingly, Van Rheenen provides multiple biblical examples of God admonishing his people for engaging in syncretism, yet the grievance in all the examples is actually about turning to other gods. In other words, the problem is idolatry—not syncretism—which supports the argument below.
12 Tanner, 114.
13 This is based upon findings during our team’s year of research. It specifically derived from a project in which we used pile sorting to analyze webs of meaning and associations connected to various Thai words related to the idea of worship.
14 Edwin Roy Zehner, “Unavoidably Hybrid: Thai Buddhist Conversions to Evangelical Christianity,” (PhD diss., Cornell University, 2003), 27–36, argues that this type of “hybridity” has always been the case in Thai Christianity.
15 It is important to note that there might be particular practices within a sphere that should be avoided for the specific purpose of protesting the dominant narratives within that sphere that call for people’s allegiance and devotion. But this should be done intentionally and explicitly as a community. See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Cultural Liturgies 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 208–21.
16 See Paul Henry DeNeui, “String Tying Ritual as Christian Communication in Northeast Thailand,” (PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 2005), for a thorough examination of this ritual in Thai culture and how its meaning has been renegotiated within churches of the Northeast.