Contextualisation is kind of a big deal for us. It’s about trying to work out how to live well and do ministry well in a particular context. It’s the bread and butter of cross-cultural interaction, putting off my culture in order to contribute to this culture. It’s everything from the clothes you wear, to the language you speak, to how you couch concepts. It’s about honouring the culture you’re in and communicating in a way they’ll understand, more than expecting to become one of them.
It sounds obvious, but contextualisation is very much determined by what context you find yourself in. That’s not just about what the culture is but about at what point in history you find yourself. Many missionaries of the past have been pioneers, bringing the gospel with them. In that kind of situation, where the gospel is foreign, if you don’t contextualise yourself and your message effectively, you run the risk that the gospel will stay foreign. However, that is not our context. The gospel is in Tanzania, and is owned by Tanzanians; they don’t need us to spread it. Student ministries are already flourishing; they don’t need us to establish them. Our context is not a pioneering one. Our context is one of partnership. The two different situations require two different approaches.
Let me give an example.
We recently ran a seminar on ‘Staying on track in the will of God’. In Australian student ministry, we’d call it ‘guidance’. Step one of contextualisation was trying to figure out what’s already being said about this kind of thing in Tanzania, and what students’ questions are. Step two was asking what we would say and how we would say it.
One thing we considered was giving a series of practical tips about how to stay in the will of God, for example by reading your Bible and having good mentors. Setting out each little step is a very common way of teaching in Tanzania and people are hungry for this advice. With that in mind, this was the first approach that we considered for our talk. However, three things made us change our mind and go down a different route.
The first was that we Aussies are not that good at breaking things down in this way. The things we assume are the things Tanzanians state, so it’s hard for us to work out what we’ve assumed and thus need to state!
The second was that even if we could work out what we needed to say, we’re not sure we have the culturally appropriate examples to illustrate it.
Thirdly, even if we could see the points and make them culturally relevant, all we would be doing was exactly what Tanzanians are already doing. This practical day-to-day stuff is already being taught; us doing it would be redundant because we’d just be doubling up.
So instead of the practical angle, we adopted something which was in the end rather ‘Australian’. We decided to focus on the big picture stuff. Who are you living for? How does that shape your life? We took our observation that Tanzanians linger over ideas and talked around this idea of living for the glory of God from several different angles.
A danger in this kind of decision is that we’re just saying things that matter to us, that have traction in our culture, but that fail to connect with Tanzanians. Doing this wouldn’t be very contextualised: on the surface it has a few things that look Tanzanian, but underneath it’s still just us speaking out of and back into our own headspace. However, as we were thinking about our talk, I remembered a conversation with our friend Mbele, in which he said that he can hear lots of stuff on how to do things, but doesn’t hear a lot of stuff about the why. There’s lots of talk about practicalities, but less about frameworks. He identified this as a weakness in Tanzanian teaching, and wants to see more teaching on identity.
Thinking this over, I realised that what comes easily to us is less common in Tanzania. As we come to know this context more, we not only see how to do things in a Tanzanian way, but where it is appropriate to do things in a non-Tanzanian way. As it turns out, using Australian ideas at various points can be a way of contextualising, that is, a way of responding to this culture in an appropriate and helpful way. This is what it means to respond appropriately to a partnership context: to bring something different, to be a complementary part of the global body rather than more of the same.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.