Contextualisation and its impact on the good news for women

Contextualisation and its impact on the good news for women

Phil Parshall pioneered modern expressions oƒ contextualisation for ministry to Muslims. He defines contextualisation as “… the effort to understand and take seriously the specific context of each human group and person on its own terms and in all its dimensions – cultural, religious, social, political, economic – and to discern what the Gospel says to people in that context.” (Parshall, 2003) Contextualisation is not cultural relativism.[1] It embraces a culture’s conceptual categories, forms and symbolic motifs, while at the same time critically assessing each individual aspect of the culture according to its compatibility with the scripture. Timothy Tennent says contextualisation is about Jesus being authentically experienced in the particularities of the local context. (Tennent, 2010)

Contextualisation in mission today has developed from definitions of culture in secular anthropology.[2] Christ and culture have been seen as wholly separate, leaving little or no room for the Kingdom of God to break in. David Greenlee says true contextualisation deals with values and worldview, it is more than an approach to witness. (Greenlee, 2012) The Kingdom of God breaks in bringing transformation, the future breaking into the present. I agree with Tennent that all parts of culture are enhanced, or destroyed or enlivened when brought under the Lordship of Christ. (Tennent, 2010)

What does this mean for women living under Islam, and how they have opportunity to hear the good news of Jesus? Let’s consider one contextualised approach to reaching those who live under Islam, and its impact on women: family networks.

Identifying married male, literate, rural farmers or fisherman, who were well-respected members of Muslim society, as their target group for evangelism, Phil Parshall and his team were clear who was not included: “In our context, young persons, or women of any age, would not be appropriate as an initial direction for evangelism. It was hoped that they would follow in the faith of their husband/father.” (Parshall, 2012) Parshall’s work in the 1980’s was considered ground-breaking, and mission strategies increasingly focussed on male heads of families and communities. Many of the ensuing strategies for reaching Muslim peoples[3] have grown out of this approach.

Dudley Woodberry, scholar of Islam and mission, agrees, suggesting that for a movement to be born, family and community decision-makers must be the focus. (Woodberry, 2005) Research in Pakistan by Edwards Evans also seems to affirm this strategy. Evans found that of primary converts, the first to come to faith in a family, only ten percent were women, and no husband had followed. Where men were first to come to faith, at least twenty women and other family members had followed. (Evans, 2012)[4]

What is the impact for women? When Parshall’s story of reaching Muslims in Bangladesh became a strategy for all countries where Islam is the dominant religion, mission strategies veiled Muslim women. Assumptions were made about what would happen within family networks. The interplay between the public and private spheres was ignored. Women’s agency was denied. Their marginalisation increased.

Fran Love has said: “… Muslim women are too often left out of strategic church planting due to … a ‘gender-blind missiology’ This mission theory states that missionaries need first of all to influence heads of households and leaders who will in turn influence their families and those under their authority. While based on conventional wisdom … it is an incomplete perspective both for biblical and practical reasons.” (Love, 1996). In agreeing with this perspective, the question for us as women is how do we act when under the pressure of these strategic directives and practices?

The stories of Jesus meeting with women, bringing his good news to bear on their lives and circumstances, show us a different way. They call us to embrace the margins, recognising the agency of women in the ways they act, even from the margins. We need to challenge the embedded narrative that prioritises the public face of Islam, embracing the spaces where women act, influence and bring change. We must prioritise listening to the stories of the women in our communities so we see and understand where they exercise influence, but more importantly, so we bring the good news into their lived experiences. We embrace relationships and their connections in our communities so that culture, tradition and orthodox religion do not create barriers to the good news.

[1] Lila Abu-Lighod speaks about cultural relativism in terms of saying ‘it’s their culture and its not my business to judge or interfere …’ ABU-LUGHOD, L. 2002. Do Muslim women really need saving? Anthrolopological reflections on cultural relativism. American Anthroplogist, 104.. Parshall reflects on this when he notes that one of the dangers of contextualisation, which he says is expressed in the teaching of liberal theologians, is emasculation of the gospel; deleting those passages of scripture and parts of the gospel message that are considered offensive to the other culture. PARSHALL, P. 2003. Muslim evangelism: Contemporary Approaches to Contextualisation, Waynesboro, Gabriel Publishing. Abu-Lighod rightly emphasises the importance of respecting difference as products of different histories, expressions of different circumstances, and as a manifestation of differently structured desires. Contextualisation acknowledges the imperative of the cultural metanarrative but is not a licence for experimentation with anything that might fit into the local culture. Parsons views it as bringing “the Biblical metanarrative into critical relationship with the narratives of other places and groups without compromising the biblical particularity of God’s own narrative identity”. PARSONS, M. 2005. Unveling God: Cntextualising Christology for Islamic Culture, Pasadena, William Carey Library.

[2] Richard Niebuhr’s work was formative for the development of Christian thinking in this field. NIEBUHR, H. R. 1951. Christ and Culture, United States, Harper and Row.

[3] Ramsay Harris affirms this in the foreword to Parshall’s book “Muslim Evangelism’. He identified Parshall’s influence in two areas: ministry and the way people do ministry. PARSHALL, P. 2003. Muslim evangelism: Contemporary Approaches to Contextualisation, Waynesboro, Gabriel Publishing.

[4] Evans also noted that three of the seven female converts who were first to come to faith were killed, that is 42%, whereas only one of the sixty male converts were killed, that is 1.7%. He identified four reasons why it is harder for women to come to faith: it is harder for them to think outside of the box; harder for them to physically move outside of the home to meet Christians; harder to declare change of faith in the family and community; and there were punished more severely than men in matters of honour.

Featured Image: With thanks to IMB Photos

© When Women Speak … September 2023

CH spent nearly four decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and has returned as part of Interserve’s International Leadership. A co-founder of the When Women Speak… network, her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).

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