Sunday, April 30, 2017

Seminary in a Nutshell: Contexts of Ministry 1

"The Person and Contexts of a Pastor"--that was the first unit of my Seminary in a Nutshell series. But I did not finish it. When I realized I would be stepping back into a leadership role, I shifted to the Pastor as Leader series, which took me over a year to finish.

So I had finished the "Person of the Pastor" half of my first unit (see the bottom of this page), but I did not do the "Contexts of a Pastor" half.

Before I move on to Foundations, I thought I would go back and finish that initial series.
1. We cannot escape context. Without context, our words have no clear meaning. Without context, our actions have no clear meaning. Relationships always take place in a context. Since ministry is intrinsically relational, all ministry takes place at the intersection of multiple contexts.

What are these contexts?

2. I am going to call the first set of contexts, identity contexts. The pastor has a gender, an ethnicity, and perhaps a race. In the last hundred years or so we have spoken of a person having a sexuality. Each person in the church has these as well. Each member in the community has these as well.

There is usually a strong sense in which these identities have a basis in our physicality. However, the meaning ascribed to these identities is a matter of our cultural context and of course our own self-appraisal. The broader dynamics and significance of these identities is not intrinsic but is a function of our context.

3. So a broader set of contexts to which I will refer are socio-cultural contexts. As I said, identity contexts are really socio-cultural in nature, but they seem important enough at present to separate out. So when I refer to socio-cultural contexts here, I am referring to other important cultural contexts like economic contexts (wealthy, middle class, impoverished, blue collar, white collar, etc).

Sometimes we speak in overly generalized terms like "Western" culture or "two-thirds world" culture, "hot cultures" and "cold cultures." Any culture is of course filled with many sub-cultures, but often there are trends of characteristics among, say, Americans or British. When these are stereotyped and pre-imposed on everyone from a place simply because of their point of origin, we call that prejudice.

The ancient world, the world of the Bible, identified people by way of their gender, their geography, and their genealogy. [1] The geography element corresponds closest to what we call ethnicity and race today. But in the Western world, we now might also speak of a national context. Although nationalism and patriotism are fairly recent phenomena in history, they are very significant for pastors in the United States. We sometimes speak also now of a global context, by which we usually mean the interrelationships between us and the world at large.

Genealogy translates into what we might call kinship contexts. What family are you from?  These have blurred into national contexts in the Western world, but in the two-thirds world your identity might be connected to a tribe. Kinship groups can be fictive too. There is a strong sense in which being a Christian involves belonging to a fictive kinship group, a sense of belonging to a family that is not based on genetics.

The older caste system of India was an intersection of kinship and socio-economic status.

Cultures often have a way of conceptualizing age. We might call this a generational context. It has become popular in the United States to stereotype generations of Americans: Builders, Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, etc. As all stereotypes, there may be some trends that ring true, but they are overly simplistic and easily become prejudices.

4. We might finally mention some religious contexts that are particularly of interest for pastors. First, there is the tradition in which the pastor ministers. Sometimes we might call this a denominational context, but even those in a non-denominational church are influenced by distinct Christian traditions. Those who think they are just following the Bible alone are typically those who are least aware of the historic influences on them.

Finally, we might cautiously speak of a kingdom context. The problem with speaking of it is that we are prone to mistake our denominational or traditional context for the kingdom. Nevertheless, we believe that there is an eternal context in which the pastor and indeed all Christians live and work. We are, first of all, citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20).

The kingdom context is the basis for the church being counter-cultural. One topic in this unit is the exploration of the differing ways in which the church has interacted with the broader cultures in which it is located. Do we accommodate, assimilate, isolate, dominate, or activate?

5. Because it is human nature to want to form herds of similarity--what we might call homogeneous groups--many churches are mono-cultural. A hundred years ago, there were white churches and there were black churches. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America.

In our current American context, if your church does not look like its surrounding community, that should raise a question. In an increasingly diverse society, we should expect our churches and Christian institutions to be increasingly diverse. In the kingdom of God, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free. There is not 'male and female'" (Gal. 3:28). If our churches show ethnic or economic or gender partiality (cf. James 2:1-4), then the kingdom context calls us to change. Ideally, the church would look like the church of heaven looks in Revelation 7:9, with people from every nation, tribe, people, and language.

6. The minister participates in the mission of God at the intersection of all these contexts. If we are not self-aware, we will mistake culture for kingdom. Indeed, we cannot help but do so. On the other hand, kingdom is always incarnated in culture, for none of us can escape context. There is no such thing as a context-less ministry. There is no meaning for anything without context. [2]

Next Sunday: Contexts 2: The Making of Meaning

[1] Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey, Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996).

[2] Indeed, the words of the Bible do not exist outside of context. You can either try to read them within their first or original ancient context or by default you are automatically reading them against some other context. But words have no meaning until they are read within some context. And actions have no significance unless they are interpreted within a context.

The Calling of a Minister
The Person of a Pastor

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