Undoubtedly there are at least a few concepts bantered around in Seminary (online, over lunch, in the classroom, etc.) that make little difference in the world of ministry. But there are others, if failed to be understood or applied, that can have a catastrophic effect on ministry fruitfulness.
The idea of “context” is one such concept. It is essential that preachers grasp the broader context of a biblical passage while doing their exegetical and expository sermon work. Taking Scripture “out of context” is to run the risk of being unfaithful to God’s Word and unhelpful (even detrimental) to those who hear it.
But the critical importance of context is not limited to preaching. Contextualized ministry is a core necessity for any truly missional church. The predisposition of many church leaders toward copying or comparing has resulted in the disconnection of many churches from the context in which God has placed them.
This is especially on my mind as we launch our Spanish-language MDiv pilot cohort this week. Latino and Latina ministry leaders are on our campus from diverse locations and nations of origin. As we’ve worked with Hispanic professors to prepare the curriculum we’ve discovered the greatest challenge is not translation (creating Spanish-language versions of English-language resources) but contextualization. Our “contextualization team” has wrestled with how leadership, preaching, spiritual formation and other dimensions of ministry are different in Hispanic contexts than they are in Anglo settings. The pilot cohort students will provide a feedback loop on the relevance of our curriculum and resources to their ministry.
Dr. Sammy Rodriguez, Director of the Hispanic National Association of Evangelicals, was recently on campus. We were grateful for his unbridled enthusiasm about our commitment to provide excellent, accredited Spanish-language ministerial education that is affordable and accessible. But his highest praise was reserved for the fact that our curriculum and resources were not simply translated but contextualized and customized for Hispanic ministry.
While equipping pastors for ministry “taken in context” is important as our Seminary pursues opportunities to serve that are springing up all over the world, it is equally vital in the rural communities, suburban settings and urban populations close to home.
When the church I served (Kentwood Community Church in Grand Rapids, MI) sought to plant daughter congregations, great efforts were made to assess, coach and train the church planter. But there was also intentional investment in seeking to match that planter with the appropriate context. Over the years we participated in planting 10 different churches in the greater Grand Rapids area – urban, suburban, and bedroom communities. I’m still amazed at how different those churches are in facilities, constituencies and strategies – as they seek to contextualize their ministry in order to permeate their immediate community with the good news of Jesus Christ. One of those churches, the Edge Urban Fellowship, had in its site-selection criteria the need to be “gang neutral” – not a selection criteria you see very often! But Pastor Troy Evans (a former gang member himself) was committed to reaching current and former gang members through his hip-hop church, and he knew to be located in one gang’s territory (context) would reduce the opportunity to reach those connected with other gangs.
Is the importance of ministry being “taken in context” part of the reason the Apostle Paul’s New Testament epistles are so often named by locale and people groups? Is that why he opens his letters with such phrases as “To all in Rome…” or “To the church of God in Corinth…” or “To the churches in Galatia…”? I believe it is, and that God speaks to ministry leaders specifically in their contexts. What is He saying to “The church of God in your community…”?
- Have you sought to understand the demographics, culture, subcultures and uniqueness of your own ministry context?
- When you hear of an idea utilized elsewhere that you want to implement in your ministry, do you avoid simply copying or comparing by seeking to contextualize it?
- What changes are occurring in your context right now that may create unique opportunity for ministry?