The American philosopher John Dewey said, “I should venture to assert that the most pervasive fallacy of philosophic thinking goes back to neglect of context.”
Could it also be said of church leaders today that our most pervasive fallacy of ministry thinking goes back to a neglect of context? I think so, but you might expect that from a guy who sees most of our leadership sins through the lens of photocopied vision.
Remember when Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:22 that he was willing to “become all things to all men in order to save some?” He was reminding us that our strategy for evangelism must be connected to our awareness of context.
The original meaning of context is “to weave together” and is often used in grammar. When words are taken “out of context” (like we often say about a Bible verse), we are breaking the natural “weave” by removing elements before, after, and around the words that add to a full and accurate sense of meaning.
With ministry, we often bring strategies, ideas, and plans for reaching or discipling people that neglect context. That is we fail to weave our strategies together with realities of culture that live before, after, and around what we do. The result is not a lack of “meaning” in the grammatical sense but a lack of effectiveness in connecting with people.
Think for a minute about why context should inform strategy:
- Context carries localized assumptions about faith and God
- Context creates localized nuances of and uses for language
- Context encodes a history of heroes and enemies for your community
- Context transmits a collective conscious of successes and failures
- Context reflects and reinforces your community’s deepest hopes and fears
- Context shapes and is reshaped by the real-time shared experiences of its people
Here are two action steps:
1) Consider what you are currently doing in ministry that was designed by someone else in a different context. Reexamine how your context might inform ways to tweak that ministry.
2) Before planning a new event, program, or ministry initiative, spend some time thinking about context. And then let context inform strategy.