Honing Contextual Savvy
Published by Cory Willson
Jake and Betsy Tuls Professor of Missiology, World Christianity, and Public Theology
When did you first realize how your birthplace shaped your outlook on the world?
WAKING UP TO OUR OWN CONTEXT
I was in my twenties on a trip to New York when it finally dawned on me what the definition of “downtown” meant. I grew up in the foothills of Northern California, where most people lived in the mountains and traveled down them to run errands in town. Imagine my surprise sitting on the subway heading “uptown” (northbound) to Harlem and realizing that on my return I would be taking the “downtown” train (southbound). I realized that outside my hometown, “downtown” commonly refers to directions on a compass, not elevation!
Likewise, if you were to ask me directions to my childhood home, I could only name one or two streets. It was more common to give directions based on landmarks like tree stumps and dilapidated barns then streets signs. This approach to navigation may seem strange to urbanites, but to those living in rural areas during the pre-iPhone era, typographical features are a lot easier to identify then small street signs.
I suppose if we look back to our childhood, we could all say we grew up with similar peculiarities that outsiders would find bizarre. In our early years, we learn ways of inhabiting the world by imitating others as they navigate their surroundings. We tend to overlook odd or problematic behaviors of the community. Often it is not until we move to a new place or encounter questions from newcomers that the opportunity for self-awareness occurs. It is then that we might learn that our definition of downtown is bound up with our particular context and that our ways of moving through life are less helpful in new geographies.
Theology should be no less bound up with context and geography than navigation, and yet in much of mainstream American Christianity, there is a great deal of naiveté about our cultural embeddedness. We often don’t realize that our language and ways of living are determined by various forces in culture and history and not solely by the Bible.
THE CONTEXT OF THEOLOGY
Typically, when we think about the work of theology, we picture theologians sitting in a library surrounded by books. Books are important tools, but the proper end of theology lies elsewhere. Andrew Walls argues that the primary workshop of theology “lies in the life situations of believers or of the church. Theological activity arises out of Christian mission and Christian living, from the need for Christians to make Christian choices and to think in a Christian way.”1 The specificity of our geographic and socio-historical contexts shape the questions that we ask. Let me offer a few examples.
John Calvin, a refugee, worked out his theology in ministry among other refugees in 16th century Geneva.2 Saint Augustine, a mestizo, wrestled with his mixed heritage of African Christianity and Greco-Roman training as the Roman Empire crumbled around him.3 And the Belgic Confession devoted special attention to the “tyrannized, oppressed, and tormented” of 16th century Protestants in Europe.4 Something of this heritage is lost when we approach theology disconnected from context. The birthplace of theology should be the lived experience of the Church as it participates in God’s mission.
In Scripture, we find that new events posed fresh theological questions to the Church. We see a vivid example of this in Acts through Peter’s hesitancy to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead to venture into a Gentile’s home (Acts 10:9-22). This act was strictly forbidden among 1st century Jews and yet it was the Holy Spirit who prompted this violation of established purity laws—an act which created no small disturbance among believers (Acts 11:1-3 and 15:1-6). Under the prompting of the Spirit, the early Church was forced to think beyond its Jewish culture and consider what discipleship looked like for Gentile converts in Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the world. Theology must serve the mission of God’s (Jewish and Gentile) people and address the everyday realities of their life and mission.5
THEOLOGICAL FORMATION FOR CONTEXTUAL MINISTRY
Calvin Seminary seeks to form women and men for ministry in the church and society. We do this by helping students understand the message of Scripture in light of the local contexts of the global Church. We have regular trips to Latin America and the Middle East in which students learn about historical and contemporary realities of Christians. This stretches their imaginations to consider the power of the gospel to address people in radically different life situations. In learning about Christians in other cultures, students have the opportunity to become more aware of their own culture and faith.
Theology must serve the mission of God’s people and address the everyday realities of their life and mission.
VALUE: We challenge one another to have hearts that engage the broader world God so loves.
Minister of Discipleship, LaGrave Avenue CRC – Grand Rapids, Michigan
Calvin Seminary offered opportunities both inside and outside the classroom to think hard about how the message of God’s Word speaks in different contexts. Classmates and mentoring group members from other parts of the world helped me think about how our journeys with Christ were the same—and different. Professors deepened my thinking, challenging my assumptions and encouraging a broad vision of how and where God might ask us to serve. A unit of Clinical Pastoral Education with a hospital placement taught me to look and listen, seeking first to understand and then to respond with humility, humanity, and reliance on the Holy Spirit. A learning tour of a Grand Rapids neighborhood I hadn’t previously known showed me ways the local church was in partnership with its neighborhood, celebrating its strengths and addressing its needs. Today, I serve a church with a rich tradition and history that is quite different from my childhood church-plant home. Calvin Seminary provided an education that gave me the tools to serve and thrive in my church leadership role.
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