Pastor, Know Your Context

When I was a graduate student, I took a missions class called “Contextualization” as an elective. The class was essentially intended to equip missionaries for understanding the cross-cultural context, or setting, in which they were going to do mission work so that they could share the message of Christ in culturally astute ways. We discussed ethical issues like bribery, relational issues like polygamy, and theological issues like worship styles that fit the heart language of a people group.

Unfortunately, the mission principle of contextualization – doing ministry in culturally astute ways – is often relegated to clearly “missionary” or cross-cultural settings. But when we do ministry as pastors within United State, we often ignore the fact that we need to contextualize our ministry just as much in a setting that seems familiar.

We take for granted, for instance, that we actually know our setting. “After all,” we think to ourselves, “I’m an American doing ministry in America! What is there to understand?”I would like to contend, however, that we do not always understand our context as much as we think we do.

Here are six questions worth pondering for those of us who do ministry in the United States. While national history and trends must be considered, we must be aware of the specific state and local history and trends for our context. If you know the answers to these questions for your setting, kudos to you! If not, it is time for you to dig deeper in order to know your setting.

  1. What is the rough chronology or time-line of your city, town, or county? When and how was it founded and when and how did it expand?
  2. What ethnic groups make up your context and how did they come to be there over time? What are the cultural distinctives of those ethnic groups, and how are those distinctives continuing to impact your setting?
  3. What are the driving economic forces of your setting and how have those changed over time? How did national issues, such as the Great Depression or World War II, affect your setting economically?
  4. What have been the defining conflicts over time in your setting? Put another way, what governmental, ethnic, or economic issues have raised tension levels at different times?
  5. What has the religious climate been within your setting over the course of its history? What have been the ebbs and flows of church life, and how has the flow of cultural issues over time affected that positively or negatively?
  6. What would you see as the key 3-5 issues in your setting that the church must address in some way, whether directly or indirectly, in order to minister in culturally astute ways in the next 25 years?

A superficial familiarity with our setting may hinder us from truly knowing it and, thus, keep us from an effective ministry for the kingdom where God has placed us. We must dig deep to know our setting.

The Hunger for Greatness [Hungry for God]

During Lent at Eastbrook Church, we are exploring how our hungers lead us to God in order to find true rest for our souls. The series, “Hungry for God,” parallels the season of Lent, and has a companion daily devotional that you can access here.

This weekend I explored the hunger for greatness by looking at a quirky story in Mark 10, where James and John ask Jesus to give them a special place of honor when He returns in glory. The other disciples are incensed and it provides an opportunity for Jesus to discuss the nature of true greatness.

You can view the message video and sermon outline below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

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Hungry for Greatness

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Someone once told me that what they wanted most in life was to be seen and acknowledged for who they were. We can describe that desire as a hunger for greatness or, at least, a desire to be necessary. We all want someone to see who we are and what we have to offer. That hunger for greatness can be appropriate, such as our longing for someone to recognize the uniqueness of how God has made us (Psalm 139:13-14) and also the unique talents and abilities God has placed within our lives (Romans 12:4-8).

However, there are times when our hunger for greatness expands beyond what is appropriate. John Milton, in Paradise Lost, describes Satan’s great sin as “Monarchal pride,” signaled by his belief that it is “better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.” The way of Jesus the Messiah is unlike this. He taught differently – “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27) – and He lived differently – “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

The same sort of pride seen in Satan can infuse our human longings for great- ness. This is why Paul the Apostle wrote to the church in Rome: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3). Jesus Himself reminds us that we live in a world where hungers are often turned upside down. But in His Kingdom up is down and down is up: “For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest” (Luke 9:48).

James the Apostle comments on this theme: “Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’ Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:6-8). Throughout this week in the devotional, we will explore what it means to have an appropriate hunger for greatness that does not expand into pride.

RESPOND THIS WEEK:
Each week’s practice will feature some aspect of the process Paul describes for us in Ephesians 4:22-24, where we are to TAKE OFF something from our lives that has become corrupted or distracting and PUT ON in its place something God wants us to do.

Take Off:Take note this week of the ways that you tend to seek attention or turn conversations with others back toward yourself. How many times do you interject or interrupt others with stories of how what they are sharing relates to you? When you dress in the morning, how much of what you wear is intentionally chosen so that you will be noticed? Use the space below to take note of your experience this week.

Put On: Find ways each day this week to celebrate and build up someone else in your life. Write them a note, throw them a party, brag about them on Facebook, etc. At the end of each day, thank God for specific people and how they have blessed you that day.

[This a devotional I wrote with Jim Caler as part of the Eastbrook Church Lenten devotional, “Hungry for God.”]

Lenten Prayer from Nigeria

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God in heaven, you have helped my life to grow like a tree.  Now something has happened.  Satan, like a bird, has carried in one twig of his own choosing after another.  Before I knew it he had built a dwelling place and was living in it.  Tonight, my Father, I am throwing out both the bird and the nest.

Unknown source from Nigeria

The Weekend Wanderer: 16 March 2019

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

Bishop of Loughborough“Church of England to hold first service in Farsi after a huge rise in Iranian converts” – “When the Bishop of Loughborough was 13-years-old, her brother was murdered for being a Christian. Born and raised in Iran, she was forced to flee her homeland in 1980 on the grounds of religious persecution – a story that is all too familiar for many Iranian Christians. Now, as the ordained Bishop of Loughborough, the Rt Revd Guli Francis-Dehqani is leading the Church of England’s growing community of Iranians who have found a home in the Anglican church. This unprecedented shift was yesterday marked with a “historical” service at Wakefield Cathedral in Yorkshire, where the Holy Communion scripture was delivered in Persian for the first time to cater for the growing – yet traditionally unusual – new Anglican congregation.”

 

china“China official says West using Christianity to ‘subvert’ power” – From Reuters: “Western forces are trying to use Christianity to influence China’s society and even “subvert” the government, a senior official said, warning that Chinese Christians needed to follow a Chinese model of the religion. China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but since President Xi Jinping took office six years ago, the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist Party.”

 

St-Patrick“Who was the real St Patrick: an evangelist or a tax dodger?” – “Few national saints have the global reach of Patrick: it has been calculated that church bells ring out in 800 worldwide locations to celebrate the feast day of this Roman Briton who brought Christianity to Ireland in the early 5th century. Jewish bakeries in New York sell green bagels and horses run at Cheltenham in his honour. And everyone knows the legend that he banished serpents, since no snakes exist in Ireland (the Ice Age may have helped the banishment). Patrick is legendary but he was also a real historical figure, and Roy Flechner seeks to review Patrick’s story in the light of historical evidence — examining Patrick’s own autobiographical writings, as well as other sources from archaeology and Roman and medieval texts — to make ‘educated guesses’ about Patrick’s life.”

 

reparations“The Case for Reparations” – David Brooks has come to an interesting conclusion about the tensions with ethnic tensions in our country: reparations are necessary. Admittedly, Brooks is a late convert to this point of view, which makes his article a very interesting read. Of course, he is responding to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ original article in the Atlantic of the same name, which is also worth reading.

 

article_5c847db41bee5“Evangelicals and Zen Masters” – In First Things, Matthew Milliner, associate professor of art history at Wheaton College, reflects in a beautiful personal essay on the intersections and disjunctions between Christianity and Zen Buddhism. He travels a wide stretch of roads toward his conclusion, but the journey is fascinating. Alan Jacobs writes a reflection upon and response to Milliner here, including some references to the meandering relationship that Thomas Merton had with Zen Buddhism, that is well worth reading.

 

Michael McClymond“How Universalism, ‘the Opiate of the Theologians,’ Went Mainstream” – Paul Copan interviews Michael McClymond on the nature of universalism, and how it has become so popular in mainstream thinking today, by Rob Bell’s Love Wins. McClymond’s recent book, The Devil’s Redemption, engages critically with the historical theology of universalism in Christian thought, and this interview gives a taste of where McClymond’s conclusions.

 

Obscurity

“The Disturbing Temptations of Pastoring in Obscurity” – I had the opportunity to write for Christianity Today‘s CT Pastors imprint this past week. In this article, I explore the ways in which temptations to celebrity is not necessarily remedied by hiding in obscurity. I hope it’s an encouragement to other pastors. Thanks to Kyle and Andrew from CT for working with me on this.

 

Music: “Were You There?”, Marian Anderson, from Marian Anderson in Oratorio and Spiritual, volume 1 (1936).

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

Jesus is Local and Personal

Healing_of_a_bleeding_women_Marcellinus-Peter-CatacombI’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ way of doing ministry recently. A number of years ago, I read Eugene Peterson’s outstanding book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. Ever since reading it, I have grappled with what it means to truly minister to people in Jesus’ way.

In the midst of my reflections, I have been surprised once again by how Jesus always spoke and acted with specific people in specific places. In many ways this is so straightforward that I initially failed to give it much thought.

However, Peterson helped me to see how this is often not the way that we tend to think about Jesus or ourselves as North American Christians today.

We tend to be captivated with formulas and generalities that we can mold and apply to our Christian life, whether habits or purposes or principles. Jesus, however, did not offer generalities or formulas that could be broadcast on billboards or used as marketing slogans.

Instead, Jesus dealt with specific people in their specific places.

He asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water and then conversed about life, human soul-thirst, and the nature of the Messiah (John 4). Walking along with His disciples, Jesus addressed prevailing notions of sin and its physical repercussions by interacting with a man born blind. He spit in the dust, caked it over the man’s blind eyes, and told him to go wash in a nearby pool (John 9).

Jesus is undeniably local, personal, and relational. He does not seem too concerned with developing broad-based programs or ideas into which people are plugged like so many disposable appliances in an over-crowded kitchen. Quite the opposite!

What Jesus does is this. He calls this one – Zacchaeus – into relationship in a personal manner as they talk about life over a meal (Luke 19). He calls these four – Peter and Andrew, James and John – to follow Him from their lake-fishing into people-fishing for the lost while walking along the shore (Matthew 4).

Jesus lives locally with specific people in specific places. What about us? Do we live in that way? Do we minister in that way?