On the Proper Use of Context

May 30th, 2014 Post by

Golden crown on blank cardIt’s no secret that context is a major buzzword these days. From marketers who will sell you demographic information about your town (information which, it should be noted, could just as easily be gotten by going to the grocery store) to pastoral ministry gurus who couch all their advice in context language, it’s practically inescapable. So what does the word mean? How is it wrongly used? Is there a right way to use a knowledge of one’s context?

Context, in terms of the church, usually has to do with one’s surrounding people, culture, and geography. In Cheyenne, Wyoming, for example, one might describe the context with terms and phrases like “high plains desert”, “rugged individualism”, “military town”, “state capital”, “mostly Evangelical and Calvinist”, “simple piety”, and so forth. These ideas are important to understand where the Christian finds himself. Cheyenne is very different from a place like, say, New York City. The air is drier here, the altitude is higher, the people tend toward more conservative and libertarian political preferences, population density is drastically lower, cost of living is generally far lower, the predominant religious group is not necessarily Roman Catholics, etc. But there is a lot that is the same about the contexts of New York City and Cheyenne: people are suffering and dying, the world is falling apart, idolatries abound, false gospels tear the faithful from the Church, Christians may not know Christian doctrine very well, the congregation could use a healthier bank account balance.

So what to do with such knowledge? There seem to be two major ways to use such knowledge in the church. The first way would be to know what sort of idolatries and false gospels are around you. In Cheyenne we have Mormons. Go west and you’ll find even more Mormons. As a pastor I might do well to make sure my congregation knows something about Christianity over against Mormonism so that 1) they are not fooled and 2) they can witness to the truth of the Gospel to those who have been seduced by the false gospel of Mormonism. At the same time, I might note that the American West has a lot of Calvinist influence, and as such our congregation might consider worship practices that confess that we Lutherans are most decidedly not Calvinist. In this way, I would be using context to ensure that my and my congregation’s doctrine and practice clearly confess the truth of the Gospel over against the idolatries and false idols of our context. Or, if I notice that in my area many people are speaking a language other than English, my congregation might offer services in that language, that would be a use of my context.

The other way does exactly the opposite. The other way is about looking at context and determining which practices (and thereby, which articles of doctrine) are most palatable to those around you. So if I notice that the most successful churches around me have a certain sort of worship — say, rock bands and big screens — this second way of using context might lead me to introduce those things in my congregation in the hopes of attracting people from the surrounding community in the same way the non-denominational church down the road did it. This second way of using context might also involve knowing preferred practices of a group of people or congregation and determining that those preferences will drive the practices of the congregation. This second way might recoil at the idea of liturgical worship being used in the Northwest United States, where the dominant culture nearly universally rejects anything that smacks of formality and conformity. This second way of using context to determine church practice is about making the church to be like and palatable to the surrounding culture.

So the question that a Christian congregation and Christian pastors ought to ask themselves is what they intend to do with their knowledge of their context. Context can be helpful in determining what idolatries and false gospels might disturb the flock of God, and what practices may reinforce the truth of the Gospel. On the other hand, context ought never be used as an excuse for poor practice or as a reason to make friendship with the world.


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  1. May 30th, 2014 at 15:00 | #1

    What!? you mean you don’t want to make your Lutheran church look more like the American evangelicalism mess surrounding you??? I’m shocked! Shocked, I tell you!

    Next thing you’re gonna say is that you actually USE that Book of Concord in your theological reasoning.

    :D

  2. helen
    May 30th, 2014 at 15:24 | #2

    @J. Dean #1

    Worse! He might be offering BOC classes to his parishioners! Lutherans would know how their church came to be and why. Perish the thought!

  3. Randy
    May 30th, 2014 at 16:51 | #3

    @J. Dean #1

    You have to be careful to use the proper context when you use the word “USE.” My former CoWo church “USED” the BoC as a dusty bookend to keep Rick Warren’s Purpose Drivel series upright on the bookshelf for easy reference. :-)

    Rev. Hinton,

    Great article and analysis of what we see daily in all parts of the country. On a separate note, as one who was born and raised in New Mexico, I like the hat! That is, unless you’re using the hat in a different context to reach out to the C&W crowd……I can already hear the country praise songs – “Amarillo by Matins,” “I’ve Got Friends in Low Graces,” and “Take This Sin and Shove It.”
    ;-)

  4. June 8th, 2014 at 19:54 | #4

    The Church’s context is always between our Lord’s ascent and sending of the Spirit and His glorious Appearing. The Christian’s context is always between baptism and baptism’s fulfillment in death and resurrection. The society’s context is always self-justification (and so pride) and faith in human ability and power to somehow fix what can never fixed in a world that killed its only true Life. The individual’s context is the fatal bend in on one’s self that makes us blind to others and above all to God and His gifts. That’s what I think of when I think of context.

  5. Tim Schenks
    June 9th, 2014 at 00:21 | #5

    We’re studying the Large Catechism for Sunday morning Adult Bible class in my congregation. And we’re using the Bente/Dau (Triglotta) edition, the one that’s supposed to be too difficult for laymen to understand. I guess that could be pride too.

  6. helen
    June 9th, 2014 at 08:28 | #6

    @Tim Schenks #5
    And we’re using the Bente/Dau (Triglotta) edition, the one that’s supposed to be too difficult for laymen to understand. I guess that could be pride too.

    Assuming that “laymen can’t understand it” is either clerical conceit or the excuse of a lazy teacher. To help us “understand it” we call pastors. I had Bente/Dau in college; I still have it…. (to check up on PTM). ;)

    I am glad that your class is getting instruction!

  7. Tim Schenks
    June 9th, 2014 at 11:09 | #7

    helen :@Tim Schenks #5 And we’re using the Bente/Dau (Triglotta) edition, the one that’s supposed to be too difficult for laymen to understand. I guess that could be pride too.
    Assuming that “laymen can’t understand it” is either clerical conceit or the excuse of a lazy teacher. To help us “understand it” we call pastors. I had Bente/Dau in college; I still have it…. (to check up on PTM).
    I am glad that your class is getting instruction!

    That was the entire reason that the Bente/Dau text was dumbed down into the “Reader’s Edition.” The publisher stated that the English portion of the Triglotta was too difficult to read.

  8. helen
    June 9th, 2014 at 12:33 | #8

    @Tim Schenks #7
    The publisher stated that the English portion of the Triglotta was too difficult to read.

    Then I’ll opt for “clerical conceit”. :) :)

    [But it sold a lot of books!] ;)

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