Despite my recent warning on the dangers of book-writing, I have been published in at least one book.  Last year after much diligence and perseverance by editor, Rev. Neal Presa a collective group of pastors had their words and reflections published by Broadmind Press.  Basically this was a book that had young’ish clergy write about topic and then were responded to by more seasoned clergy folk. 

I wrote two chapters, one on context and the other on conflict.  My responder was Craig Barnes.  You can find out more about the book and writing process on my post about the book, Insights from the Underground: An Intergenerational Conversation of Ministers.

Below is my chapter on context in the 21st century.

WARNING – This was pre-edited by the good folks who do those kinds of things.

Location, Location, Location:
Ministry and Living in the 21st Century

Is context REALLY everything?  This is the ultimate Postmodern 21st Century question that many of our congregations have been struggling with as of late.  The Postmodern debate over the importance of context, one that frames ministry around a community’s particular worldview, life experiences and commonalities, is a question that I too wrestle with daily.  As a pastor of one of those funky new “Postmodern” and “Emergent” congregations, I have come to the realization that for one to pastor/lead/influence a vital, thriving church community today, one MUST understand and embrace the context in which one serves.

First, as appropriate, let me set my own context, AKA “the Postmodern disclaimer” both in my approach to ministry and my specific context.

About me: As I muse on the concept of context I am only speaking from my own context and experience.  This is not a cop-out as some would like to think, but shared with the knowledge that others may find places where we are similar as well as areas that we are clearly different.  I operate with the understanding that there are no “one size fits all” answers, but by the sharing and reflecting upon one another’s experiences we will each be helped in our personal discernment of what God hopes for each of us. Also, while I am trying to disguise (thinly disguised, I know.) myself as a deep thinking, theologically profound advocate of grace-filled transformation; I am really just a practitioner trying to find a way to be a faithful servant of God in a world that seems increasingly chaotic and down right crazy.

About the church:  I currently serve as the pastor of a New Church Development in San Francisco intentionally focused on the lives of the new “Urbanites” of the City.  We have been around for about five years and have experienced the both extravagances and excitement of the dot.com boom as well as the struggles and despair of the Dot.com bust.  We are extremely transient, turning over at least two or three times over our young life.  We have met in seven locations from churches, to homes to cafes.  We are socio-economically middle to upper-middle class, about 40% White, 40% Asian American and 20% other, educated and slightly left of center theologically and politically.  We could be described by any and all of the latest terminology for this community, “Postmodern,”  “Emergent,” “BoBo,” “Cultural Creative,” etc.  We are about 60 100 or so on Sundays with all but about 4 10 folks under 40.  Services are filled with an urban jazz musicality fully embracing an emergent and reformed form of worship.  The common bond is a yearning to be connected to God in a way that is meaningful and relevant in a world of chaos, which is opposed to such a community.

As I think about the importance of context, I have begun to appreciate context in a way that I would not have thought before.  I was raised in a church that always worked against the, “Sunday is the most segregated day in the US” reality.  This posture always raised great tensions for me as I was also raised in a denomination that valued gathering in ethic ethnic congregations.  The larger progressive church, of which I am part, has always seemed to have this schizophrenic posture of both wanting to be “multicultural” while supporting affinity-based congregations (age, ethnicity, etc.) for the furthering of the Gospel.  I know there is an inherent and justified fear of becoming exclusive, but as I have been serving a rather homogenous community, I would ask the question, “Is homogeny always bad?”

My first response would be, surely the “H” word can’t be good.  And yes, while taken to an extreme and used as a tool for exclusion, it is bad, wrong, ugly, etc., but when healthy, I believe the realities of a “Healthy Homogeny” can actually help us to create stronger local congregations and in turn a stronger larger church.   Hasn’t this been the point of ethic-based congregations all along, understand context, build around affinity and strengthen the larger church?

When it comes to building up the larger church, I think we can learn a great deal from this ethic-based congregational methodology, but I also believe we should push this question out a little further beyond ethic-based congregations.  I think that in today’s culture, if our churches are going to, not just survive, but thrive we must work towards understanding our context so we can reach the point of having what I would call a “Healthy Homogeny.”

First, let me set my parameters and some assumptions that I am making as I propose this idea of a “Healthy Homogeny.”

  • I am only talking about the local congregation.  Sure the larger church has its own forms of homogeny, but it is the larger gathering of these smaller communities that creates a fuller image of creation.  Just as ethnic-based congregations create a fuller picture of the Kingdom of God, congregations of like theology, age, style, setting, etc. can do the same.
  • I am talking about homogeny beyond just racial homogeny.   I would also say there can be a healthy homogeny around socioeconomics, class, age, church experience, life situation, theological perspective, family structure, etc.  In many ways, ethnic homogeny is easier to differentiate; it is visible in the faces, food, practice, etc.  Other types of homogeny may not be as easily identified. 
  • I am taking seriously the reality that many have been excluded from the church, but yearn for a place to connect with God.  The reality is that some groups of people have been left out of the embrace of the church and a community built around a healthy homogeny has great potential to be a place for more folks to experience the transformative life in Christ.

With these assumptions in mind, here is what I think characterizes a congregation that understands its context well enough to develop a “Healthy Homogeny.”

  • It understands Homogeny as natural part of being community. One of the biggest mistakes that the church has done is to fight against the natural inclination for human beings to gather with like human beings.  Whether it is age, gender, class, theology, etc. there is comfort when people can gather with and share “unspoken” stories.  Often these stories are around shared experiences of pain and exclusion with healing needing to happen with others who have had similar experiences.  We can try to deny it as much as we want, but EVERY church is gathered around some kind of homogeny; acknowledged or not.  While there are certainly dangers of a homogenous community, when congregational homogeny provides a safe place to be challenged and transformed this is homogeny at is most natural and at its best.
  • It understands it’s Homogeny, both in it’s joys as well as it’s pitfalls. While a natural part of the human condition, homogeny can easily turn a community to a posture of exclusion rather than embrace.  The greatest danger of homogeny is to see that homogeny as the god that is worshiped and served rather than a commonality that draws people together to worship and serve God.  If a congregation understands this real danger, it will be able to make intentional choices in it’s life that focus around celebrating it’s owned commonalities rather than focusing on who does not belong.  It is a fine and subtle line, but one that ethnic churches have lived out for generations.  Congregations have and can lift up commonalities without inherently being exclusive. 
  • It intentionally finds ways to move outside of its particular homogeny.  If a congregation is going to be part of the larger kingdom and avoid becoming insular and irrelevant, it must be intentional about experiencing life and ministry outside of it’s inherent comfort zones.  A congregation that understands this will use the security that their congregation brings to give it’s folks the courage to step out of the norm and see their place in the larger church and Kingdom.  Homogeny is not the goal, but a valid gathering point and place of rejuvenation from which we are sent into the world.
  • It embraces it’s Homogeny in a way that allows folks to connect with the complexities of Christ: the comfort, the challenge and mystery.  This for me is the most important trait of a Healthy Homogeny in that it takes seriously how people connect with God and how God may be active in their lives.  In this respect a Healthy Homogeny provides a situation ripe for folks to experience at least three things:
  1. Comfort of God: In the context where I serve, the folks who are part of this community have been intentionally and unintentionally excluded by the church for years.   Without any kind of meaningful relationship with the church, many of these folks have felt greatly misunderstood and chastised for their actions, politics, spirituality, etc.  Be it through the subtleties of style, structure, technology or dogma, many have felt abandoned and ignored by the church.  And yet despite all this, they still yearn for some connection to God through the church.  These are folks who have moved from thinking that they can be Christian in isolation to committing to being part of a community grounded together in Christ.  Our homogeny provides a foundation of love and security that makes room for the challenges that a life in Christ can bring.
  2. Challenges of Christ: A Healthy Homogeny does not mean coddling or the creation of a “everybody be happy” social club.  It is in fact quite the opposite; the comfort that is created simply is a means to remind folks that in the midst of great transformation, God is and will always be present.  In my context, there is great challenge around economic and class issues as well as personal relationships.  Folks are constantly being challenged about how they use their wealth, power and privilege.   They are also challenged on personal relationships and how we interact with the “other” in our midst.  By knowing that certain parts of their life and journey are understood and embraced, they are more willing and able to be open to the possibility of transformation in other parts of the their life.
  3. Mystery of the Faith: As a pastor of a church that understands it’s homogeny I am freed up to help folks experience the mysteries of God in both specific and general ways.  Whether it be knowing the capacity for people to experience worship through multiple media experiences to embracing healthy ways of electronic communication to build community, I understand where folks are coming from can be a more effective guide on their spiritual walk.

To get back to the original question, “Is context REALLY everything?” I obviously think it is important, but everything it is not.  Just as any part of one’s ministry can be lifted up to the point of “idol,” understanding context is not the be-all and end-all of ministry.  The “everything” for me comes in the goal of creating communities where people can experience Christ in all the wonderful and challenging ways that God has made possible.  In the movement towards that end, while not everything, context is pretty important.

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