Archive for September, 2013

Contextual Theology

by   |  09.05.13  |  Contextual Theology, Contexual Education, Identity

     While not the first, Stephen Bevan’s Models of Contextual Theology in 1992 mapped the field in a widely used way. Practical theologies relationship with context and the importance of location emerged as a primary conversation partner in the field.
     The contextual nature of ministry should not surprise us. The contextual nature of the gospel is grounded in Jesus dwelling in our midst. The same gospel is embodied differently in Jerusalem than it is in Rome. The rural, middle-Tennessee congregation of my grandparents looks and acts differently than the college town of my midwestern roots. The two places exhibit distinctive issues, personalities, and preferences. While they share much in common (tradition, national origin, language, etc.), no one confuses the two. They are more like second cousins than siblings. On any particular Sunday, the conversations in the foyers are not the same. While both talk about the weather, one worries about the crops, the other the game.
     Recently, a conversation on a cooking show about the various qualities of olive oil caught my attention. The expert suggested not buying products from Italy or Spain but from California. He noted, “Location makes all the difference in the world for your recipes. Currently, California has the best olive oil.” Take for instance wine making. The science of enology estimates that there are more than ten thousand kinds of grapes used to produce various styles of wine. Today only a fraction of those are available on a commercial scale, with over two hundred varieties commonly used. Enologists, viticulturists, and winemakers are versed in how to best grow and season grapes to produce wine with character, elegance, and strength. Winemakers often discuss how terroir denotes the numerous environmental factors (such as region, soil quality, drainage, air temperature, humidity levels, etc.) that effect the flavor qualities of the final product. Terroir can be very loosely translated as “a sense of place,” which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities of the ecosystem, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product. While some large-scale producers blend wines in order to achieve uniformity and consistency year to year, wines defined by their locality celebrate and affirm their terroir. In the movie, All in This Tea, notes that  even the next valley over can change not only the taste but also the marketability of the product. Farming is always contextual.
     Even my own life is contextual. I begin with lived experience (both communal and individual). Where else can a person start? If I begin with one of the theological resources like Scripture, I can only begin with it from my experience of Scripture. I was first introduced to Scripture through the witness of my parents and home church. I went to Bible class on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. Many teachers told me the grand stories of faith. Long before any formal training, I read the text for many hours in private devotion. I passed Bible exams in order to move from fourth to sixth grades. My father is an engineer. My mother is a bookkeeper. I have an undergraduate degree in environmental science. All these experiences shape the way I read texts. Eventually, even my formal training in critical methods was shaped by a tradition rooted in Lockean epistemology and Common Sense Realism. Everyone starts with experience. What other option is there?
     Churches too live in a context. Ministers, by listening, discern what God is calling them to be and do in this place. And from that discernment in location, the people of God have opportunity to partner with God for God’s glory.
–an excerpt from The Effective Practice of Ministry: Essays in Memory of Charles Siburt,
ACU Press, 2013, edited by Tim Sensing.