Contextualization as Finding Meaning

One of the statements given in missions is that contextualization or incarnational ministry is about “walking in another person’s shoes.” Clearly, this is a metaphor, but a metaphor that I think has value to us.

But how does one know that one is walking in “another’s shoes” or whether one is imagining the other of walking in “one’s own shoes”?

I think a bit of an answer exists in Pastoral Counseling. A principle in PC can be described as a formula:

Facts + Feelings = Meaning

I will use an example that I use is the book that my wife and I wrote (The Art of Pastoral Care), but I will do it as two different conversations… between Tom and Susan.

Conversation #1.

Tom: “Hi Susan. What is new?”

Susan: “Hey Tom. Well, my next door neighbor just died last night.”

Tom: “Oh my, Susan. I am so sorry to hear that. What can I do to help you? Please let me know what I can do to help you.”

Susan: “Uhh… no. That is not necessary. What’s new with you?”

Conversation #2.

Tom: “Hi Susan. What is new?”

Susan: “Hey Tom. Well, my next door neighbor just died last night.”

Tom: “Oh my, Susan. I had not heard. How are you feeling right now.”

Before finishing Conversation #2… we have to consider some of the possible responses from Susan.

Conversation #2— Feelings Options

Susan (A): “I am so angry. He threw away his life leaving his wife and two children.”

Susan (B): “I don’t feel much of anything. I hardly knew him.”

Susan (C): “I am devastated. He was like a father to me.”

Susan (D): “I am thrilled. He was such an evil man. I am glad he is gone.”

Each of these feelings give the first statement (death of the neighbor) greater clarity. Up until that point it was only a fact. Once the feeling is known, the meaning of that event for Susan is known. And, typically, once the feeling is known, this opens up the conversation for more facts that give the meaning context.

Obviously for conversation #2, Tom would need to respond differently depending on the feeling response of Susan. Suppose, for example, that the statement was option D: “I am thrilled. He was such an evil man. I am glad he was gone.”

Now, Tom must look at how to respond to this.

One option would be to reject those feelings and say something like, “Susan! You shouldn’t feel that way. That’s not very Christian…”

Another option would be to accept those feelings and seek to understand more the context. He could seek to (gently) draw out more from Susan regarding the relationship between her and the neighbor.

Conversation #1 is not contextualization. Tom does not try to “walk in her shoes.” Rather, the response could be one of two things. First, it could be a failure to understand her context. Tom could be thinking, “Well, I am pretty sure I should say something soothing because that is what people do when a person dies.” However, worse, a second option could be trying to “get her to walk in his shoes.” Perhaps, he had a neighbor who died who he was very close to. In essence, he is saying to her, “Your neighbor died so you must feel the same way I did when my neighbor died.” Both of these are a failure to contextualize.

Conversation #2 is an attempt to contextualize. Tom seeks to gain meaning as to what is going on rather than simply go with facts. That is good, but one can still fail. As I showed in one of the options after finding out the meaning that Susan gave, Tom judged her and said that she (as a good Christian) shouldn’t feel that way. While this MAY (or MAY NOT) be true, Tom is not really in a position to judge. He doesn’t know enough about the neighbor and his interactions with Susan to speak. He needs to gain a greater understanding. If he fully knew the situation, he may well have said, “Wow Susan. I am so sorry to hear that. If I was in your shoes I would be happy he is dead as well.” Of course, we don’t know because we still don’t know the context.

So what does this have to do with missional contextualization? In missions we need to know more than facts (observations and data). We need to know meanings. If someone says something or does something, if we don’t understand the meanings behind these what happens? Well, we supply our own meanings. In other words we think something like “If I did that, what would I be thinking and feeling in that situation.” That is not being incarnational or attempting to contextualize. That is trying to get them to walk in our own shoes.

However, once we find the meaning, we still need to delve deeper. We cannot simply go… “Okay, I understand the situation fully now. Now I can judge.”

The classic case of this that people use is the practice of ancestor veneration. We see a place in the house with pictures of ancestors, with incense and fruit and things. As an outsider, we might look at that and say, “If I had something like that in my house it would either be because I am worshiping” (like a household god) “or have an unhealthy obsession” (like stalkers who set up a “shrine” to whoever they obsess over). Either way one must talk to the person with this ancestor “shrine” to find out what it means. Is it a place of worship— drawing out feelings of religious adoration and awe? Is it a place of entreaty (seeking help from a family member, even though deceased)? Is it a place of honoring (like flowers placed at a gravesite? Is it a place of carrying out a family tradition, with little meaning beyond doing one’s cultural duty?

The truth is that even after one discovers what it means to a person, one is likely still not in a position to judge. As I have said in previous posts, when Jesus said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” I think it is more than simply a warning about being judgmental. I believe it is also pointing out that we lack competence to judge. We don’t get to “peek over God’s shoulder” (as Merold Westphal would say).

Incarnational ministry involves an active continual quest for meaning that searches beyond facts to feelings to meanings, and then from meanings to more facts that must be tied to feelings to new meanings.

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