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Context is King

Context is King


My hermeneutics professors in Seminary repeated this as mantra as we would study different passages in the Bible. "Context is King," they would say, meaning the immediate paragraph, chapter and book would first determine the meaning of a word or phrase, long before a completely separate passage would.

What does context have to do with church planting? It has everything to do with it. When missionaries go out to different countries they learn the culture, the mannerisms, and the language. All of these can be summed up in one word: context. When we go plant churches, we cannot ignore the context that we plant in. The context of the city will look very different from the context of a small town. A suburban context has different cultural factors than a rural context. Even different neighborhoods hold different contexts than other neighborhoods in a city because of the demographic diversity that resides in them. Logan Square, for instance, is roughly 44% Hispanic, while West Town is about 77% White. These demographics will help shape the church that is planted there.

Hard data, like demographics, is great and essential to getting to know the context, but how, as the church, do we learn the language, the values, the hopes and dreams of those we want to reach? Or is it safe to assume that as Americans we all hold the same values? I don't only believe that it is unsafe, but would be damaging to do so. We must go into our context, Logan Square, for us with the posture to learn from the people that are there. If we don't, not only will we be seen as arrogant, we will not reach people for Christ there. We must learn to contextualize. So how do we do this?

Tim Keller, in his Redeemer Church Planting Manual, says we must be doing ethnographic research as well as demographic research. To do this, we must talk to people–not just do research on the internet. While demographics answers the "Who lives there?" question, ethnographics answers the "What are they like?" question. Keller gives several questions to ask people in order to get to know the people in your context: 

  • What brought you to [this place] and how do you like living here?
  • What are the dreams for your family?
  • What kind of church does [this place] need? What would it look like?
  • If you could ask God one thing, what would it be?
  • What's the toughest thing for you when you consider faith and spiritual things?
  • What are people's hopes, aspirations and pleasures?
  • What are people's greatest fears and problems?
  • How could a new church serve your needs?
  • How do people spend their free time? What do they do for fun?*
  • How is this neighborhood unique from others near it?*
  • Who is Jesus and what is his significance to you?*

It's only through personal interactions with those who live, work and play in the neighborhood, do we get to know how to speak the heart-language of those who live, work and play there. We do this research because it gives us a vision for the neighborhood and people who live there; it reinforces the conviction that you and the gospel are needed by the city and its people; and it removes our blindness and gives us the conviction that we need this city and people to teach us much.

And finally, in praying through the answers to these questions, we seek to have God's eyes for community to which we are called. Our goal is to love the city as God loves it, to recognize its brokenness and sin, and see how the Gospel heals and brings hope to the people who live there.

Stacey and I are headed up for a quick visit to Logan Square this weekend. We want to continually get to know our context and pray for it and learn from it. Please pray with us. Pray that God would give us a vision and hope for the neighborhood. Pray that we would be humble and learn from those there. Pray that would we be bold in asking these questions and truly hearing their answers.

*These questions I got from Dan Breed's Fox Cities Church Plant Project.

Dual Citizens, Pt. 7

Dual Citizens

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6


I have tried to show in this paper that we need not a new way to think about the Church’s interaction with society, but a different one. Niebuhr’s typology no longer serves us adequately, because it is based in Christendom. First Peter, however, shows us that we live with a dual citizenship. We are both elect and exiled. We have an eschatological hope that is effected now in the communities in which we live outside of church walls. Our hope has public ramifications. I want to end with a final picture.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns us to be salt. He says, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.”[1] This is the clearest picture to me. In my apartment, I have a ramekin filled with salt on my counter. It is always sitting there, ready so I can grab it when I need to season my food. I make sure it is always full. But with it sitting on the counter, it has no usefulness to me. It is only once I put it in what I am cooking when it becomes useful. As it dissolves in the boiling water or clings to the leaves of my salad, it becomes unperceivable to my eye, but it has a profound effect in the food that I eat. Since I began properly seasoning my food, I can immediately tell when something I eat is not properly seasoned. It lacks flavor and is not as dynamic as it could be.

It is the same for us as Christians. If we are not in and amongst society, we are not useful. We can no longer stay within our church walls, but we need to be in our communities living out our eschatological hope for the good of the city.


Achtemeier, Paul J. 1 Peter. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

De Neui, Paul. “Christian Communitas in the Missio Dei: Living Faithfully in the Tension Between Cultural Osmosis and Alienation.” Ex Auditu 23 (2007).

Legrand, Lucien. The Bible on Culture. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004.

McKnight, Scott. 1 Peter. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Metzger, Paul. “Christ, Culture and the Sermon on the Mount Community.” Ex Auditu 23 (2007).

Michaels, J. Ramsey. 1 Peter. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco: Word Books, 1988.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper & Row, 1956.

Volf, Miroslav. “Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter,” Ex Auditu 10 (1994): 16-27.

Winter, Bruce W. Seek the Welfare of the City. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.

[1] Matthew 5:13.

Dual Citizens, Pt. 6

Dual Citizens

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Part 6

What Peter does not call the believers to is separation. Throughout 1 Peter, he is calling them to a different style of living—one that does not move them out of society, but that changes the way in which they move through society. In 5:8, Peter explains that it is the devil who is our adversary and he is to be resisted, not society. Evil is not some impenetrable force outside the walls of the Church, but is personified in the devil as a lion that prowls around looking for someone to devour. Further, the believers are equally admonished to resist the desires of their own flesh. Ernst Troeltsch stated that, throughout history, believers typically operate in one of three ways: as a church, a sect, or a mystic.[1] He argues that the church operates out of grace, while a sect operates out of law. The church affirms the world, while a sect separates from it. He’s arguing that believing the Gospel has social implications.[2] On the basis of his thesis, not wanting to define the church as Troeltsch does, Miroslav Volf calls it a “soft difference.” Speaking of the Church, he writes:

It looked as if she did not forge her identity through rejection of her social environment, but through the acceptance of God's gift of salvation and its values. She refused to operate within the alternative “affirmation of the world” versus “denial of the world,” but surprised people with strange combinations of difference and acculturation. She was sure of her mission to proclaim the mighty deeds of God for the salvation of the world, but refused to use either pressure or manipulation. Rather, she lived fearlessly her soft difference. She was not surprised by the various reactions of individuals and communities among whom she lived because she was aware of the bewildering complexity of social worlds in which values are partly the same, partly different, sometimes complementary, and sometimes contradictory. And so it gradually became clear that the child who was born again through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead into a living hope was not a sect at all. The unusual child who looked like a sect, but did not act like a sect, was a Christian community….[3]

A soft difference does not fully reject the culture around them, nor does it fully embrace it. Rather it is a difference that is lived out without fear of others living out their lives and a trust in the God that has elected them to their eschatological hope. Volf continues, “For people who live the soft difference, mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation. They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even ‘without a word’ (3:1).”[4]

Volf brings up another key observation about the Christians in 1 Peter—they are to be a community. This may not be as shocking to us as it should be. We all affirm that the Church is made up of many people from all social strata—whether locally or globally. Throughout 1 Peter, he addresses them with the second person plural u`mw/n. Peter never addresses them as individuals, but corporately. Their lives are bound to one another in their election. Their conduct is not an individual one, but one that is thoroughly communal.

So what does all this mean for us living at the end of Christendom? First Peter teaches us that we need to change our model of Church. Practically, though, what does this mean? It means we need to inform the people who they are in Christ, what that means and how that affects their life. Simply put: preach the Gospel. Too many churches are caught up in getting people in the door with snazzy sermon topics and programs that they neglect the message of redemption found in the person of Jesus Christ. Peter preached in such a way as to affect his readers’ identity. He called them elect and exiles not to entertain them, but to teach them who they have become in Christ. We must preach the new identity our congregations have in Christ. Further, we need to move away from programs that keep people inside the walls of the Church. The Church is not programmatic or structural, it is people. Grace Chicago, the church that I am apart of, purposely does not fill its members’ schedules with church-bound activities, so that they can live their hope out in their communities.

Living in the communities also means seeking the good of them. This is what Jeremiah 29:4-7 instructs. Peter uses another word: blessing.[5] Desire and work for community improvements. Desire that others have adequate housing, schools, social support. I hesitate to give specific examples, because of the variety of communities that abound. But let it suffice to say that whatever you desire for yourself and your family, should also be desired for others.

[1] The mystic category, not being a part of the discussion, will be left untouched.

[2] Volf, 15, 16.

[3] Volf, 27.

[4] Volf, 24.

[5] 1 Peter 3:9.

Dual Citizens, Pt. 5

Dual Citizens

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Part 5

So Peter defines the believers both by who they are eschatologically (elect) and by who they are geographically (exiles, Diaspora). They have a dual citizenship. The writer of the second century epistle to Diognetus writes, “They reside in their respective countries, but only as aliens they take part in everything as citizens and put up with everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their home and every home a foreign land. They find themselves in the flesh, but do not live according to the flesh.”[1] This dual citizenship enabled them to live out a social ethic, on account of their eschatological hope.[2] The “now/not yet” is bound up in having a foot firmly planted in both kingdoms. The question arises “how then are they supposed to live?”

Peter has an answer for this in 2:11-12. “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Again, Peter gives a two-fold command: Be holy and live publicly.

The believer’s holiness is based on their Father’s holiness.[3] It is because of God calling them holy that they are to conduct themselves in such a manner. Their minds are to be ready, sober-minded, focused on their hope that they have in Christ, no longer living in the “former passions of their ignorance.”[4] Unlike Paul, who urges his readers to abstain from vast lists of conduct,[5] the closest Peter gets to explicitly stating what these passions are is in 4:3, “living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties and lawless idolatry.” These six prohibitions have public contexts. The Greek word avse,lgeia, here translated “sensuality” refers to a lack of self-constraint which leads to participation with socially unacceptable behavior. Passions, evpiqumi,a, refers to sexual cravings, or lusting. “Drunkenness” refers to individual instances of being drunk, while “orgies” and “drinking parties” refer to public excess done in an organized manner.[6] “Idolatry,” the worship of images, was at the center of 1st Century life. Peter knowingly prohibits behavior that is going to be effected in the public sphere while, at the same time, instructing them to live publicly.

In 2:12, Peter instructs them to keep their conduct honorable amongst the Gentiles. Their lives, which are characterized by an eschatological hope that is effected in their conduct, are going to be on display for those they live among. These are lives that are lived out as a reflection of the grace which they have received from God. Further, in 4:4, Peter tells them that the Gentiles are going to be surprised at their different conduct, which, according to 2:12, will cause them to glorify God when he comes. Living honorably is living “good” or “useful.”[7] In other words, it contributes to the rest of society. These good works, carried out in the public sphere, are done because of their hope that they have in God and in turn display what God has done in their lives by calling them out of the darkness in which they once lived and into a living hope.[8] By not repaying evil for evil, reviling for reviling, but instead blessing, acting out of the unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart and a humble mind, they will be noticed.[9]

[1] Epistle to Diognetus V. 5, 8, quoted in Bruce W. Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 12.

[2] Ibid., 19.

[3] 1 Peter 1:15, 16.

[4] 1 Peter 1:13, 14.

[5] For examples of Paul’s lists, see Ephesians 4:25-5:5; Colossians 3:5-11.

[6] BDAG.

[7] BDAG.

[8] Winter, 20.

[9] 1 Peter 3:8, 9.

Dual Citizens, Pt. 4

Dual Citizens

Part 2
Part 3

Part 4

First Peter, more than any other epistle, speaks of the relation between the Church and society.[1] Peter, rather than giving a five-fold tool for evaluating the interaction the believers have between themselves and society, understands the tension that new believers have between their old way of life and their new. Peter teaches the first century believers that a proper understanding of who they are in Christ will give them a proper understanding of how they are to conduct themselves in society.

From the outset of the letter, Peter is forming the believer’s identity. He addresses them as the “elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and the sprinkling with his blood.”[2] Already he is establishing their identity both in who they are in God and by their social status.[3] Peter’s first label for them is “elect.” The Greek word evklekto,j is a term that refers to an action performed by God. This is a fairly common designation for New Testament Christians, not only carrying the weight of their election in God, but it also refers to “their present historical existence and their final vindication;”[4] both are actions that are performed by God. Their identity is not contained only in who they are now, but who God has called them to be from eternity with an eschatological focus. They not only exist in their present situation, but have an eschatological designation awaiting them. This allows Peter their second labeling: “exiles.” Because they have been elected by God, they are now “strangers” or “exiles.” The Greek parepi,dhmoj refers to temporary residence in a foreign land.[5] In the first verse of his epistle, Peter is trying to stress to them that this is a temporary home for them. This is not to preclude them from establishing themselves in their communities, but it allows them to be free from partaking in the sin that the world offers.[6] Finally, Peter labels them as the diaspora, “Diaspora.” This, probably more than any other word, is bound up with a Jewish identity, however, commentators generally agree that Peter is writing to Gentile believers.[7] By using terms that would generally be used with Israel, Peter is including the Gentiles in the long history of redemption that God has been working since creation. Peter opens up a great deal of understanding for the way they are then to live.

One such understanding comes from the last time Israel was called “exiles” in Jeremiah 29:4-7. Jeremiah, much in the same way that Peter does, instructs Israel exiled in Babylon how to live. He writes, “‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’” Instead of instructing Israel to stay outside the city walls, as they are wont to do, Jeremiah tells them to move into the city and to put down roots. They have the promise that they will be returned to the land of Israel, but are still instructed to establish themselves. Why? By seeking the welfare of the city and praying for it, they too will benefit from its prosperity. And while this is the answer that the text gives us, I would like to offer another answer.

God is not only concerned for the Israelites, but also for the Babylonians, and therefore the people of “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.”[8] It is at the heart of God to redeem all that he has created.[9] However, if the elect is not living in and amongst those who do not (yet) know God, then they have no witness to who God is and what he had done in other’s lives.[10] Peter emphasizes this further in his epistle: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”[11] The Gentiles,[12] those who are not in Christ, are in the same position that the elect once were. Their task then is found in the preceding verse, “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”[13] Proclaiming carries with it the sense of an audience and I would posit that Peter intends that their audience be the Gentile communities where they live.

[1] Scott McKnight, 1 Peter, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 21. Miroslav Volf, “Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter,” Ex Auditu 10 (1994): 16.

[2] 1 Peter 1:1, 2.

[3] McKnight, 46.

[4] J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary, (Waco: Word Books, 1988), 7.

[5] Ibid.

[6] This becomes a large thrust of what Peter has to say. As we get to 1 Peter 2:11-12, this will become more evident.

[7] Ibid., xlv; McKnight, 24; Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter, Hermeneia, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 80.

[8] 1 Peter 1:1.

[9] Whether he does or not will not be addressed in this paper.

[10] Romans 10:14-17.

[11] 1 Peter 2:10.

[12] Peter refers to those who are not in Christ as Gentiles. See 1 Peter 2:12.

[13] 1 Peter 2:9.