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Contextual Intelligence could well Determine the Western Church's Future

Contextual Intelligence could well Determine the Western Church's Future

By David W. Virtue, DD
January 23, 2024

First, we had IQ, then we learned about EQ (emotional intelligence). Two years ago, a book came out with the title: Contextual Intelligence (CQ) unlocking the ancient secret to mission on the front lines by Leonard Sweet & Michael Adam Beck. Contextual intelligence is the ability to accurately diagnose a context and make the correct decisions regarding what to do.

I read the book, skeptical, but open to new possibilities in mission. Traditional methodologies of mission are clearly not working and conventional missionary methods are not transferable.

Generations X, Y and Z are dropping out of the church like flies. Forty million Americans have officially dechurched, with Nones, people without religious faith, on the rise. Christianity is in broad decline across the nation.

According to Barna and Pew, 50% of Trump's evangelical followers attend church only once or twice a year, hardly a recipe for commitment.

Image is replacing the written word. Tik Tok has millions of followers. Facebook, Meta, WhatsApp, X formerly Twitter, dominates social media. We are a nation of voyeurs. Bible reading is down, ignorance of Scripture is up, Biblical literacy has reached a crisis point.

Few if anybody have a plan, knowledge or understanding of how to reach the vast unsaved in America, even those who think they are saved. Crusades are a thing of the past. It's a failed paradigm. Someone should tell Franklin Graham. Francis Schaeffer once said that the Great Generation knew their Bibles and believed the Gospel, the next generation attended church, but did not have the same commitment to Scripture; the next

generation had only a memory of the faith, or words to that effect. Generation Z has lost even that memory. This is where we are today.

Schaeffer also said that if you don't fight the battle where the battle is being fought you will beat the air with your words. I believe he is right. Tim Keller managed to get it right in darkest Manhattan.

In their book, the two authors make the case that to win the hearts and souls of contemporary men and women we need contextual intelligence.

We must, as much as we are able, understand and own the culture in which we live, and talk the language they talk in order to reach them with the gospel.

Our present rigid church services are not attracting anybody. Intoning printed prayers and liturgies is not igniting unbelief. It stabilizes and reinforces the faithful but does little else. Church shopping has a sameness to it. It is no longer just liberal vs evangelical; it goes deeper than that. Mainline church services are drying up faster than the Colorado River. Mega churches are largely entertainment centers with a gospel gloss. There is no commitment to discipleship. Prosperity gospel is no gospel at all. A Health and wealth gospel is fiction. Stained glass windows are not cutting it.

So, what does contextual intelligence evangelism look like? Vincent Donovan an RC missionary to the Masai wrote this; "An evangelist, a missionary must respect the culture of a people, not destroy it. The incarnation of the gospel, the flesh and blood which must grow on the gospel is up to the people of a culture..."

Two Harvard researchers studying 1000 most influential business leaders of the 20th century found while there was great variety in traits, such as charismatic personalities, analytic intelligence, creativity and low risk aversion, the ONLY commonality that tied them together was the application of their unique set of strengths within differing contextual settings.

The church is filled with clergy who do well what they were trained and programmed to do in seminary. Yet they are ill prepared to pay attention to their context or to integrate into the visualization of the future the massive changes taking place in their context and community, say the authors.

As a result, the fastest-growing segment of the population are nones and dones -- those who say they have no religious affiliation or those who say "been there, done that, no more." Jesus expects contextually intelligent disciples today. "You know how to read the signs of the sky; you must learn how to read the signs of the times." (Mt 16:3).

Further, developing a high CQ is more an art than a science. Art requires us to employ the focus of attention in different ways and degrees. Contextual intelligence is less about crunching the data (infographics, demographics, and psychographics) about a context and more about immersion in, and relationships with the people, in that context.

A gospel that is not contextualized is not faithful to the gospel. A church that is not a contextualized expression of its community is not faithful to the gospel.

I would like to offer two examples that I have seen. They are not perfect; but what is.

The first is what I saw and observed on a recent trip to the Muslim dominated countries of Kurdistan and Central Asia.

With the cultural context mind, Western missionaries present the gospel of the Kingdom to Muslim men and women in casual settings. No church buildings, no clergy. No preaching. A simple home cooked meal and talk about Jesus, who He is and why He came into the world. No arguments about the demerits or fallacies of Islam. Keep it focused...on Jesus Christ as King, Savior, and Lord.

Mark's gospel is opened. The gospel of the Kingdom...Jesus came preaching it. The penny drops. The Bible comes alive, one or two converts are made. There is rejoicing. Training follows, but it is all contextual. No attempt to change or challenge the culture. The question is how to make and bring the gospel of the kingdom to people who are disillusioned with Islam and atheism.

It is time for the western missionaries to sit back and let the new converts find and discern it for themselves and run with the ball. Scripture is opened and interpreted. Westerners must learn and listen, and not talk so much. The scriptures in the hands of new converts are powerful. That we know to be historically true. Luther would understand. The new converts talk to family and friends and soon a core of believers is formed. The fire of the gospel spreads. They evangelize and disciple their neighbors and before anyone knows it, converts are born and house churches spread like wildfire across the Middle East.

A second example. This time in the US. A young Hispanic Methodist pastor runs afoul of his denomination. He is run out by a small church because he is an embarrassment to old school Methodists who don't want change, even as they wither and die. An endowment keeps the church afloat.

I pick him up and suggest he start over, but on terms that he relates to the town and people he lives in. The truth is I don't really have a plan, I am winging it. But he agrees. With a small rump group from the original church, a parishioner offers us the ground floor of his private home. The first Sunday we sat on a dozen Walmart chairs. I build a crude cross from a fallen tree held together with a three-dollar ball of twine. Probably the cheapest cross in modern history.

We are off to the races. Unshackled by the immediate past church experience, we were free to experiment. I encourage Charles to step out in faith. He goes to a local coffee shop and talks to people. He listens to their stories. The church stumbles along but the core of 10 is strong and committed. Money is tight, but he gets a job as a teacher's aide and his wife gets a job as a short order chef.

We begin to grow as people hear about a church that is different. At this point in time, we don't even have a name. Later we would call ourselves Barryville Community Church - a church in renewal. Charles's sermons began to reflect their lives and Jesus is presented as the answer to life's deepest questions about meaning and purpose. One by one the word spreads, people wander in...single, married with children, some happy some unhappy. Messy lives are the norm. There is no judgment, just the fire of God's love for the lost. No judgment, no self-righteousness, no hell-fire sermons, but an invitation to see and experience God's love. People are hungry for connection. If loneliness is the biggest social problem in America, we were going to be the solution in our small corner of the world.

In nearby hamlets all the churches are dying. In Port Jervis down the road the massive RCC has closed. The eerie cathedral like structure is empty. The Protestant churches are all on life support. They'll soon be gone. A single Pentecostal church draws in young people with vibrant singing but I have no idea the quality of preaching.

In our small but growing church, people find Jesus as Jesus finds them. Several ask for baptism. A nearby restaurant offers us a large room to baptize. Invitations go out. 50 show up. The pastor starts new ministries with unlikely names as Holy Hoops for basketball players, women's groups, men's groups, AA is invited to share our space. A Wednesday night dinner and Bible study initially draws 4, is now up to ten. We talk and share stories for an hour. People feel connected. A young Hispanic couple were ready to leave town because they felt unloved. Now they will stay. We eat, pray, and then we study the scriptures together. The local deli/market closes but a coffee shop opens over the road. Charles goes in and talks to people. He listens to their stories, connections are made. Word of mouth brings in more.

It is slow, steady, often thankless work. Charles focuses on youth. Forty percent of the church is under 12. He forms them into a choir. They go and sing at a women's rehab center. The women love it. One or two indicate they might come to church. We begin to grow one person at a time. Charles Perez is exhibiting all the traits of contextual, cultural intelligence.

A business owner in the heart of Barryville offers us the main floor of his rental home for our growing church for $400.00 a month. We jump at it. The second floor of his home is electronic heaven. Charles asks if we can do podcasts. The answer is yes. Charles builds an interactive website. We are connected to Facebook, META, WhatsApp, Tik Tok. The word is getting out. We now have a steady 30 coming on a regular basis. Growth is in the air. We eat together as often as possible. Food unites, arguments separate. No political talk. It is verboten. In our mentoring time together Charles and I read J. C. Ryles book, Holiness, all the great themes of scripture are explored. His preaching explodes.

Everybody is connected to everybody and all must find their calling to minister. No pewsitters. If someone doesn't come to church or Bible study the call goes out. If a visit is necessary it is done by one of the team. Every member is a priest with a calling. No exceptions.

[FACTOID. The average American church pastor sees only one third average Sunday attendance based on membership. If you have a church of 100, about 35 will show. If there are enough checks in the plate, the pastor doesn't care.]

The Holy Spirit is not focused on creating a "Christian culture." The Holy Spirit is focused on bringing Christ to life and being a transfiguring presence within every culture.

"We simply plant the seed of the gospel and let it grow wild in native ways," say the authors.


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