Working In Context

Before Episode 2 launches tomorrow, I felt like posting some random thoughts on working in context. Be sure to check out Episode 2: Rebranding with Matt Lipan tomorrow!

Throughout the years, I’ve heard numerous people talk about “working in context.” Whether it was a professor, a mentor, a speaker at a conference, or a leadership podcast, the idea of “working in context” has come up on a regular basis.

When talking about “working in context”, the general idea is that the worker takes into consideration the environment, language, culture, age and other characteristics of the intended audience.  We have to speak in a language the people understand.

I think back to my “trying to be a rock star days”. When a band was composing the set list for an evening, we had to take into consideration who would be showing up. A set list for a party at the local hippie commune would look different from the set list for the local biker bar. A set list for a frat/sorority party would look different from a set list for a 30-year high school reunion. You probably aren’t going to start off a set with Radiohead’s “Everything In It’s Right Place” at a country and western bar. In order to have a successful set, the band really needed to understand the crowd and the environment.

Salesmen and saleswomen have an understanding of working in context. While day after day they sell the same product, they will utilize different sales methods and techniques and methods based upon the buyer.

This makes me think of my wife’s grandma Betty. She was a straight-shooter who wouldn’t take shit from anyone. She had been in sales at Sears for years. Emily and I were moving to Lafayette and needed a new washer and dryer. We took Betty with us. She knew what we wanted/needed and let the salesman know who was the boss. The salesman began his pitch and Betty asked some questions. After a little back and forth, Betty looked at the salesman and said, “Listen, I worked for Sears longer than you’ve probably been alive. I know all your tricks. So, cut the shit and give me your absolute best price. Oh, and by the way, you’re going to deliver these to Lafayette, with no delivery cost.” The salesman cut the shit and got down to business. And, we didn’t pay for delivery.

You don’t sell to Betty the same way you sell to the average Joe.

In order to work in context, we change or adapt our methods based upon the audience.

Too often, we confuse “in context” with the practice of only telling people what they want to hear.

Given that I am in the field of Christian ministry, I tend to think about working in context as doing ministry in context.

The aim of doing ministry in context is not simply understanding what the audience desires to hear. It’s about sharing what the audience needs to hear in a way they will understand. In order for the message to take heart, it has to resonate. Plain and simple, this is what ministry in context means: telling people what they need to hear in a language they will understand.

Yet, there are some who would prefer the idea of ministry in context simply being telling the audience what they want to hear. We want to feel warm and fuzzy. We want Buddy Christ. We don’t really value honesty, transparency, openness, and authenticity. We are more concerned with the image we present than the content.

Or we think ministry in context means playing it safe, being a yes man or woman, or letting people have their way by keeping them happy. But, what does that do for furthering the mission of the organization?

Seriously, I have colleagues for whom ministry in context means keeping people happy. And, you know what? They are well liked. They are, in some ways, successful. But, they tend to avoid the hard truths. It’s probably the easy road, well, except for the fact that you probably know what’s best…but for fear of rocking the boat you stay silent.

The temptation is to put on a show. Yet, deep down, we know that as we begin to peel back those layers of the “false self” (as Thomas Merton put it), however painful it may be, we will begin to experience wholeness and healing.

Doing work or ministry in context should not cause one to compromise who he/she happens to be. I have walked into churches where there is freedom for people to simply be themselves. It creates a welcoming and hospitable environment.

At the same time, I have walked into churches where being oneself is offensive and unwelcome. That creates an oppressive and inhospitable environment.

If you are working or doing ministry in context and it causes you to be someone you are not, get the hell out. Seriously.

Working in context is not about compromise. It’s about being open, honest, authentic and transparent. It’s about communicating your intended message to your intended audience in a way the audience will be able to receive.

One thought on “Working In Context

  1. I spent most of my working life in sales – we call variations in presentation “shifting gears”. When I’ve seen these characteristics in clergy I “get out” and lose some respect for the person. WWJD?


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