What Time Is It — Contextually?

Here is a question to ponder: “Pastor, what time is it? I mean, what time is it for the church in the life of our times? What is it time for?”

You and I occupy a particular place in time. We lead a church of mostly middle-class North Americans in the early 21st century, not to mention other particulars. Other church leaders in various places of time and space have seen aspects of the gospel that address their historical situation. But we have our unique place in time and “where we stand determines what we see.” (Robert McAfee Brown)

I am referring to context. Yet, mostly we focus on the text. We have to. We are paid to. Sundays come at least every three or four days! Our job requires that we ask regularly, “What is the message of this text to be declared and embodied?” Nobody, I assume, presses you to answer the question of con-text? So allow me.

I submit: the clearer our assumptions about context, the sharper the point will be on the text.

Recently I raised the question of context to a circle of six seasoned pastors with whom I meet monthly. I invited them to complete the sentence: “I assume that the church is called in our times to . . .”

Responses welled up from each person, eager, it seemed, for the light of day. This is both my version of what we said, plus what was further stimulated in me.

I assume that the church is called in our times . . .

  • to release its hold on hardened structures and prepare for a church that looks different, smaller staffs, more empowered laity, experimental forms.
  • to do theological work, re-conceiving the meaning of loving God by seeing and loving all living beings as neighbor.
  • to lead dangerously, staying focused on transformation, personal and collective, amid a reactive, polarizing atmosphere resistant to the loss within change.
  • to align with the movement from egoic, us-them, power-over consciousness to a more unitive, interdependent, power-with consciousness of partnership.
  • to welcome dis-establishment as a main-line institution, acknowledge post-Christendom, becoming feisty communities bearing witness to an alternative way of abundant living, more akin to the early church.
  • to transform North American middle-class privilege into sacrificial generosity.

There was a tone of urgency in our responses, an eschatological sense of time running out for enough decisions of care for the earth, for the poor, for the privileged, for the alienated to occur.

And, for us as well, time ran out. It was 4:00, time to stop. So, I left them with an assignment. “In our May meeting, let’s discuss the obvious next step: With these assumptions about doing church in our time, how do these assumptions (and others that come to mind) show up in the way you lead? How does your sense of ‘what time is it?’ or “what is it time for?’ open in fresh ways certain imperatives of the gospel for our day? In short, in what way does your awareness of con-text inform your declaration of text?”

You understand, I trust, that the point of this reflection is not agreement about the responses that came from the group and me. They are illustrative, I hope provocative.

Furthermore, I note that this is a macro question, a “big picture” kind of query requiring a “balcony,” a place apart for reflection. It’s not the kind of question you ask on the run from task to task.

Nevertheless, I challenge you to carve out some time—even twenty or so minutes—-and smoke out your assumptions. I invite you to sit down before the question: “I assume that the church is called in our times to . . .”

Even better, carry the question along with you, pack it away, taking it out occasionally, as you would a pocket watch, asking, “Now . . . what time is it?”

One Response to What Time Is It — Contextually?

  1. Stan Dotson says:

    Good question Mahan. This was a theme of MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.


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