5 Maps to Contextualize Discipleship, Part I
Two weeks ago, I introduced this model of discipleship that is helping me think about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. But before I continue unpacking it, I want to pause.
I have been trying to develop a series of ideas on this blog that are progressing in the following order:
the gospel --> discipleship --> contextualizing discipleship
However, while my blog will move through them in that linear order, they are best understood as an action/reflection cycle. Liberation theologians refer to this as a Praxiological Circle. It begins when we encounter the world around us and the Word of God. As we reflect on how these relate to each other, we begin to act in the community upon our understanding. As we act, we fine tune our ideas and approach by reassessing the context and the Word. This process never ends. It is the manner of attempting to live faithfully in the world.
Therefore, it is essential that we reflect on our specific worlds as we think about discipleship. Our individual walks all happen within multiple overlapping and intertwined contexts: communities, places, systems, cultures, etc. So, how do we picture ourselves within this complex world? If we desire to genuinely embody, advocate and build toward a world of shalom, we have to understand how the world works.
I have been working on a series of "maps" to help us see ourselves within the wide web of life. Explaining my thoughts on all these might take a really long time...probably through the rest of 2015. However, I think these maps provide a vital backdrop for the life of discipleship. So, in brief, let's begin to plot out these ideas.
1. Discipleship in Places and Systems
We struggle to remember how true this is because the past several centuries have done so much to liberate us from the confines of our human particularity. With rationality and the scientific method, modern philosophers believed that universal principles could be discover that would free us from local contexts. Currently, we live increasingly digitized lives. Technologies allow us to connect instantly with people and events around the world, while simultaneously ignoring the person sitting next to us. Since we spend so much time disconnected from the physical places we live in, my generation is the most transient yet. We spend our time glued to screens and moving every few years, then wonder why no one is caring for the environment and why our cities seem so plagued with injustice.
If we want to know God, if we want to form our own identities, if we want to faithfully seek shalom we have to do escape our tendency to make these things abstract and spiritualized. Real stuff like bodies, nature and place matters to God and form the concrete contexts of our discipleship. When we follow Jesus, we do so with others in a particular, local place. The people, geography, cultures, aspirations, felt needs, assets, and histories of that place provide the the specific content of our life as Jesus followers.
The picture above attempts to show at least 3 things:
1) We follow Jesus with others in our particular locations. For many of us, that means a specific neighborhood.
2) Particular places exist within broader places. To understand this better, we'll look at systems theory and explore how each place is a "nested system" within a broader system. The dynamics of each of these domains interact with one another and create complex forces that must be reckoned with if we are to be strategic in the work of shalom.
3) Each place we inhabit is governed by three major, interlocking systems: the religious (or value-creating institutions), economic and political. As we begin to understand how the structure of these systems lead toward or away from shalom, our capacity to act strategically in our contexts is vastly improved.
Exploring the enormous implications in all that will be a lot of fun down the road!
2. Discipleship in the Environments
The places and systems described above provide a foundation that can be overlaid on this second map. At least five interwoven, interdependent and mutually influencing (as represented by the arrows) environments make up the milieu of our discipleship journeys. Let's look at each element in the picture above.
The Social Environment: Though a picture needs to be provided for each of these, what I mean by this element most needs to be seen to be understood. The diagram below was developed by Dr. Randy White and Dr. H. Spees to explain the various institutions that collectively make up the organization fabric that gets stuff done in our civilization. The primary sectors it represents are the public, private, nonprofit/service and neighborhood/community. It is particularly useful when trying to understand a social problem. It allows us to ask, "What institutional policies in one or more of these sectors contribute to this issue?" "What partnerships could be created across public, private and non-profit lines to address this issue?"
The Built Environment: It has been a long time since we as a culture paid attention to the design of the places where we live. But we are discovering more and more that the design of the world we humans build has an enormous impact on the quality and content of our lives. The built environment includes all our buildings, homes, side walks, streets and public spaces like parks. But just as much, it is about the way these things relate to one another. Consider these pictures of two differently designed cities. How would life differ from one to the other? How might shalom--reconciled relationships and just systems--be benefited or damaged in each context? What would community be like in each?
Cultural Environment: Every place has a dominant culture, minority cultures and niche cultures. People usually inhabit more than one. Our culture shapes what we think is right and normal. It shapes our goals and how we have fun. It shapes our family life, how we worship and how we work. It shapes how we view the world. It shapes how we value (or devalue) those around us. Each person has their own cultural makeup, but we also live in places with diverse cultures and do life with and around other people with their own cultural perspectives. If we're going to be reflective disciples, we have to be culturally savvy. We have to become aware of the water we swim in and learn to see the world--to whatever degree possible--from other peoples perspectives. There are lots of ways to frame culture, but here's a fun one...the cultural iceberg!
The Natural Environment: When most of our meals are passed through a car window and our days are spent between brick, mortal and asphalt it is easy to forget that we are not only dependent on the natural world, we are a part of it! In God's first command to humanity, he called us to steward his creation. Unfortunately, we haven't done such a great job of that. In fact, the distorted Christian doctrine that believes our world is just going to be burned up when God comes back has led us to treat nature as our slave instead of a gift from God to be cared for. As we seek to follow Jesus, our stewardship with the natural world is fundamental. When we take our relationship with creation serious, it reconnects all sorts of seemingly mundane activities to serving God like eating, flipping on the light switch and taking care of our yards. For a people who treasure a meal of bread and wine as a sacrament, this mentality should not be such a difficult leap. On a local level, the natural environment we interact with is called our 'watershed' or 'bioregion'. The picture below helps us imagine the landscapes we live in. "'The land is mine,' says the Lord" (Lev 25:23). When we love it, we love our God.
The Spiritual Environment: What I do not mean to imply by 'spiritual environment' is that the four previous environments described above are not part of the 'spiritual' world. God is present and active in the real, physical world we all inhabit! So is Satan and the principalities and powers. In fact, Paul describes the political, economic and religious institutions of our world as a kind of quasi embodiment of spiritual powers--for good or evil. What I do mean is that there is a world beyond the physical stuff we can see, and it has a significant (though often difficult to discern) impact on all the other environments. How do we picture the 'spiritual environment'? I have no idea. But I believe it is real and must be considered a vital context of our discipleship journeys.
The black bar in the center of this map is supposed to represent a sideways view of the discipleship model. The point is that our discipleship happens smack in the middle of all these. Faithfully following Jesus means doing so in a manner sensitive these many contexts.
Thanks for reading Part 1! I'll post Part 2 on Wednesday with the next three 'maps.'