Attentiveness: Content, Context, Culture
I have been quoted as saying that the curriculum of a seminary doesn’t matter as much as the faculty who are teaching the courses. I can teach a course on missiology and students go out and plant churches. I had a liberationist friend who was qualified to teach the same course and students would argue to close western missions and send all missionaries home.
While who is teaching matters a lot, every class that is taught and every group of students who are discipled are also shaped by three additional factors that contribute to the great metamorphosis in higher education today. These include content, context, and culture.
Let’s be clear: a seminary’s content is primarily Scripture and the biblical tradition through the centuries. This is foundational. However, what we emphasize, how we teach it, and how we connect the Great Tradition with local contexts is very important. Just as the Word took on flesh, so the content we present must speak from and to particular contexts and cultures.
I taught a hybrid course eight months ago from our campus in Jacksonville. It was very different from teaching a class in Hamilton, or Pasadena, California, or Sabah, East Malaysia, or Cairo, Egypt. I had students who were Floridians working in public schools and law enforcement. The other half of my students logged in from Gainesville; Charlotte; Hamilton or Cambridge, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. They worked and ministered in a variety of other fields. The unique issues, questions, and strengths of this class differed from other classes. What I taught had to find a point of connection to the contexts of those specific students.
Taking these different contexts seriously meant lots of questions, discussion, and community building. More learning takes place when students engage with each other as they learn the content of the course.  Faculty must be attentive to learn how to best communicate to different contexts. By the end of the first class, we found out there were about eight students who had been to Brazil or had been greatly influenced by Brazilian ministries! The small group interactions that began to take place helped students learn the material, and they began to see how it would apply in their own ministries.
But contexts are not just places (urban, rural, slums, mountains). Contexts have cultures, or more accurately, people develop cultures from their own traditions, in particular contexts, and from global connections. Cultures carry meaning and make it possible to communicate and to develop community. But, as we all experience, cultures divide us. Sometimes we get frustrated when people don’t understand what we are saying, or when they seem to get offended for “no reason at all.” Cultures can easily turn tribes into tribalism and healthy patriotism into violent nationalism.
But cultures are also wonderful, beautiful, and nurturing places for theological reflection and, thus, for ministry. Cultures make it possible for us to be understood and loved. In brief, cultures, like individuals, are fashioned in God’s image and, like humans, fallen. In our theological education, we want to shine the light of the gospel (content) in various contexts of our teaching and learning and see the work of God’s Holy Spirit bringing about the redemption of individuals and rectification of cultures.
There will be cultures in heaven (Revelation 7:9), and individuals will be glorified in their cultures in heaven. Theological education participates in God’s work of redemption and sanctification so that individuals and their churches—in all contexts and cultures—begin to look more like Jesus and the Kingdom. This happens as we take the incarnational principle seriously and are attentive to cultures and contexts as we engage with the content from God’s Holy Word.
It is not too much of a translation stretch to say that Jesus’ last command (Matthew 28:19-20) involved recognition of content, context, and cultures. Here is a loose translation:
“Go therefore, into all contexts and make disciples of people in all their cultures baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all the content I taught you. And surely I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
 See my blog post on contexts and strategy.
 Read more about intentional learning communities in a blog post by Dr. Brad Howell, Vice President of Graduate Programs.
Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.