Attentiveness: Context and Strategy, Part 3
Dr. Scott W. Sunquist
President & Professor of Missiology
Protests over racism.
What does it mean to begin a strategic planning process at a time of social upheaval?
If you have been following my thinking the past months, I have called for repentance for the many ways evangelicals did such a poor job training leaders in the past 75 years. We have run major institutions that had national and even international fame, but Christianity continued to decline in the West. My point is that we were not paying attention to the context around us. Materialism, media, hedonism and racism were eroding our institutions and drawing away even our own children. These children had the benefit of the best of Christian literature, Bible translations, Christian camping and other institutions. With all of these resources they found little to live for, and less to die for.
Context is not everything, but it is a lot.
We now have the opportunity, as we begin an 8 month strategic planning process to correct this error. We now can and must pay attention to the context in which we are planning for the future of Gordon-Conwell.
What does it mean to plan for the future, paying attention to our present context?
First, I think it means our foundation for the process is one of confession, repentance and listening: attentiveness. We don’t start this process with any sense of pride about what we have accomplished. If we are going to see this institution have a global impact, it will only happen as we start in humble attentiveness to the true Lord of Gordon-Conwell. As Paul said so clearly, “…for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” And as John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Secondly, we must recognize that our future must be one that recognizes our racist context and the need in all of our planning to make it less likely that our future will be so racist. It is possible to put into place structures, strategies and signposts that make racism unwelcome. As I mentioned last week, we can and must create a context where “racism is reduced to smoldering embers.” This process began last summer and it must now be folded into the strategic planning for the coming decades.
Thirdly, our context of human suffering during a pandemic and the need for ministries of mercy and compassion should guide us in what we plan. Missionaries who came from the West and who suffered from tropical diseases and violence had no option but to respond to human suffering. I believe our context of human suffering and the evil of a chaotic pandemic should also guide how we think about what we teach and even how we teach in the future.
Finally, we must remember that all theology is contextual. Good theology is deeply rooted in Holy Scripture and develops from local contextual issues and questions. Thus, Jonathan Edwards was attentive to both the Enlightenment ideas coming from Europe, and the surprising revivals all around him. His theology developed in light of these ideas and experiences. Edwards’ theology answered questions posed by the Enlightenment and the revivals going on around him at that time. We must also develop not only a theology, but a seminary that connects to the issues, movements and the questions which our global context presents to Jesus people today. I like to think of this as a seminary that has an attitude of attentiveness.
On one level this is a call for change. On another level it is a call to remember and recover our heritage. We need to remember how attentive our founders, Conwell and Gordon, were to their contexts. Both were especially attentive to the need for revival (church revitalization), ministry to black freedmen and women, and to good contemporary worship! Both cared for the homeless and the most needy. Both sought justice and spoke out about important social issues. Both were thoroughly evangelical in their preaching and deeply Christian in their ministries of mercy.
Next week we will talk more about how our founders remind us to think of our future biblical ministry responding to contemporary issues of evangelism and social justice.
Scott W. Sunquist, the new President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Monday morning on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses and good ideas.