Who is Contextual Intelligence For? (Part Two)

This is post two of a mini-series of three reflections for why contextual intelligence is important at every level of church life. (Read Part 1 here)

Each of these stories has one thing in common: a failure of contextual intelligence. We believe that if these leaders knew Issachar’s secret—the ancient secret to frontline mission—a totally different future may have been possible. Len Sweet and I wrote Contextual Intelligence: Unlocking the Ancient Secret to Mission on the Front Lines so faithful Jesus followers can avoid mistakes like this and grow in CQ: contextual intelligence. Consider how a little CQ can go a long way towards missional faithfulness and fruitfulness!

Consider how a little CQ can go a long way towards missional faithfulness and fruitfulness! Click To Tweet

Story 2 – John

John is a nondenominational pastor in an autonomous congregational church system. He was young when he started in ministry and has since served two large, thriving churches in his ten-year career. At each church, he has focused on building strong youth programs and attracting young families. He receives a call from a large legacy church in a beautiful part of the southern United States. This church has been through a significant visioning process, and they have concluded that they need a young pastor who can attract families and build a youth program. John interviews with the elders, and they commit to hiring him on the spot with a significant pay increase.

John and his family move to the area, full of excitement to make new friends and help this church grow. John employs all his old tools, hanging out in targeted locations throughout the community to connect with new people, visiting significant leaders in the church, hiring the best youth pastor he could find, and planning big community gatherings to get people to the church grounds. All his tactics fail epically; he can’t seem to locate or make meaningful relationships with people under fifty. Not only does he not attract young families, but he also offends some of the older members. These folks are large financial contributors, but they become aggravated by John’s pyrotechnic preaching and an endless stream of new ideas. They feel neglected and leave the church, taking their checkbooks with them. Soon after, John is fired.

What went wrong? This is another example of a failure of CQ…

John showed high ability in one specific gifting but failed to understand his context and adapt his skills accordingly. Harvard professor Tarun Khanna, who specializes in entrepreneurship in emerging markets, defines contextual intelligence for the corporate context as “the ability to understand the limits of our knowledge, and to adapt that knowledge to a context different from the one in which it was developed.” Khanna coins the term institutional voids to describe the absence of intermediaries like market research firms and credit card systems to efficiently connect buyers and sellers in emerging markets. Quite simply, these voids occur when the institutional scaffolding that supports the market (or the church) are absent, weak, or fail to fulfill their roles. Contextually intelligent leaders turn the challenges of these voids into opportunities for entrepreneurship and business growth.[1]

In Contextual Intelligence: Unlocking the Ancient Secret to Mission on the Front Lines, we show how these learnings can be translated to the ecclesial realm. Local churches are often stuck in brittle mental models that blind us to changing contextual realities. The phenomenon of institutional voids plays out in local churches that try to franchise one version of church with no contextual sensitivity. The voids describe the lack of awareness and the absence of scaffolding that can connect churches with their communities. Also lacking is a viable framework to do so. While all intelligences are needed on the new missional frontier, the cultivation of contextual intelligence can weave them all together, bridge the gaps, and help us adapt to the emerging opportunities. In fact, CQ is the one intelligence to serve all the multiple intelligences.

Local churches are often stuck in brittle mental models that blind us to changing contextual realities. Click To Tweet

For a variety of reasons, local churches have adopted short-sighted shortcuts and faulty mental models that obstruct their contexts and blind them to the institutional voids that block their mission. Contextually intelligent pioneers see these voids as opportunities for social innovation. They hypothesize alternative mental models, which prompt the creation of needed relational scaffolding throughout the community. This can birth new kinds of contextual churches, ones that can even be tethered to existing institutions and structures.

Regretfully, John also trusted that his new congregation had an accurate assessment of their context. He failed to understand that the way in which a congregation views their relationship with the community can be different from the actuality of that relationship. In his setting, the vision to bolster membership with young families was a setup for failure, being that the congregation sits on the edge of a retirement community.

Many churches don’t know their communities, and their communities don’t know them. Pastors are largely caring for the dwindling numbers of faithful but fidgety, feisty, and fearful church members, and they are often overwhelmed by the infighting that comes from facing inward, not outward, with little connection to the greater community. John’s assumption that his new congregation had an accurate assessment of their community is a common mistake. He was unaware that their visioning process never considered the contextual factors cradling the congregation’s very life.

Many churches don’t know their communities, and their communities don’t know them. Click To Tweet

The elder board’s understanding of the larger community was drawn from past memories. Because they had not prayerfully immersed themselves in the context, they were unaware of the magnitude of the shifting age demographic. Their vision was fabricated in a church board room, rather than through time spent as an incarnational presence in the community.

The vision of a young-family revival in a retirement community may sound absurd, except that this is a real story from one of our ministries, as all of these three opening vignettes are. This significant lack of CQ ultimately led to this congregation’s demise. Unfortunately, this is not a unique story.

A church that is not a contextualized expression of its community is not faithful to the gospel. Click To Tweet

One key idea we explore in the book is that a church that is not a contextualized expression of its community is not faithful to the gospel.

Can this kind of a mismatch occur even amid an entire once-thriving global denomination? I’ll explore that story next, stay tuned…

And check out Contextual Intelligence: Unlocking the Ancient Secret to Mission on the Front Lines by Len Sweet and Michael Beck!

[1] Tarun Khanna, “Contextual Intelligence,” Harvard Business Review 92, no. 9 (September 2014): 58–68.

Michael Beck

Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.

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