Tony is talking about contextual theology in chapter 21 of his book Neighbors and Wisemen. He doesn’t use the word contextual, but in several places he says really inspiring and helpful things that any contextual theologian would love to interact with. Neighbors & Wisemen

“These questions supply the “what” of spiritual formation, but it is in the answers that we find life. Let me explain what I mean.

Every animal on earth must answer the same questions … adapted to their physical life, in order to thrive:

  • Where do I find food?
  • What is the source of water?
  • What makes a suitable home?
  • What symbiotic relationships support life?
  • How do I pro-create?
  • What is my place in the ecosystem?
  • All these questions define life for any creature.

However, the bird will answer these questions very differently than the fish. The questions are identical, but the geography defines the answers. Answers in the rain forest look nothing like the answers in the desert. Answers inside the river look very different from the answers in the Arctic or in Central Park.”


I get challenged in nearly every place that I go about this term ‘emergent’. Now, to be fair, most people have never looked into the scientific theory of emergence – to them it is a brand like Baptist, or Catholic or Pentecostal. It could be called “Shock-zone Psycha-jazz” Church and mean just about as much to them.

All the same, the challenge often sounds like this:

“I hear 10 different definitions of the emergent church. It seems to mean on thing to this group and a different thing in this area.”

That is a fair question. But a better way to approach the topic might be to cut “emergent church” out of the sentence and paste “farming” in it’s place. How would you answer this question:

“I hear 10 different definitions of ‘farming’. It seems to mean on thing to this group and a different thing in this area.”

Not that hard right? Different soil, different climate, different water sources, different seeds mean that farming in one region can look entirely different from it does in another.

Why can’t we do that for churches? The answer is found in a complex historical conception called a ‘classicist’ approach to theology – which we don’t have time for here – but which continues to plague us with the confusion between unity and conformity. Unity is a good thing. Unity, however, comes from diversity and difference.

God is active in each and every neighborhood. God is telling a story in every place at every time. There is no place in the world where God is not working. 

The art and challenge for us a Jesus’ people is find, join, and tell God’s story in that place.

Tony challenges us:

Two thousand years ago, Jesus wrote parables from his interactions with his neighbors. Today, as we walk with him, Jesus continues his habit of parable writing. Only now it’s not Nazareth, this neighborhood is different. He is writing new parables through our spiritually forming neighbors all around.

I love this idea. I would love if this were true. I try to live my life as if this were the truest thing on earth.