A conversation about context in an increasingly global age

Several months ago, my church had a guest preacher, and I walked out in the middle of his message. Okay, I didn’t really walk out. I couldn’t, because it was COVID, and I was watching church online. But I did shut down the streaming app on my phone, effectively leaving the service.

I don’t walk out of church—whether online or in person—often. And I’m not sharing this story today because I’m proud that I left in the middle of a message. But I’m not ashamed of it either. It was what I needed in that moment.

I needed to not listen to the remainder of the sermon because honestly, I wouldn’t have heard it even if I stayed. And believe it or not, this isn’t a commentary on the speaker’s message. Rather, it’s conversation on delivery and context. I’ve been thinking a lot about both since that Sunday I heard half a sermon.

I didn’t leave that day because what was said was offensive or unbiblical. In fact, I believe there was wisdom in it, and I have friends who later said how helpful it was to them. I left because the way in which it was delivered was triggering to me.

And ever since, I’ve been thinking about why. I don’t want to become someone who’s easily offended. I also don’t want to dismiss my own emotional responses as invalid.

Without going into too much detail, here’s an overview of what went down that day. The visiting preacher had just done a marriage conference over the weekend. That Sunday morning, he shared some relationship advice. For the majority of listeners, I believe it was good advice.

But it’s not advice that could be applied to all relationships. I know because I’ve been in a relationship where his advice could have been quite harmful. So, sitting in my virtual church seat from my kitchen table, I was frustrated.

I say that signing off was the right call because it gave me time to pause, examine my heart, and get into a better space. Then, I was able to look at the root of my frustration. I wasn’t offended so much as I was saddened.

Though I was momentarily triggered by the message, I was ultimately fine. I’m no longer in the relationship that could have been damaged, so the advice didn’t harm me. But it could have harmed someone. Chances are high that someone somewhere in a relationship like mine heard that message. And it breaks my heart to think about the confusion it could have caused.

So, what’s my point? Am I sharing this just because I was saddened, or frustrated? Why do I think this is worth talking about on a blog about hope, recovery, and paradox?

I spent a good deal of time debating about whether to write on this—and what to say if I did. Ultimately, I decided to write because of what I mentioned earlier: I haven’t been able to stop thinking about context and delivery and what this means in a global society.

I believe what would have helped that preacher deliver his message with more compassion is recognizing context. He could have given the same advice, while also acknowledging there are some whose context requires a different approach. That sounds simple, but the reason I’ve been thinking about it so much is because understanding context is increasingly challenging in a global age. Unless we’re having a closed-door conversation, our audience is no longer just people who look and think like us. It’s potentially anyone in the world. And that’s a good thing, but it comes with challenges.

Whether you’re a communicator or simply a listener, addressing those challenges matters for hope and recovery. It matters because conversations about hope and recovery should always be contextual. Hope is nuanced and looks different to each person—recovery even more so.

I like to analyze things and look for solutions, and after mulling this one over, here’s where I’ve landed: It’s the responsibility of both the communicator and the listener to care about context.

For those reading this who are speakers, writers, small group leaders, or even just people who occasionally share their thoughts online: To the very best of our ability, we must strive to communicate in ways that will be effective for the hearer. Please note, this does not mean watering down our messages for fear of being offensive or ruffling feathers. But it does include recognizing, whenever we can, that their context may be different from our own. It means acknowledging that we speak and give advice from a specific perspective and then working to understand the perspectives of others. This will make us more compassionate communicators.

So, where does the responsibility of the listener come in? It comes in understanding that in a global society, communicators won’t always do their part perfectly. The world is too big, and contexts are too vast. Like the preacher I listened too, they may sometimes fail to recognize all the nuances, all the different contexts in which their message may be consumed.

Since communicators won’t do this perfectly, it’s up to us, as listeners, to have wisdom for our own lives. Part of recovery, part of mental health, dare I say, part of adulting (even though I’m not a big fan of that word), is being responsible for what we take in—what we consume.

When we choose not to engage with a message, a blog post, a podcast, that doesn’t mean it’s bad or incorrect. And it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve taken up an offense. It may just mean that particular message, and the context to which it was delivered, are not for us in that moment. And that’s okay. It might have been for our neighbor or the person listening half a world away.

Black and white thinking tells me that if I believe a message is unhelpful, I should condemn it, write it off, and tell others to stay away. Reality, however, can hold the paradox that while I may need to “walk out” of a message, it can be exactly what someone else needs to hear.

This is why it’s important for us to have grace*. In today’s world, it’s easy to cancel someone because they don’t understand something we’ve had experience with—to write them off or speak negatively because their perspective or context is limited or different from ours in an area.

You may have noticed that I’ve intentionally not mentioned the name of the preacher whose sermon I skipped out on. That’s because it doesn’t matter. His words had truth and wisdom, and his goal was to help. My point of sharing the story is not to speak negatively of him or his message, but to get us to think about delivery and context.

If I met him and had opportunity, I’d share my experience and encourage him to incorporate different perspectives into future messages. But even if he never changes his delivery, I know that his words bring value to the right context—and context is what matters.

If I had the chance to listen to him again, I probably would. I’d just go in with adjusted expectations, based on what I now know about his context and perspective. And that’s the other thing we can do as listeners. We don’t always have to remove ourselves. Sometimes, we just need to adjust the way we hear.

So, as we engage with others, as both communicators and listeners, let’s make it our goal to keep context in mind. Let’s stop and think about the context of those we speak to, and those who speak to us. Let’s adjust our messages where we can and adjust our mindset where communicators may fail to perfectly speak to our context.

If for us, that means “walking out” of a message, let’s make sure we do it with grace and in love. If it simply means not tuning into a specific communicator, let’s not assume that means everyone we know must tune them out.

In working to recognize the context of others, let’s acknowledge that they might not get ours.

*One quick note, this conversation changes if we are talking about someone whose words are directly harmful, include blatant lies, or are unbiblical. In that situation, grace still matters, but it looks different.  

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