Embrace Your Sitz im Leben!
The term “sitz im leben” became a major part of the theological nomenclature with the emergence of the historical-critical discipline of biblical interpretation. It was driven by the notion that it’s important to understand the context and cultural situation in which the texts were written in order to best be able to interpret and understand their meaning and purpose. That is the general translation of this German phrase into English; the social context (cultural circumstances) in which an event or account has occurred. The more you know of that context the better equipped one is to interpret and understand the intentions of the writer.
Embracing the sitz im leben not only applies to biblical analysis and interpretation, it is a critical component for effectively developing a congregation’s mission and ministry. Communities throughout the country have changed dramatically since most congregations settled in those communities. Taking the time to continually assess, listen and discover what the sitz im leben is in your unique setting is essential in developing meaningful and effective ministry strategies.
One of the ministries I lead is The Joshua Group. This ministry was developed to help faith communities go through a deep dive of listening and learning to better equip leaders with information in making missional decisions and setting directions for their future. It has been somewhat of a head scratcher as we have engaged in this work to discover just how little effort church leaders have made in becoming more in tune with the sitz im leben of their community.
The error comes in believing that because they live in the community they in turn know what the needs and challenges are. That may be true at some level, but there are so many things that you don’t see on a daily basis. To simply say, “the neighborhood has really changed around us”, and then do little to discover more about those changes is disastrous.
The church has long believed it knows best about what the people and the community needs from them. Unfortunately, that is not true, nor was it ever really the case. There is so much we need to learn about the people, the culture, the life circumstances and challenges in our context that will go a long way in effectively shaping our mission and ministry. It’s a great deal of work to undertake this listening and discovery process. It takes time, energy and commitment to see it through with affect. None the less, there are no congregations that we have worked with through The Joshua Group process that have ever said, “boy, that was a waste of time.” Instead, they have said, “wow, we never knew there were such needs in our midst.”
Embrace your sitz im leben. Demonstrate to those living in the neighborhoods and communities around you that you care, that they matter, that knowing them is important. Understanding the sitz im leben of the people in your communities and getting in the trenches with them will go a long way in building trust, developing relevance and establishing meaningful partnerships. As the old saying goes, “never judge a person without first walking a mile in their shoes.” For churches this translates to, “never develop a ministry plan before embracing the sitz im leben of your immediate context.” Let the discovering begin!