Becoming a Cultural Exegete

The bottom line is a planter must have an affinity for their ministry context. In order to love their mission field, they must understand it. Demographic studies help, but one of the best ways is having “feet on the street.” Talking to real people who live in the area and conducting informal interviews through conversations is going to inform a planter of the strengths, needs, and opportunities in a given context. Worship styles and even certain outreach strategies don’t always translate well in different cultures. What works in a suburban area may not succeed in an urban area and vice versa.

What I’m suggesting is cultural exegesis. Applied to culture, exegesis means discovering why people in a particular culture do what they do by observing them and viewing their cultural influences from their perspective rather than interpreting their behavior through our own cultural lenses. The opposite of exegesis is eisegesis (literally “to draw in”), where the observer brings meaning to the object being observed from outside, usually formed by his or her own presuppositions.

When reading and interpreting biblical text, we can either find meaning in the text, or we can project our own meaning onto it. Both exegesis and eisegesis have valuable roles in church planting, but it is crucial to the success of a new church that its leaders develop an intentional focus on cultural exegesis.

So how do we do cultural exegesis?

When I planted my first church, Embrace Church in Lexington, Kentucky, I had no real office space. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it motivated me to be out in the community every day. I would meet people in local coffee shops, restaurants, and taverns. I became a regular of several places of business, which allowed me to foster relationships with folks who wouldn’t have set foot in an established church. At first I would go in undercover because as soon as I would tell people I was a pastor, they would quit being themselves around me. My title became “faith community developer,” because I was trying to plant a Christian community. I met a lot of people who eventually became part of or at least visited Embrace Church. (The lack of office space paid off again when I ended up meeting my wife, Callie, at a Starbucks of all places!)

I’m not suggesting that you should give up your office if you have one, but be aware of the temptation to hole up with busy work at the exclusion of spending time with the very people and communities we are trying to serve. An office can be the worst enemy of a church planter … the comfort of a desk and chair, surrounded by books, with a closed office door. Even now you’re probably imagining the peace and quiet. The temptation to focus inward can be especially strong to a planter after a major letdown or rejection. You can allow the letdown to kick your butt for a day or so, but permanent retreat will not help. Make your office a public place—a coffee shop, restaurant, or anywhere you can have human interaction—for a couple of days a week, and find out what God wants to show you about your community.

When I moved to my recent appointment as campus pastor of The Point Church in Trotwood, Ohio, for Ginghamsburg Church, I had to hit the ground running. One of the first things I did was a police ride-along. If you want to know what’s going on in your community, this is an eye-opening experience. It occurred to me that it wouldn’t be completely impossible to have one of my parishioners pulled over while I was in the car, which would have been awkward! Luckily, that did not happen. As we were riding around, I casually asked the police officer three questions:

  1. What are the greatest strengths of this community?
  2. What the greatest needs?
  3. What are the opportunities?

His response to the first question was, “Togetherness.” Trotwood has a sense of town pride and is a tightknit community where people care about one another. The long-term citizens are trying to reclaim Trotwood after all of the trouble it has been through financially and with crime.

His response about the greatest needs in Trotwood was something I had heard before: the need for children and youth to have activities. The opportunity I keep coming back to is a community center atmosphere with relevant music, games, food, and ways youth can engage with positive role models. There is plenty of space in the shopping strip where The Point is located, as well as additional empty commercial spaces throughout Trotwood.

After my ride-along with the police officer, I asked those same three questions to longtime citizens and even the mayor. Based on their answers, I knew sports were going to be a huge opportunity for rallying together. We also have opportunities to partner in and/or create activities for children, youth, and the entire community.

If we desire our churches to get onboard with outreach, the outside community has to see us modeling it. This is where the paradigm shift needs to happen.

The discoveries a planter makes will begin to define the church’s outreach/mission, vision, values, and worship style. Context is crucial and must prayerfully be considered as the planter begins to see the mission field clearly. Context will determine who a group is as a worshiping community and what they do in worship.

Cultural exegesis is not just for church planters but also for pastors and lay people in a given community. If you truly care about your community it’s time to get out of the office and into the mission field.

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