The young preacher stepped up to the pulpit with confidence hoping to make a mark on this small congregation of farmers. He had been invited to fill in for a week while the church conducted their search for a permanent pastor. With his Bible laid out, his notes in order and his tie straightened, he entered into an exposition of passages concerning the challenges that life can bring. As his momentum and passion increased, he referenced Matthew 5:45, “So that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” As a city boy, he understood the sunrise as a sign of goodness and the rain as a sign of negativity, depression and sad days spent inside staring at the drops on an apartment window. Just when he thought he was making a connection, he lost his crowd. The farmers were confused because, to them, rain was life. The young preacher had failed to understand and adapt to the cultural heritage of his congregation.
The simple story of the city preacher in the farming church represents a problem much deeper and subtly destructive within the common local ministry—especially church planting. The role of cultural context in the life of a church plant and its surrounding community should be a primary focus of every local pastor. Biblical exegesis is only as powerful as a preacher’s exegesis of the community. What is the role of a pastor and planter if not to apply God’s Word to all humanity to the soul of the local community? Only through exegesis of the Scripture and the culture will a preacher fulfill the capacity God has designated.
Exegesis is the process of unfolding and bringing interpretation out of something. Think of it like unpacking the simpler dynamics of complicated puzzle. To most, the Scriptures provide, at times, a confusing and complicated dialogue. We wonder what this means and what that implies. We search deeply and struggle through heavy analysis to understand and finally outline the underlying message of the Gospel. The same processes can be applied to the surrounding community in the local church.
Every human is different. Every community is different. The neighbors to our churches carry with them a long history of experiences, thought processes, patterns of behavior and generational culture that is passed on within the deep recesses of human fabric. In order to apply the Gospel specifically to the local community, church leadership, especially the planter, must make strong efforts to unpack and exegete the cultural heritage. To people who view themselves as oppressed: Scriptures on slavery, freedom and liberty take a new meaning. To people who view themselves as prosperous: Scriptures on treasure, Kingdom values and charity speak with a unique voice.
So, how can it be done? How do we start dedicating time and resources to the exegesis of the community? What might such an exegesis look like? Here are four questions to ask when exegeting a local cultural heritage.
1. What is the generational story of these people?
It’s amazing how much information exists within the identity of individuals and communities. The events and experiences of our ancestors remain in us as a part of who we are and how we think about the world. By understanding the deeper history of a local community, the planter can gain a clearer perspective of the modern behaviors. Perhaps a current snapshot of neighborhood activity is only understood through an examination of their generational history. We cannot underestimate what has been passed through family lines and cultural rivers into the hearts and minds of those homes around us.
2. How does that generational story interact with the surrounding cultures?
A community burdened by generational oppression will respond differently to their history based on the surrounding cultures. If other likeminded communities surround them then they will likely be affirmed and somewhat comforted in their worldview. However, if prosperous, educated and elite communities surround the oppressed community then their oppression will be exaggerated or at least made plainly visible. We can first understand the generational story but we must also gain a feeling for the day-to-day footsteps of peoples living in the current page of that story.
3. What are the common hopes, dreams and desires of those in the neighborhoods surrounding the local church?
All parents pass on some sort of hope or desire to their children. Perhaps it is a constant conversation and attention to money that becomes a hope in great wealth. It might be a value of position and leadership that becomes a hope in power and reputation. Whatever the case, children learn hopes, dreams and desires from their surrounding culture. If a church plant is to address the Kingdom values in ministry then it must first understand the previous value system. How can a preacher reorder something that remains a mystery?
4. What does the Holy Spirit say to this particular group of people?
No amount of study or human insight can match the wisdom and clarity of God’s love. God can see deeper into their family patterns, generational stories and value systems than any pastor or preacher ever could. God loves our neighborhoods more than any of us ever will. Whatever work we do must begin and end in the work that God has begun and will end. The Holy Spirit of God is conducting an analysis of cultural heritage moment by moment and offering the results to every shepherd for every flock.
In every endeavor of pastoral leadership, we must understand both the sheep and the pasture. In our Bible study, we may come to know what we have for feed. As a church planter, have we come to know whom we are feeding?