Monday, July 27, 2015

Neighborhood Narratives and Cultural Exegesis: Churches Moving from Pulpit to Pavement

While there are plenty of reasons to lament the brokenness of the twenty-first century, Mainline church, many congregations are daring us to lift our eyes from trending despair and towards resurrected life. 

In recent months, I have witnessed first-hand their invitations to hold on hope for another day more. 

There is a church who, when their suburban community reported an increase in heroine use, developed an art program alongside local partners as one of many mediums offered to neighbors in recovery. 

A fellowship hall in an old urban church building was revisioned as studio for local artists who craft elaborate murals, which have been plastered on city schools, historic prisons, and a SEPTA train.  Many of these resident artists are ex-cons participating in Philadelphia’s Restorative Justice program.

Another church, located in a neighborhood whose residents are predominantly immigrants, has reclaimed the value of ecumenical partnerships as they reach out to children who are both first-generation Americans and first-generation Christians. 

A new church development is using rare urban green space in their front yard, once the site of their large sanctuary before being destroyed by a hurricane fifty years prior, to host art programs for urban youth. As they engage everything from Matisse to Monet, young people are empowered to dream and imagine alternative futures for their families and communities.  

Still more, another city church is incorporating “Harambee,” motivational songs, and methods learned from the Children’s Defense Fund in education programs offered to urban children who reside in the middle of one of the most dysfunctional school districts in the country. 

Each of these churches, and an abundant more, have learned the narratives of their neighborhoods, leveraged ministry initiatives through collaborative local networks, and birthed new (or renewed) contextualized expressions of church in their communities. 

This is what many in ministry call practices in cultural exegesis. 

For most, exegesis is a fancy word thrown around at gatherings of theology and Bible nerds. Exegesis is not exactly a word able to make you the life of any sort of party.

I know from experience.

Exegesis is a term that refers to the reading out of a given text or narrative in Scripture a reasonable sense of meaning or purpose. Exegesis is the process preachers implore as they prepare sermons and do their due diligence not to read into the story or passage what may not actually be there. That would be called eisegesis.  Unfortunately, eisegesis happens with great frequency and can quickly transform the Bible from hopeful story to oppressive weapon.

Exegesis, linked to the broader discipline of hermeneutics, is the preferred method for reading the Bible and teaching and/or preaching what is thoughtfully gleaned. The process of exegesis is not always pretty and frequently looks more like the dissection of a carcass than the crafting of a piece of art. 

Word studies. 
Underlining and boxing key terms.
Pretending to know Greek and Hebrew. 
Pretending the congregation will be impressed by Greek and Hebrew words.
Bible study software.

I was once told that to preach effectively you needed to spend one hour of study for every minute preached. 

That doesn't leave much time for Starbucks runs. 

The messy craft of exegesis is important.  Actually, exegesis is critical. However, in the twenty-first century, preachers and practitioners of the faith require far more than an ability to know what the Scripture once said and may be saying. Church leaders must be invested in cultural and neighborhood exegesis, drawing out of their local and relational networks a sense of identity, thirst for justice, and expressed hope no longer limited to the great beyond.  We cannot afford to read into our communities a (falsified) longing for what the church once was. There is no time for cultural eisegesis. 

So we must engage new hermeneutical tools: maps, impromptu conversations with neighbors, partnerships with community leaders, interactions with the polis and local officials, investments in the history of the context surrounding a given congregation, new stewardship methods and sustainable funding sources, and a willingness to risk implementing something altogether different and no longer limited to 9:45 on a Sunday morning. 

Over the years, I am grateful so many cultural exegetes, a.k.a. pastors and church leaders, have been willing to take such risks. It is through the likes of these faithful innovators that the Spirit will not only birth a future for our congregations and communities, but also foster a platform to proclaim Good News alongside our neighbors near and far. 

This is sure reason to hope beyond despair.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hoping Alongside Communities of Despair: One Truth Gleaned from the Karl Barth Pastor's Conference 2015

If I were to do it all over, I would have begun again at the beginning.  While the Karl Barth Pastor’s Conference was great, I should have attended the full week of dialogue, paper presentations, and interactions with some of the more gifted theological minds our Protestant Christian tradition has to offer. (Also, I would have received this bag as a gift versus lucky leftover.) Instead, I settled for live feeds of the likes of Moltmann and Migliore and headed to Princeton Theological Seminary for the tail-end of what some referred to as “Barth Camp for Pastors." 

Still, I was not disappointed. 

I was also right where I needed to be. 

As the tragic events of Mother Emmanuel AME continued to occupy the hearts, minds, and prayers of attendees, we were reminded by Dr. Willie Jennings that Barth’s work must refuse to remain as mere rhetoric for disengaged and irrelevant theologians.  Instead, pastors and preachers must engage Church Dogmatics as means to resist the racial disorder of the world.  Jennings remarked, “Christian faith should create an alternative vision to current racial divisions…The issue is not do you hope but it is from where do you hope and who do you join in hope.” 

While society likes to tout progress, frequently synonymous to the innovation in technology, increase in productivity, and advancements in mechanisms for national defense, we are actually underdeveloped in our racial relations. Hatred is perpetuated by historical and cultural symbols; powers intended to protect often prioritize the privileged through profiling and prejudice; sameness remains the preferred method for gatherings in social, political, and religious arenas; solidarity is often offered from a safe distance. Dr. Jennings challenged this cultural cowardice, “We cannot hope within a community of homogeneity.  We need to hope within communities of despair….The problem- we believe we are coherent in communities of homogeneity.” 

These prophetic challenges, delivered to a gathering of preachers and teachers of the Christian faith, are rooted in the contributions of Karl Barth who dared us to link arms with both near and distant neighbors (Church Dogmatics III.4). The Swiss theologian, who more often than not took on the role as advocate and activist in the midst of Nazi Germany, refuted national and racial idolatry that frequently breeds oppression and injustice. 
“In this respect, too, [the Christian] cannot return to the prison and stronghold of his own national [or racial] limitation.  As he holds his near neighbours with the one hand, he reaches out to the distant with the other.  And so the concept of his own people is extended and opened out in this respect too.  It is true that he belongs wholly and utterly to his own people.  But it is equally true that the horizon by which it exists as his people is humanity.  It is equally true that he himself belongs wholly and utterly to humanity” (Church Dogmatics III.4, 298). 
There was so much wisdom gleaned from those who gathered at Princeton to reflect on Karl Barth’s contributions to Christian theology. I will save such musings for another time and place. For now, both Barth and Jennings remind us we must return over and again to the beginning question Jesus posed to his earliest disciples: who is my neighbor? 

More frequently than not, we will discover our neighbor is revealed in persons and communities of diversity and difference with whom we are called to join hands in hope amidst great despair. 

I pray this call would claim more space in religious, political, and casual rhetoric as we wrestle with the ongoing reality of racial divisions further exposed in the recent events in our nation and Christian churches. After all, we belong wholly to one another and all of humanity. 

**Grateful for time spent with Rev. Dr. Will Willimon at #KBPC2015**