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.
Highlighting.
Commentaries.
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.

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