Cultural exegesis is simply the process of drawing out the true nature of a culture, to understand how it works and how God is at work around us. Every good missionary knows how valuable and important the process of cultural discovery is to the success of a mission. Understanding what makes a culture tick is critical to being able to both articulate the gospel clearly and hear the echos of God’s kingdom already at work. Global missionaries have been wrestling with this off and on for centuries, but what about everyday missionaries here in the good ol’ USA? What is a good strategy for cultural exegesis when everything is so, well, hard to figure out?As recently as 20 years ago, the most innovative model for cultural exegesis was Rick Warren going door to door in Southern California asking people, “Why don’t you go to church?” A lot has changed since then and understanding why people don’t attend church on Sunday is the least of our worries. In fact, the changes have come so quickly since that time that it leaves one breathless.
Theories such as Accelerating Change and the Technological Singularity suggest that we are exponentially reaching a point where keeping up will not matter. Regardless of the controversy surrounding those theories, “defining culture” is becoming a next to impossible task for many reasons.It should be pointed out that authentic Christian community creates alternative culture. That has been true since day 1 of the church. But our alternative culture always resides within, speaks to, and is spoken to by the surrounding society. The Jerusalem church was a different culture than the Corinthian church or the Ephesian church. The church in Jupiter influences Jupiter in a way that is unique to Jupiter. That is the first key to practicing good cultural exegesis. Generalities like “urban”, “suburban”, or even “South Floridian” are only marginally beneficial, and as noted above, may not even be possible to pin down from year to year. In the same way that good biblical exegesis starts with the text itself, good cultural exegesis starts with the place itself. What is it like to live in Jupiter, Florida? Why do people choose to live here, start families here, work here? What are the things that make people happy here? What are the places of pain that are hidden, or maybe not so hidden? These are the kinds of questions a good cultural exegete should be asking about their place.Of course, the only way to find the answers to these questions involve activities that the church has been pretty terrible at in recent history. We like to strategize the fastest possible means to institutional viability. In other words, how fast can I get paid? (And you think I’m being sarcastic). Cultural exegesis means checking the latest Barna survey or finding out what the other successful ministries are doing and copy, copy, copy. (And you think I’m generalizing). The kind of exegesis I’m speaking of takes time and patience. It cannot be done abstractly in a library or on google. A survey might be beneficial to some degree, but there is no replacement for relationship. A survey might tell you what the median income is in your neighborhood, but only relationship will tell you how many families were split up while that income was earned. The good cultural exegete spends time just being in their place, just living. Good exegetical fruit comes to those who wait.Again, like good biblical exegesis, when the work is done right, the answers come in time and with substance. Our goal is not to sit around forever waiting for the right opportunity. But we also aren’t making gross generalizations and wasting our time. We live, we watch, we act…that’s how good cultural exegesis turns into everyday mission.