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Prior to a few theology classes I honestly believed that the word exegesis was a nickname for Jesus. This is a bit like hearing a song lyric one way and then later in life seeing that lyric in print form and realizing you butchered the lyric in your head for far too long. I came to discover that the word exegesis actually means the process of careful, analytical study of biblical passages undertaken in order to produce useful interpretations of those passages.
Fast forward to a course I took at Bakke Graduate University where we began to apply the process of exegesis not just to our bibles, but to our communities where our theology is actually lived out in real life. In his book, A Theology as big as the City, author Ray Bakke attempts the intimidating task of surveying the whole of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation looking for insight into how God views the nature and mission of the church as the world becomes more urbanized. Bakke suggests that the social implications of global urbanization present significant missiological and ecclesiastical challenges. The thesis of the book is that the challenge of urbanization is primarily theological. Bakke says, “The frontier of world mission is no longer geographically distant; it’s culturally distant but geographically next door… Yesterday, cities were in the nations; today all the nations are in our cities.”
So, what would happen if we began to carefully study our communities for the sake of discovering God’s existing work in those communities? What would happen if we were able to produce useful interpretations of our community and then became participants in what God is already at work doing? What if we were to exegete our community?
While there are no doubt multiple approaches to this interpretive task, I will offer the four approaches I have found most helpful in my personal context of Birmingham, Alabama. In good preacher-like fashion all the approaches begin with the same letter, the letter “I”… but just remember, there’s no “I” in exegete!
Inspirational – The inspirational approach is the initial step into the community. God often uses prayer walks around the community to inspire His people to open their hearts to what He is already doing in a particular setting. This approach is creating a posture in which the Holy Spirit is able to lead and guide. God’s people are reminded of merely being custodians of God’s resurrection power in the midst of the world. The primary action item of the inspirational approach is to quiet one’s heart and listen to God’s Spirit.
In 2015, I mapped out a five-mile circle around our community and began walking and praying. Immediately, I discovered the details one begins to notice when one slows down the pace to a walk rather than the pace of a moving vehicle. I began my journey in our church parking lot. As I made my way out of the parking lot I began praying the words of one of my favorite songs, God of this City. I asked God to show me the greater things that were still to be done in this city. I walked past the community’s US Army Reserve Center and thanked God for our service men and women. I asked God how the church could better serve those who serve us. I walked past several businesses that inhabit space along the road our church building is on and prayed that God would bless those businesses with wisdom only found in Him. I walked past a local park and asked God to watch over the children in our community. A few minutes later I came upon an extended stay hotel. I prayed that God would open up doors for ministry there. I walked through a residential neighborhood and prayed that God would raise up workers in the harvest to share His love with families and individuals who called this place home. Ultimately, I prayed for God’s shalom, His holistic peace and presence, to indwell the city.
Incarnational – The incarnational approach assumes a presence in the community as one reflects on the example of Jesus putting on skin and dwelling among the people of God. As one lives in the community, the emphasis is on presence, observation, and conversation. The goal of this approach is to dialogue with various people from within the community in order to get a comprehensive picture of the community from a street level. Street level conversations are often unplanned yet intentional in nature. After two miles or more of walking, I decided to stop for some nourishment at the neighborhood Waffle House. I prayed that God would allow me to have a meaningful conversation with someone inside. I met Traci, a middle-aged woman serving as my waitress. Traci grew up in Birmingham, and after living in Missouri as well as Mississippi she had made her way back to Birmingham. She was working and going to school. We talked a little about her story, and then I asked her what she thought about our community. She had to think a minute, but expressed that our community was a “good place to live.” I asked her what she thought the one thing that people in our community needed. Her response was one word, manners. As a waitress, she described seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly in people. Traci was one of the happiest and friendliest persons I have ever met.
I continued walking as I prayed about my encounter with Traci. How do you teach manners in a community? What do manners look like in the kingdom of God? My thoughts were directed to the fruit of God’s Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). I asked God to teach me to walk in the Spirit. I wrestled with my propensity to live by the desires of the flesh, and how often the first things to go when I live as such are my manners.
The next piece of property I noticed was an apartment complex close to the local elementary school. I prayed for the residents of these apartments and particularly the children that lived there. I walked in front of a local motel, an alleged prominent location of sex-trafficking encounters in the community. I prayed that God would redeem the brokenness in the neighborhood and eradicate the evil in our community through the transforming work of Jesus Christ. I walked a total of five miles around the city that day. I was amazed at how God can reveal so much through submitting oneself to the incarnational presence Jesus modeled throughout his ministry.
Intentional. –The intentional approach is by far the most objective of the approaches. This approach gathers factual information such as community statistics and history. Interviews are also a key component of this approach and allow one to glean information, statistics and history from the community.
In his book, Well Connected, Phill Butler says, “All effective strategic partnerships are driven by an energizing, challenging vision and effective partnerships are a process, not an event. Moreover, durable partnerships have achievable objectives.” With this in mind, I decided to seek out “people of peace” within the community as Jesus describes in Luke 10. I wanted to better understand the felt needs of the community so our church could engage more fully with the real needs not just the perceived needs. I interviewed various representatives from organizations within the community to better understand each organization’s mission and prayerfully consider how our missions may align.
A secondary component of the intentional approach is researching your community. City data, census information and demographics are readily accessible with just a few clicks.
Involved – Lastly, the involved approach calls participants to get engaged in the community and its entities in an active, participatory way. The involved approach begins to move people to that place of participation within the community. As God begins to reveal felt needs within the community, one begins to involve themselves by utilizing community assets to meet those needs as well as catalyzing others to do the same.
The involved approach is where the rubber meets the road and looks different in different contexts. Appreciative inquiry (AI), the process of discovering what people do well, is a great tool to utilize to determine how to best catalyze involvement within the community. How can we equip those we serve to engage the community? What are the onramps to involvement in your context?
What might the exegesis of our community teach us about the Jesus who longs to transform that very community?