There has rarely been a better time for cultural exegesis, BARNA, Pew, Lifeway, Church Leaders and others have given us the tools to Discern the times we live in.
Jonathan David Faulkner
Every now and then I like to introduce my congregation to a tool in the pastor’s tool bag. As part of the instruction I received at Seminary to teach the congregation about my job as a pastor. To peal back the curtain for them, to show them what goes into the work of pastoral ministry and into those sermons they hear every Sunday. Those tools include Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology and the topic of today’s article: Cultural Exegesis. I introduced this to my congregation during a Christmas Sunday Sermon called: Small Christmas Rebellions” from the book of Micah. The purpose of this tool, as many of you know, is to help us discern the times in which we live and by the leading of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, hammer out applications that speak to what we are seeing in front of us. To take all the data that is present and available to us and then hold the Word of God over it and see how it might speak into our cultural moment and how it might speak to the fears, joys, concerns, rejoicings of your congregation.
For example, Thom Rainer tells us that exactly 90% of churches in the United States of America are in decline. That means that 10% have experienced sustained growth or have plateaued. When you consider that in 2012 there were 113,000 Protestant congregations in the United States that means 11,300 protestant churches grew, if you only apply this metric to protestant churches. When you count in Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox the number is likely much, much higher. 11,300 is still a large number and a significant number. However, most of our congregants hear the 90% of American Churches are in decline and look at the now empty pews that were filled when the church was at its peak and those empty seats combine with the statistics create anxiety. We also hear words like “post-Christian” and our knee-jerk response is to fear what is coming. We look at the 90% and not the 10% and ask: “why is this decline happening?” when instead we should look at the 10% and ask: “Why is growth happening, what are these churches doing?” It is easier to dread and be anxious about what is coming rather than look deeper. Statistically speaking the picture looks dim until you realize that 11,300 of something is a big number. Just like in David Kinnamen and Mike Matlock’s book “Faith For Exiles” when they talk about the 10% of Millennials and Gen Z who meet the criterion for what they call: “resilient disciples.” 10% seems daunting until you consider that this 10% represents 4 Million Christians between the ages of 20-35. So while the religiously unaffiliated is growing and secularism is on the rise, there is also hope for the Church. As Tim Keller says: “Both Secularism and Christianity are growing at the same time.” This is not a “this or that” scenario, it is a “both/and” scenario. The question then that needs to be asked is: “What makes this 4 Million “resilient disciples” and how can we multiply that?” This question brings us to the extremely helpful tool that BARNA and the other research groups mentioned above become extremely helpful. They not only gather the information; they also help us interpret it. The whole point of the book mentioned above is to answer the question at the end of the last paragraph. What has been the defining factor in building resilient disciples? This book lays all that out and gives us a blueprint on how to duplicate it.
For my own part I can say that what has helped to make my faith resilient to the cultural currents is laid out within the pages of Faith for Exiles. Reading the book is like reading my own faith journey from about 2011 in Denver to today in Buffalo Center IA. The only reason my faith has survived the last four years especially has been the five factors laid out in the book and living in community with those who are part of that 4 Million.
I was in New England when my own denomination and LifeWay and Pew came to research the state of the Church in New England. We were told they were expecting doom and gloom, they expected to find the place where only 3% of the population was in Church on Sunday to be in dire straits, spiritually dead and in a state of decay, what they found and what they brought back to us was one word: “Thriving.” Just the opposite of what they were expecting. They found churches like my fellow CCCC Pastors whose little church was both thriving spiritually and building resilient disciples. That is not to say that New England is perfect, the same cultural divisions exist there as exist everywhere. The Same inter-generational misunderstandings and debates rage in their churches at times. However, if there is hope for the church in the west, the south and the Midwest it will lie in copying how the New England churches have gone through the transition from Post-Christian to Pre-Christian that the New England Churches went through 10+ years ago. As Cultural Christianity dies or at the very least becomes a smaller and smaller enclave and biblical Christianity becomes again the only way to advance the Gospel, the towns that have yet to go through these transitions and are now starting too will need to follow the example of our New England brothers and sisters who in most cases are putting the old divisions behind them and laying aside the infighting and actually doing what Scripture has put before us to do. Much like the Early Christians we will not have a choice as to whether we live out the full council of scripture or cherry-pick what we want to apply. We will continue to have less and less wiggle room outside of Orthodox, Biblical Christianity. A liberty we should never have taken in the first place.
Culture Exegesis and Cultural Discernment give you the ability to read what is going on in the culture and biblical and systematic theology allow you to draw on principles and applications from scriptures fullness to speak into the times in which we live, to speak with the boldness of the Holy Spirit into the anxiety of our church members and into the darkness of our world. You can tell them that even though Christianity may find itself in the margins in the next five years, and in some places it already has, that is actually a good thing because in places where it has become marginalized, it is actually growing. I can say that because of Cultural Exegesis and Cultural Discernment. I can look at the State of the Church and see what we are losing, or probably more accurate, what is being pruned away, is weeds and thistles that are chocking the Gospel and hindering its spread both at home and abroad. Cultural and Political Christianity are cancers and it does appear God is pruning them out of the branch, though some are not going willingly. We are quickly reaching a point where, in some places, Dean Inserra’s “The Unsaved Christian” will be irrelevant, and the good news is, that’s a good thing. When we stop pretending we are Christians, that is, having no relationship with God and fruit that in fact, is the opposite of Christian Fruit. We can get around to reaching people for the Gospel. These distortions of Christianity will likely always exist, but they are shrinking and doing exactly what Philip Schaff said they would in 1844, disappearing altogether or reforming to the biblical Christianity given to us by Jesus.
That is the other thing that Cultural Exegesis gives us, it gives us a glimpse into the tools God is using to reach the next generation. That’s the greatest reason to do your cultural exegesis, so that you know how God is reaching people in your generation and the one after you. There are great books out right now from BARNA and by James Emory White on both Millennials and Generation Z and they are worth reading and contemplating as you work to move your church from anxiety to evangelism. They paint both a picture of hope and caution about the future of Christianity, taking the good with the bad, drawing out the nuances of both. The tools God is using to reach the younger generations are not the ones He used to reach the previous generations. Mass evangelism is on the decline, but one on one evangelism is on the rise, people sharing their faith by the way they live and speak in their local communities. That is why I do not think making Christian Celebrities is helpful, they distract from the personal nature of evangelism through care for my neighbor and the building up of my community. It has allowed us as Christians to be checked out on the world and to turn our backs on it as if those Christian Celebrities are going to reach thousands.
Yet, the cultural exegetes tell us that the best way to reach the next generation is not to bring them to church, but to bring them to your dinner table. To model first for them the benefits and blessings of a relationship with God through Christ through sharing those things in relationship with them. Evangelism isn’t happening in the pews, when it happens, it happens on the front yard, in dining rooms, in living rooms or in game rooms. It is happening in bars and pubs through Theology on Tap groups, some of which have birthed churches within my own denomination. These are the things that the cultural exegetes tell us God is using to reach the younger generation. These tools are actually like what God used in the Early Church. There is even truth to God using dreams and signs and wonders in some parts of the world. We do not need to abandon the sanctuary, especially since young people do enter our churches, they are looking at the authenticity of our lives and the way which we live out what the Bible teaches. They actually could care less about what type of music we worship with, so long as it is done in a manner that is real and true and authentic. They do not want a brand, though they have been trained up with a “Brand” mentality, they recognize how fake that can be. The other issue is that many of them have read our bibles and looked at the church and said: “you are not living this way, why should I listen to you on ___________” (you name the issue).
The old adage is true, you disciple people with what you win them with. If you disciple people with a Christianity that doesn’t resemble scripture, you will disciple them with one. If you win people with an authentic Christian Witness, you can disciple them with an Authentic Christian Witness. This is something many who grew up in the church need to learn how to do, because they were discipled with programs and by programs, and not by older men and women of faith. The church needs all generations to be healthy and grow, but we are failing to practice the exhortation to be one when we look at one another with suspicion and distrust. Our modus operandi should not be the way that culture speaks to us (even if they did learn it from us) but should be how scripture shows us to speak to one another. If we win people with the agenda of the world, we will disciple them with the agenda of the world.
Young Pastor, it is imperative that you learn how to discern the times in which we live. Not just the date, but how to interpret the data and apply it within the context of how you lead your flock. Many in your congregations are anxious and are in need of some good news and they are in need of a strategy for reaching their neighbors and towns. They also need someone aware enough to lead them into whatever God is doing next. Cultural Exegesis should be an equal tool to biblical exegesis (biblical and systematic theology). Will it add to your sermon prep time if you are not doing it already? Yes, but it is worth it for you and your congregation. Scripture is still relevant in our time, we do not need cheap platitudes or verse quoted out of context, they need to know who the Word of God speaks into their lives today and instructs them to live in this day and age. Your younger members are especially hungry for it, asking for it, praying for it. I know this because I have done Cultural Exegesis, because I have read the research and learned how to interpret it. This is an important tool for us as pastors and we need to start utilizing it more by the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
With all this said, I want to encourage you to go out and buy some of the books mentioned in this article. If you do not have time to read them outright, you can get most of them on Audible, though it may seem Ironic to read “Faith for Exiles” on Audible. Then start to integrate these things into your preaching. It serves to get you out of the bubble that can form around you but also get your congregation out of their own bubble. To wake us up to what is going on in our world. Read them and ask the Spirit to help you discern them for the sake of your flocks. It is needed now more than ever, and the resources have rarely been better. Use what God has put before you and use it well.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.