If we want to meaningfully connect with our neighborhood, we need to be able to read the city and neighborhood well. Exegeting a city or neighborhood is a basic task of a missionary, where you seek to “draw out” the meaning of a people and place in order to see the power of the gospel more fully transform the neighborhoods in which we live. When we live with a missionary mindset, like Paul, we will meaningfully walk around and live in our neighborhood, taking the time to observe what people consider most important (what they worship), what they fear, what they believe, and what they idolize.
Acts 17: 22-33 is one of the classic texts to exegeting a city. Take a moment to read through that passage, with the mindset to pick up clues to how Paul interacted with Athens and the people living there. Take special note to what he saw, what he felt and how he engaged the people. For when you engage in the work of exegeting a neighborhood within the context of the city, you will need to know what to look for, allow time to honestly respond to what you see, and find ways to interact with people of peace and others in the neighborhood. One of the reasons we need to exegete the neighborhood and city to which we have been sent, is because we need to find the best way to take the whole gospel into the real context in which people are living. As Rene Padilla has said, “To contextualize the gospel is to translate it in such a way that the Lordship of Jesus Christ is not an abstract principle or mere doctrine, but the determining factor of life in all its dimensions and that basic criterion in relation to which all cultural values that form the very substance of human life are evaluated. Without contextualization, the gospel will become tangential or even entirely irrelevant.”
Exegeting the Neighborhood within the City
So how do we go about reading our neighborhood within the context of our city? While neighborhoods within larger cities are quite different from one another, it is helpful to give some focus to the neighborhood within the city and the city itself. One of the ways to do this is by understanding the basic culture of the neighborhood and city. While there are many good ways to do this, I want to show you how to do this by looking at some of the key elements of the cultural web that I developed to understand the cultural of a congregation. For the same elements are essential to any culture, and can help us to discern the nature of our neighborhood within city. In its most basic form, culture includes six elements – language, artifacts, narratives, rituals, institutions and ethics. These elements interrelate to create culture and make up what I call the “cultural web.” To simplify things even further, there are four basic questions you can ask to gain a fairly good understanding of a particular neighborhood and/or city, based on the key elements of a culture.
As a way to help you answer these four primary questions, we will dive a bit deeper into each element of culture and consider a number of other questions, with the goal of being able to answer these four primary questions with greater depth. 1. Narrative: What story is the neighborhood within the city calling us to embody? When seeking to understand the narrative of a people, you need to consider what they believe about God, or if they believe in God (theology), what they believe with a sense of confidence (doctrines), and the (stories) that they tell each other, the stories that they live into based on the music they listen to, and the various kinds of media that to which the continually expose themselves. Here are some questions that help us get to the heart of the overarching story that our city is calling us to embody.
2. Rituals: What is the core practices that people engage in which shape their identity and sense of mission in life? To understand the life shaping rituals of the neighborhood within city, you need to observe the formal ceremonies that are fused with meaning that people engage in (rites), the common (practices) in which people routinely engage, and the everyday (liturgies) that people partake in that shape their ultimate desires, identity and sense of the good life. Here are some questions that help us to understand the thick practices that people routinely engage.
3. Institutions: What are the primary institutions that are shaping the city, and how are they shaping people’s identity and destiny? Institutions have certain (structures) that speak to the distribution of power and decision making, (systems) that either encourage the flourishing of the city or demise of the city, and (symbols) of success and failure that shape people’s sense of worth.
4. Ethics: How would your city and/or neighborhood define success? Ethics are the moral convictions that shape the life of community and speak to people’s sense of (being), which in turn shape people’s (doing). Ethics require space and time for people to engage in (reflecting) on their lives and their neighborhood, in order to examine if they are promoting the common good.
While this is not a comprehensive approach to exegeting the neighborhood within the city, by answering these four primary questions, you will have a greater ability to understand how to be the good news in your context. For the more we understand the culture of our neighborhood, the better we can bear witness in word and deed to our neighborhood, bring the transforming power of the gospel to our neighborhoods within our cities, and make the invisible kingdom more visible.