Cultural Exegesis and Contextual Research

I am curious to know if any of you have done the work of exegeting culture, especially in regards to church planting.  If you have, I would like to know what questions you asked and what methods you implemented in the process. I know that good exegesis requires current and accurate demographic and ethnographic research as well as field surveying, and I am hoping learn more about how to gather, interpret, and come away with helpful implications for strategy and design for the indigenization of the plant.

Here’s some stuff I am currently working on regarding a new church plant:

Demographic Research

This is a graph of some demographics I pulled on the area which I found quite telling:

While there has been exponential growth in population, the ethnic groups have grown at an even faster rate.  Given their education and work force, the population is comprised of blue-collar workers who commute on average 35-40 minutes to their jobs (which in turn affect the usability of work environment for target purposes).  The commute is mostly due to housing options and cost-of-living (affordability).

The second chart deals with the number of unchurched in the area:

What I did was gather the total attendance of all Southern Baptist churches according to the 2007 Annual Church Profile, and the number came to just under 1,800 people.  Then, having gathered information from other denominations, I came up with a close proximate number of 2,900 people in a population of over 67,000 residents.  Granted, there are residents who may attend church outside the city (as some of our members do), but I can safely say that 60,000+ residents are unchurched–9 out of 10.  And this in the Bible belt of the South.  There are other charts and graphs, but I will spare you all the details.

Field Survey

I am currently working on learning the culture and helping the core group better understand and apply their knowledge to the mission at hand. While it is tempting to rely solely on hard statistics, such information needs to be validated and/or challenged.  Fortunately within our core group, there are families who have lived in this area since the early 1900’s and know the culture very well.  Yet, I am hoping to dig deeper, looking for the following information from the culture:

* Determine worldviews and religious beliefs
* Discover community and culture centers
* Discern idols of the city and idols of the heart
* Draw from customs, traditions, and other socially shared ideas
* Delineate between the biggest changes, challenges, and needs of community

These aspects are important for the purposes of being conversant with the culture, confronting its idols, communicating the gospel, and connecting with others with the love and compassion of Christ.  Having laid out the context, one can connect the text with the context with a philosophy of mission and design of ministry that is unashamedly biblical and unrelentingly intentional.

Doing good cultural exegesis is something that requires considerable time and attention, listening and learning.  Paul certainly knew that to be true.  He knew the culture of the Jews and the Greeks, the way of life for those under the law and those without the law.  He was able to connect with the religious folks in the synagogue and the secular folks in the marketplace.  The culture did not dictate his message, but neither did he deny its existence.  Within the missional matrix of God, gospel, mission, and church, the culture should be understood and interpreted so that we communicate Christ effectively in our own neighborhood.  And this is where I am finding myself as we aggressively pursue the 90+ percent of unchurched across the street.

One of the questions I am thinking about asking the core group in this area is, “If your job was to be a tour guide around your city and neighborhood, what would you show me, and where would you take me?” If you’ve got any observations or good questions to ask regarding cultural exegesis, please pass them on.

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9 Comments on “Cultural Exegesis and Contextual Research”

  1. poopemerges Says:

    Timmy: I think your last question for the core group is excellent! I can be a numbers junkie…so when we planted I did all the same number stuff (I think it is important) but what I have learned is that the numbers can not replace interaction. I learn more and more every day just by picking my daughter up from school.

    Numbers have taught us some things though, for instance there was 200% increase in the Latino population from 1990-2000 and it that rate has only increased in the last 10 years. We know that to be effective that we can not ignore this population. That is helpful in our thinking.

    Anyhoo…great questions.


  2. Ken Says:


    The people who are long term residents may not have the same picture of the culture of the area as someone who has moved into the area in the last five to ten years.

  3. Ken,

    That’s a very good point. Where we are here is a convergence of European culture with Latin American culture both being blended into native Florida life.

    Over 70% of those who live here are not from Florida. The majority of those from the northern states are snowbirds who come to live here, and most of them are German and Irish. The majority of those from Latin America are from Cuba and Puerto Rico, though for instance, in our church, 21 nationalities are represented (Dominican Republic, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, etc.).

    In this particular target area, there are more Mexicans and Haitians than other communities, which is another thing.

    Furthermore, there are not only cultural differences and traditions between those of different languages (English, Spanish, French), but there are cultural differences among Latino population (e.g., Cuban and Mexican, or Puerto Rican and Dominican). And anyone from the South knows there are differences between them and the Northerners! Ain’t that right? 🙂

    Then there are the natives who are been squeezed out by the massive influx of migrants from the north and south. Talk about an interesting mix!

    So yeah, cultural exegesis in this particular context is needed, and needed to be carefully done. The temptation is to stereotype and make generalizations or simple presume that because they speak the same language or have the same _________, then they are all just alike.

    All this to say culture change and migration have played a big role in the last decade, which goes back to your comment.

  4. One more thing that I found interesting. The #1 area in the United States regarding the foreclosure crisis is Lee County (where we are). This means even more drastic culture change. What I am learning is that because the American dollar is so weak and the Euro is so high, Europeans are taking two week vacations down here and buying up these homes which are now 50% cheaper than they were just two years ago. In our Hispanic congregation at Grace, we have had over 50 members forced to relocate due to job loss or financial struggle. So there you have the economy driving the culture change, apparently for the Europeans and against Latin Americans.

  5. Mark Says:

    Can I recommend the “Cultural Exegesis” series from Baker Academic

    We have looked at approaches like those of Schreiter to listening to Culture…

    functionalist (determining how the parts fit together to form the whole),
    ecological (determining how the society relates to its physical environment),
    materialist (determining how the physical environment affects the culture’s worldview, needs and response to social change)
    structuralist (determining the unconscious patterns that shape the culture).
    semiotic (A semiotic approach to listening to culture examines the signs, messages and codes that express meaning in that culture. Because of the diversity within any culture, a semiotic approach relies on descriptions from different perspectives, among them inside-outside and speaker-hearer points of view)

  6. Bryant King Says:

    **Full disclosure: I am one of those core members and probably the one Timmy is referring to when he talks about the family who has been in the area for some time.**

    I hope my entering this discussion is appropriate and helpful. I know you are asking general questions, and I bring a lot of specifics to the table, but I hope that helps.

    One of the specific challenges of Lehigh is that it is rapidly changing. In the ’80’s and 90’s we referred to Lehigh as “The home of the newly wed and nearly dead.” At this time, I still used parts of northern Lehigh as hunting grounds for dove and rabbits and would capture snakes in other parts. Some of our church members now live in these once unpopulated areas. For several decades, Lehigh was one of the cheapest SUBURBS in Lee County (named for Robert E. Lee). Living in Lehigh meant you didn’t live in the city, you probably owned your own home, and you had a sense of “rural pride” even though conveniences were close by. You may have only owned a 1/4 acre lot, but there were probably not a lot of other houses nearby, so you felt like you had a bit of land. This is still the case in many parts of Lehigh. When the Lehigh corporation came in the ’70’s (?) (I wasn’t born until 1976 so some of this is coming from handed down history.) they were mandated to put in roads as they sold land quickly and cheaply. There was a worry that the land would be sold and none of the promised development would ensue. What you had for many years was roads all over Lehigh, with no houses on them. This has changed in the last 8 years as more homes are built.

    The same thing that attracted young couples and retirees on a budget to Lehigh was the same thing that attracted Hispanic immigrants and blacks leaving the inner city, namely, cheaper housing that didn’t feel “urban.” In the last 10 years, the racial make-up of Lehigh has changed dramatically. I am told by an employee in the office at Lehigh middle school that white students are now a minority. Whether this means that whites are a minority in child bearing segment of the population, or that non-white families have more children, or that many of the white children are attending other schools, I can not say, but your racial statistics may not tell the whole story. Lehigh now has Hispanic gangs and marijuana grow houses. No homeowners of any race wanted to see those things come to Lehigh, but now they are there.

    After graduating from dental school in 2003, we moved back to Lee County and rented in Lehigh for 2 years. I liked my neighborhood and neighbor. We lived in a nice 3/2 with a reasonable rent. There was a nice Hispanic family next store. The wife spoke English, but the husband did not. We would often meet out in our yards and exchange waves and smiles, but we couldn’t do much more than that. The duplexes down the road though seemed to be drawing in a different crowd. Many cars at late parties spilling out into the street became the norm in some of those duplexes. I presume that both my Spanish speaking neighbor and those who spoke English or Spanish in the duplexes needed the gospel. Unfortunately, I did not connect with either.

    I now live in the adjoining community of Buckingham which use to be mostly redneck, but is now what I would call “upscale redneck.” Most everybody living in Buckingham has at least an acre of land and 2.5-5 acres is the norm. Other than one Puerto Rican family and my adopted black children and assortment of foster children, the rest of my neighborhood is white.

    You will get a different picture of Lehigh depending on where you are standing. When I stand on the deck of the pool where my kids go to swim practice 3 days a week, I see a different Lehigh than when I go to my pediatricians office or even to the gas station with the cheapest gas (usually the Hess at Homestead and Beth Stacey). Some people in Lehigh want to live there, others do not.

    Over and above this, though, what Lehigh needs is the gospel. The gospel, the gospel, the gospel! Then they need a healthy church to help them live out that gospel! Eventually, the gospel will probably need to be in English and Spanish and maybe even Creole. Additionally, there is a small, but established German community in Lehigh. Many years ago, the Lehigh corporation advertised cheap Florida land to Germans, and some responded. It seems that most of those Germans speak English, though.

    Much of the work will need to be done by people like myself reaching out to people we know and come in contact with. You couldn’t reach all of these people even if you tried, Tim. I am looking at my witnessing opportunity to friends in a whole new light now that I know we have a church plant coming. I know guys through my reptile breeding ventures that I am going to approach with new zeal and try to introduce the gospel to. I have 8 employees. Only one of them likely could articulate the gospel. I have friends that I grew up with who need the gospel desperately. I don’t think that I can reach my parents, but perhaps my fellow church members and church can. I think your question for our core group is a good one, Tim. Perhaps another good question would be, “Tell me about who is on your prospect list for our new church?”

    Ken’s point above is spot on about some of us talking about “the way things were” and not necessarily the way things are. Consider my above comments in that light.

    Sorry to take up so much space, Tim, and to answer specifics to a general question, but I do have ulterior motives. I would prefer to steal you or one of Grace’s other pastors away for the new church plant, but that would be really bad form- an ecclesiological faux pas let’s say. So at some point, we are going to have to find a pastor with a heart for church planting and a commitment to the gospel and a healthy church. This commitment will have to be evident in their life. A lot of seminarians and church planters read your blog and it is very likely that they are reading this. My future pastor may be reading this very sentence and he may have never heard of Lehigh, Florida, but it is a great place to live and there is much work to be done here for the Kingdom of God. We would covet everyone’s prayers in this endeavor.

    Bryant King

  7. Timothy Says:

    >”I can safely say that 60,000+ residents are unchurched–9 out of 10.”

    No, I don’t think you can as your numbers are way out of whack with the statistical average. According to the recent Pew study on Religion, only about 16% of the U.S. population is unaffiliated. So to get to your 90% rate, you must be widening your definition of “unchurched” to iclude far more than just the unaffiliated. Your including many Catholics who are unlikely to atttend a Baptist Church even if they have lapsed in their church attendance. Ditto for Agnlicans,. Lutherans, Pentacostals, etc.

    Based on a 16% unaffiliated rate, there would be 10,858 unaffiliated persons availabe as a pool of potential converts. At an average size of 200 congregants, one could plant up to 54 congregations assuming a 100% conversion rate among the unaffiliated.

    So, at a minimum the formula for calculating for a church plant would be:

    Population X % avalable for conversion X conversion rate = church plant population

    I’m sure Lifeway (Bapist) or Maryknoll (Catholic) mission staff have developed more accurate formulas.

    God bless…


  8. Timothy,

    As a catholic, it appears you are well versed in demographic research. Assuming that this post has prodded interest in you (enough to warrant a comment), I would be interested in hearing what catholics are doing to evangelize the lost with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Do you mind sharing?

  9. Here’s one question I would like to ask in every neighborhood of every city…

    “Think of the closest church to you. Jesus commanded them to love their neighbor as themselves. How are they doing — one to five stars?”

    “Oh, and we’ll be back to measure the progress next year.”

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