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Adventures with Larry & Caleb: How Are You Exegeting Culture?

Upstream co-founders Larry McCrary and Caleb Crider are living in very different places: for Larry, Madrid, Spain; for Caleb, Richmond, Virginia. Along with their families, they’re not just teaching Tradecraft missionary skills, they’re also applying them. So we wanted to tap into their unique experiences and at the same time parallel their local and global perspectives. So “Adventures with Larry and Caleb” will be an ongoing series throughout the year where we ask them one mission-related question at a time. Here’s the question for this week:

How Are You Exegeting Culture?

Larry McCrary

When I think of the word “exegete” I go back to my hermeneutics class in seminary. The idea behind the word is to draw out the meaning from Scripture according to the context. The opposite of “exegete” is what you don’t want to do in preparing for sermons: eisegesis. This word means to put into Scripture some meaning that simply is not in the context.

So these are some pretty important words when it comes to teaching the Bible!

There are some parallel uses of these words when it comes to the culture where God has placed us. We need to properly understand our context so that we can most effectively communicate the gospel there.

My friend Caleb Crider writes about this more in our book called Tradecraft. We even have a chapter focusing on exegeting culture. In Caleb’s response below, he so succinctly writes what that looks like in his current context. While I cannot go into specific details about my context, I wanted to at least provide a few crucial elements of how I go about exegeting culture.

  1. Intentionality – Properly exegeting a culture takes intentionality. I determine to set about doing this in every aspect of my life. In a foreign context, this means learning the language well. Most languages have a formal language construct that’s learned in schools, but there’s typically a colloquial version as well. This is the more informal lingo often used on the streets. Learning the traditional forms is obviously critical, but understanding the colloquialisms helps me get at the heart of the culture. I am also intentional about reading and listening to what is going on in my community. This means reading the local newspaper, watching the local news, going to community events, and joining clubs or activities. This gets me into what the community is into. As I make friends and build relationships, I enter into a whole new realm of cultural insight. I begin to see the world through my friends’ eyes. This allows me to build gospel bridges that actually make sense to my friends.

  2. Local Shopping and Transportation – Nothing is nearer to the heart of a people than the things they work hard to produce, food especially. I try to shop in the neighborhood so I can get to know the store owners and their customers. This also helps local business owners – not to mention that their products are normally much better and cheaper! Though it may seem like a great inconvenience, it’s actually really advantageous that I don’t have a car. I walk, train, metro, or bus everywhere I go. This puts me in constant contact with people, which allows me to be studying all the time.

  3. Journaling How do I study? I try to take field notes of everything, which is simply writing down things I see and experience. Then I seek to process what I’m learning. As I read Scripture, stories often come to life as I reflect on interactions with our people.

  4. Being a Learner – This has actually been really hard for me. My default used to be that of an expert coming in to give insights and strategy. The older I get, however, the more I realize how little I know. The more I learn about culture, the more I sense I need to learn. This posture of a student rather than a teacher leads me to asking questions eagerly. I often get to the gospel in conversations simply by asking lots of questions.

  5. Creating vs. Joining – When it comes to engagement strategies we often talk about starting something from nothing. This puts us in the mindset of creating. We connect with the culture only enough to get our thing going. But I have learned the importance of observing what is already taking place. This puts me in the mindset of joining what God is doing so that he can bring something new out of it. This makes me desperately attentive not simply to culture, but to God.

Caleb Crider

We’ve lived in Richmond for almost two years now, and despite our efforts to know and understand this city, we feel as though we’ve only scratched the surface. Culture can be like that, though – inherently difficult to get to know.

If you do it enough, cultural exegesis becomes a habit. When we were living in Western Europe, studying culture was part of our job. We devoted hours of each week to deliberately immersing ourselves in local language, food, art, and events in order to better understand the people to whom we had been sent. We knew the gospel; we needed to know the people in order to understand just how to share it with them in a way that maintained its redemptive yet counter-cultural message.

In Richmond, we exegete culture by participating in things we do not fully understand, but recognize as culturally significant. The farmer’s market in the park near our house is an easy way to see Richmond’s arts, culinary, and agricultural scenes. Our neighbor, who makes organic dog food and sells it at her market stand every weekend, serves as a “cultural informant” for us. She helps us see the differences between what she calls “Old Richmond” and “New Richmond”. Old Richmond is basically longtime residents who value time-honored tradition. New Richmond is the more recent immigrants who often frustrate themselves by ignoring that tradition. All of this is particularly helpful insight for us on mission in the city, as it gives us categories of people (missiologically, these can be considered population segments), and it reveals some of the attitudes that prevent the spread of the gospel across the social barriers.

Last week, another neighbor celebrated his 50th birthday by throwing himself a huge extravaganza of a party. He’s a huge music fan, and deeply invested in the local independent music scene. We were honored that he would invite us to attend what turned out to be a very cultural event. Local alternative folk and rock bands played in his backyard music festival complete with an open bar and all-you-could-eat barbecue catered by a local restaurant. Men wore bow ties and seersucker suits, and women wore party dresses and went without shoes as they danced. People gathered in small groups and told stories. We got a glimpse of a side of Richmond few people see, and we loved every minute of it because it helped us better understand the people around us.

Events seem to be key to cultural exegesis in Richmond. You can learn about the city by reading books and going to museums, but you come to know the people by attending a Brunswick stew (a picture of “household” if I’ve ever seen one), joining the PTA (where there’s a committee for everything), or playing in a recreational soccer league (where aging athletes try to relive the glory days). We are learning the city by participating in its life.

The better we know the city, the better we can be at living and proclaiming the gospel to its citizens. We’re now armed with specific examples of sin in this place, and also with illustrations of God’s provision for the people here. The best part of executing culture is that our participation ties our welfare to that of the community around us. The more we know people, the more invested we become. For a city in desperate need of Christ, we pray that our intentional presence would be a way by which God might lead people to the saving knowledge of Him and the purpose we find in His mission.

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