How to Learn About the Audiences You Serve
Faithfully exegeting the world around you
In one of my first seminary classes, I discovered what it meant to exegete a Bible text. I learned how to responsibly approach a passage, understand the original audience, discern the authorial intent, and interpret the Scriptures appropriately, all to help me grasp what God might be saying to people today. This was a game-changer. Suddenly I felt equipped to go deeper into God’s Word than I had ever gone before.
But over time I also found myself asking a new question: Might there also be another kind of exegesis, one that focuses on the audiences we seek to serve?
We cannot lead those we do not know. As you think back through your life and training, how many of your leaders and teachers were ineffective because they didn’t understand you? Perhaps they were experts in their field, but they failed to recognize the unique factors that made you tick, and this was an impediment to their leadership. The same disconnect can happen in our leadership, and it’s especially problematic when we seek to lead people into an encounter with the powerful Word of God. How can we extend God’s invitation when we do not first understand the audiences we are trying to invite?
Shouldn’t we try to figure out how to approach them, how to understand them, and what they care about?
This is essentially exegesis. Just as we would approach a text, learn its historical background, consider the drives and priorities of the human author, and explore the culture of its first recipients—don’t we need to do the same thing with the people we lead? How can we draw them into the conversation? What’s their background with Scripture? What passions pull them into the Bible and push them away? And what messages are they receiving from the surrounding culture?
I have come to believe that, just as we are tasked with diligently and faithfully approaching God’s Word, we must also be intentional about applying that same discipline to understanding our culture.
Our Rapidly Changing Culture
What’s the one thing in this world that never changes? Change. A Greek philosopher said that 2500 years ago, and the world has been changing ever since.
We often speak of the unchanging nature of God. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). And, while human culture has the permanence of desert grass, we know God’s Word endures forever (Isaiah 40:6-8). These truths are sturdy, worthy of our trust.
But God’s Word also points us toward change. A biblical prophet observed that God’s mercies are “new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23 NIV). A psalmist invites us, several times, to “sing a new song” (Psalm 96:1; 98:1). And the groundbreaking ministry of the apostle Paul could fairly be described as agile, adjusting to new audiences with new approaches. We have a solid message that stretches to fit the identity of each new generation.
I know that many Christian communicators have already taken the challenge to bridge the gap of history. They understand that the world has changed a lot in the last twenty centuries, and they’ve been working on new ways to share biblical truth in modern terms. What I’m saying is that the world has changed a lot in the last twenty minutes. We all need to keep up. And we need to keep on keeping up.
Fifty years ago, Christians were trying to prove the Bible’s veracity in opposition to skeptical scientists. Just when we got good at apologetics, the world changed. The idea of knowable truth was suddenly up for grabs. A generation ago, we were worried that young people had lost their moral compass—they had no sense of right and wrong. But now we find a new cadre of young people who are passionate about ethics, only it’s not the same set of rights and wrongs that we’ve prescribed. Now we’re still attacking the problems of post-modernism while the culture has moved on into post-post-something else. We keep fighting last decade’s battles.
I want to be clear: this is not about being trendy. It’s not about looking hip or using the latest buzzwords. It’s about hearing the questions people are asking today and responding in Christian truth and love. Right? Our challenge remains the same, even as the pace of change grows ever more rapid. How can we invite our neighbors to connect with, receive, and understand the everlasting hope of the gospel when their language, media, and culture shift so quickly? We need to keep up.
Applying Truth within Culture
We sometimes talk about modern culture as a monolithic entity. In fact, the people we lead are living in multiple cultures. Generational differences, socioeconomic disparities, political persuasions, ethnic identity, language, and other factors create different cultural environments. Church culture itself is a thing. We don’t want to stereotype different people-groups, but we should learn all we can about the surrounding influences affecting the people we lead. How will they hear our message, and how will they apply it? It’s challenging but essential to get beyond our own cultural and individual biases to meet others in their contexts.
Faced with this challenge, some Christian leaders punt. They put the Word out there in its old-time format and trust that it won’t “return void.” Isn’t God’s Word powerful enough to accomplish its purpose without cultural modification? Sure it is. But this approach generally overlooks the communicator’s own culture. That leader might be relying on a translation from 1611 and a theology from 1910 to address the issues of 1968 in a style from 1990. Our message is enculturated whether we know it or not, and we’re often blind to our own cultural baseline.
This doesn’t mean we get to make the Scriptures say whatever we want them to say. We always need to work at discerning faithfully what the biblical writers were communicating about God to their audiences, even when there are surprises or corrections. We come humbly, acknowledging that God's ways are not our ways and that God's thoughts are not our thoughts. And we ask God’s Spirit to help us transplant the biblical message into modern cultures, with all the corresponding surprises, corrections, promises, and challenges.
I’m calling for a double exegesis. Exegete the text as thoroughly and faithfully as you can, but also exegete the culture of those you lead. In this way, I pray, we would all become, not barriers, but bearers of God’s Word to people desperately in need of its life-giving, life-breathing, life-transforming message.
Tips to Exegete Your Cultures
To help us continue on this journey, here are a few tips that Sherwood Lingenfelter, Ph.D. offered in Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership:
- Never stop learning: The first step to exegeting culture is the same as exegeting the Scriptures. Learn all you can about the people and context you’re serving. Who are they? What is their background? What are their worldviews? What are their preferences? Understanding these will allow us to take the first step toward crossing any cultural divides that may exist.
- Never sacrifice your integrity: In a culture where #AlternativeFacts seem to matter more than truth, it is critical that we guard our integrity. A failure to approach the Scriptures with the integrity of exegesis can prevent us from correctly discerning what God is saying to us. In the same way, failures of our personal integrity can quickly shut the door of trust as we extend the Bible’s invitation to others.
- Give away your power: People may look to you as a provider of God’s Word. That’s a powerful role to play, but don’t rely only on your own insight. The culturally distinct lenses that others bring to the Bible can unlock new understanding, meaning, and application you might not see on your own. By empowering others to contribute to the scriptural and cultural interpretive process, we inspire them to build bridges of Bible engagement, leading them to connect with a God who speaks powerfully into their lives now . . . and twenty minutes from now.
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