This post has been republished by the Exponential Network
One of the most important things I learned early on in church planting was this simple truth: You are not a church planter first, you are a missionary first.*
Let me explain.
The current reality of church planting is such that nearly every church planter is moving outside of his or her own known cultural context. Meaning, like myself, people are moving from the confines of what they know and understand into an environment where familiarity of the people, language, culture, customs, etc. are unknown. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, if we do not do the work of cultural exegesis, how will we ever be able to properly translate the gospel and communicate in word and deed what the good news is in our new context. Therefore, I believe, as church planters, we must first take on the posture of missionaries.
Five years ago this was my journey. I moved from the Chicagoland area to the city of San Francisco to plant a church. There was, as you can imagine, a great cultural difference between the suburbs of Chicago and the city of San Francisco. Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me if I wanted to not only honor the city I was called to, but more importantly its people.
In order to take the posture of a missionary you must begin to learn the language, the customs, and the culture of the city to which you have been called. Here is a short process for how I went about understanding my culture.
The first thing you must do is listen intently to the city. This is a skill that you not only must develop, but never set aside. If you continually listen you’ll be able to hear the subtle shifts that take place within the culture of the city.
I started listening by simply sitting in the most popular coffee shop in our neighborhood. I would simply sit with a cup of coffee and a book pretending to read but really eavesdropping on the conversations around me. I heard people’s hopes, their dreams, their struggles and challenges. I heard conversations about politics and elections, ballot measures that were important to people’s hearts and which ones were frustrating and frivolous. I learned about the city’s view of children and families, of the local schools, and where people worked. I also learned what tv shows, newspapers, news programs, podcasts, music, blogs and books people were engaging.
I also listened to the news. Every night I watched the local 5 o’clock and 11 o’clock news. I listened to what was important to the city.** I listened to the newspaper columnists as well, and even browsed the comment sections of the online op-ed pages. This provided me with a great deal of insight into what the hot-button topics or important issues residents faced. I also started listening to local podcasts to get another flavor of what was happening and taking place.
Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sights were very important for me to engage with as well. These were the mouthpieces for my culture. You, undoubtably will find similarities in your context and other avenues that are the major mouthpieces for your culture. It is important to listen well and synthesize the wealth of information you ingest in order to create a better understanding of the city and culture you are called to.
Listen to the city and listen well.
Talk a walk regularly and often. (Couple this with prayer… just don’t close your eyes and bow your head–you’ll miss a lot and probably run into things.)
Every afternoon I would venture out on a nice and long walk throughout my neighborhood and simply observe everything that was taking place. I looked at new construction projects, what people were wearing and the types of accessories they held with them from tech to fashion. I looked at what people were reading, the types of cars that were present in the neighborhood. I looked at the types of businesses, coffee shops, whether they were local or chains. I looked at the types of people in our neighborhood, whether there was a presence of homelessness or not, whether there was a visible economic disparity, what political signs people displayed in their windows or on their cars, how many churches and what types of churches, what other religious communities are around, etc, etc, etc. Look around regularly and see what you can see.
The things you observe may begin poking holes in your preconceived notions… and that’s okay, and a good thing. Make sure you have a teachable posture, an observant posture and make sure you’re paying attention to what you’re seeing.
Learn about your neighborhood as best you can. The NY Times recently put on their site a tool called Mapping America that consolidates some of the 2010 census information. It is a great help to a church planter, giving you a great ethnic breakdown of not only your city, but your neighborhood. I also would recommend taking a look at the Barna Group’s Cities Report for your area. Pay attention to their detailed “theographic” breakdown. There is a wealth of current information regarding your culture.
Take your time pouring through statistics on Census.gov to help understand your context and city from a birds-eye-view. You’ll get a good sense of ethnic breakdown, educational breakdown, age categories, and other indicators that will help you paint a picture of the make-up of your city. There are services out there that will run reports for you that can be helpful and will consolidate all of this work for you, but if you’re cheap like me it’s easy to put in the legwork yourself and you can do it for free.
Take time to learn from those who have come before you. Sit down with other church planters that are recent entries into the city and ask them about what they’ve learned, their successes and their struggles. Sit down with established churches and pastors who have been in the city or area for 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, or more. Ask them what they’ve seen in the life of the city and how it relates to the church in their time. Be a good student of the city and learn from them.
Take time to learn the intricate history of your city, from its founding to major turning points, what drives people to your city and what causes them to leave, study the economics of your city, the cultural hubs and hot spots, the religious history and movements that have come and gone. You should know everything there is to know about your city… meaning take some time to sit down with a city historian–there’s always someone who knows the history whether they have that title or not. Find them.
Take time to learn from leaders in the city. Hang out at the local firehouse for an afternoon or two, or seven. Do a ride along with police officers in your precinct. Work to schedule time with your neighborhood association, your district supervisor/alderman/council person, the Mayor, with your State Representatives, Congress person, whomever you can. I would suggest shooting for a 15 minute meet and greet with one or two really good questions that you’d love to hear their perspective on. In a city like SF getting together with any of these people is a really difficult proposition, our Congress people are Nancy Pelosi in the House and Feinstein in the Senate… not a likely possibility even though both of them know SF really well (Feinstein used to be the mayor of SF.) However, I can say that I tried really hard to get a sit down to no avail.
If you do get an opportunity to sit down with your city leaders, make sure you are prepared and respectful. You’ve got 15 minutes, a lot of good learning can take place in 15 minutes. I’d suggest taking these steps after you’ve learned as much as you can in other arenas of the city.
The bottom line is that you should be the best student of the city to which you have been called.
Finally, you should love the city. If you have done all of this research, taken all of this time to know the ins and outs of the city and you haven’t fallen in love with it, then perhaps you missed your calling. All of these steps not only should help you figure out ways to communicate the gospel in the most effective way possible in both word and deed, but should create within you such a deep love and longing for the people to whom you have been called. This love becomes a stark reminder when the going gets tough of just why you are there in the first place.
Are there other ways you’ve found to be invaluable to exegeting the culture to which you’ve been sent?
* Honestly, this could be said of any individual. We are all called to be missionaries wherever we go.
** In our area there are 5 major news outlets: NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, and KRON4. It was important for me to find the one that covered San Francisco news more often than the others. I quickly discovered that NBC detailed mainly San Jose and FOX mainly covered Oakland. ABC, CBS, and KRON 4 were your main sources of San Francisco news. I settled in on ABC as my local source of news after checking the three SF area broadcasts because my impression was that they were handing SF issues better.