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The Big Idea: Exegete Your Culture and the Text

How Preachers can Exegete Their Culture: An Interview with Dr. Matthew Kim

Matthew D. Kim is assistant professor of preaching and ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a past president of the Evangelical Homiletics Society. He is currently writing a book tentatively entitled Preaching with Cultural Intelligence forthcoming with Baker Academic. I sat down with him to discuss the concept of "cultural exegesis."

PreachingToday.com: Let's begin with a definition. What is cultural exegesis?

Matthew Kim: John Stott wrote a landmark book three decades ago called Between Two Worlds. He presented a homiletical paradigm encouraging preachers to become "bridge-builders." By this, he meant that preachers should bridge the gap between the ancient world, where the Bible was written, and the world today. For many listeners, the Bible seems foreign, having little to do with their everyday lives.

Cultural exegesis is an extension of that. It's a rigorous study of the lives and cultures of our listeners. Just as we exegete or draw out meaning from Scripture which is biblical exegesis, we also want to exegete or draw out meaning from the lives and experiences that we share with one another today.

Can you give us an example or two of when you've had to do some cultural exegesis in your preaching?

Preachers often assume that they understand their people more than they should, especially those from the same racial or ethnic background. For example, in my doctoral work, I investigated the preaching in second generation Korean-American church contexts in the United States. I'm a second generation Korean-American. This is my cultural experience.

As a preacher, I'm still seeking the central idea of a given biblical text. But how I package and deliver that central truth will be different depending on who's listening.

What I found in my research was that many second generation Korean-American pastors don't preach sermons tailored for their second generation Korean-American listeners, but rather prepare sermons for a general American audience. I argued that Korean-American preachers need to prepare messages in view of Korean-Americans' bi-cultural experience who encounter both Korean and American cultures living in the United States. Often, these two cultures collide and our listeners are seeking to make sense of who they are and who they will become.

This colors how sermons are preached, and how they're heard. For this reason, I believe all preaching requires both solid biblical exegesis and solid cultural exegesis. To the best of my ability, I want to understand my listeners' view of God and Scripture, hermeneutical lenses, doctrinal beliefs, cultural and core values, life experiences, interests, hobbies, goals, dreams, fears, disappointments, expectations, educational background, occupations, personality traits, and other related issues.

And for me, this has been especially important when I haven't been as familiar with the cultural context—such as when I've had African American and Hispanic American listeners in the church.

How does cultural exegesis relate to preaching?

Preachers work to apply Scripture to a cultural context or contexts. Cultural exegesis doesn't change the inherent meaning of the Scripture passage, but it impacts its significance for the specific audiences who hear it.

As a preacher, I'm still seeking to ascertain in every sermon the central idea of a given pericope, for example. But, how I package and deliver that central truth will be different depending on who's listening. As I prepare the outline, illustrations, application, and write out the manuscript, I am actively considering the life experiences of my listeners. In every sermon, I'm trying to reach two or three different cultural contexts and subcultures that exist in the congregation by honing my assumptions about worldviews, my illustrations, my applications, or my word choice.

Why are you so passionate about this issue?

My passion for cultural exegesis actually began at a young age. As I listened to sermons, a lot of them left me feeling like the preacher didn't really understand my experience. He or she interpreted and preached the text only from his or her cultural experience without making any attempt to tailor the sermon for the varied listeners in the room.

There are many listeners in our churches who wonder how the Scripture applies to their cultural experience. As preachers, we want to preach sermons that address their life concerns. I understand that pastors are busy. The concept of doing "cultural exegesis" as part of regular sermon preparation may seem daunting or foreign at first. But cultural exegesis doesn't have to be a formal process. We can do cultural exegesis simply by sharing cultural perspectives over coffee or over a meal together.

There may be some preachers who say that their churches are rather homogenous. What cultures and subcultures should preachers be aware of in their churches?

Good question. In many parts of the United States, we're not going to witness much diversity with respect to racial and ethnic groups. However, within our churches, we will find people from various generations, political perspectives, cultural values, life stages, personality trait differences, learning styles, stages of faith development, interests, hobbies, and worldviews, etc. When we sit back and take in a panoramic view of the congregation, we'll begin to see that people are widely different from each other culturally—even though they may be of the same race. We don't find differences only with those of a different racial makeup. In fact, we may have countless things in common with a person of a different race except for the hues of our skin.

The key is to observe and get to know all the people to whom we've been entrusted.

As a preacher, how have you grown in your ability to do cultural exegesis?

When I first began preaching about 14 years ago, I was focused only on the text. How am I going to communicate this message to the people? That was my only concern.

Now that I've been preaching for a while I'm noticing the significant need for both rigorous study of the Scripture and a rigorous study of cultural contexts. It takes some effort on our part but I'm constantly trying to think about how a person from cultural context X will best understand God's message for them. Cultural exegesis is not limited to the field of homiletics but it's become a way of life as I get to know all types of people around me.

How can preachers incorporate cultural exegesis in their preaching?

Cultural exegesis may seem cumbersome or intimidating especially when we're not used to speaking to people who are different from us. I think cultural exegesis happens on two levels: academic study and relationships. We can begin to exegete a specific cultural context by reading about them and their needs. Really, it's about understanding their cultural story.

At the same time, we want to couple that head knowledge with experiential knowledge as we engage in conversations with those around us. Take a moment out of your week to dialogue with someone who is culturally different from you. That cultural difference can be on any level. Ask them lots of questions. Once we gather this information, we can pray about how God can use this knowledge in the pulpit. Now, I want to be clear that we don't want to stereotype all people from cultural background Y. But, the new information we have about a certain culture will inform the way that we preach.

Matthew D. Kim is Professor of Preaching and Pastoral Leadership and holder of the George W. Truett Endowed Chair of Preaching and Evangelism at Baylor University's Truett Seminary.

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