“Things are going fine,” the young pastor told me. “But it will take them a while to get used to my preaching.”
“Yes,” I affirmed. “And it will take your preaching a while to get used to them.”
Like many pastors, I was taught to exegete scripture. I was given tools to better understand the text, so that I might more faithfully preach and teach the Word. Solid biblical exegesis is necessary for faithful local church ministry. I have come to find congregational exegesis is just as vital.
My friend, Corban, is a fourth generation farmer. Raised in Saskatchewan, Canada, Corban acquired farming practices that fit the climate and soil of South-Central Canada. A few years ago, Corban and his family relocated to several hundred acres in Middle Tennessee. Corban’s first task was to learn the land. He realized his farming practices would need to be altered given his new context. The climate, weed structure, intensity of pests, and health of the soil were dramatically different from his previous farming experience. He even had to change machinery. As a result, he replaced his entire line of equipment three times in four years. In order to adequately learn the land, Corban sought the wisdom of older, retired farmers. He listened to them to become a better farmer. His willingness to learn the land gave him greater success than he otherwise would have encountered.
Jesus’ incarnation gives us a model for congregational exegesis. The Apostle John recalled the Creator-God who spoke everything into existence when he referred to Jesus as “the Word” (John 1:1). The Word was spoken and sent from God. And we see in John 1:14 that the Word landed: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (TNIV).
Spoken words don’t matter much unless they land somewhere. Jesus landed—here—in skin. In the same way, spoken words might be true and right and good, but unless they land in the hearts and lives of our people, they have little chance of bearing fruit. Granted, we can’t force our words to land any more than Corban can force his crops to grow. Landing words is the work of the Spirit; but the more we learn the local congregation, the more we are able to cooperate with the Spirit to connect with our congregants.
Congregational exegesis requires longevity. Learning people is protracted work. While demographic data, congregational statistical information, and community profiles are valuable tools, there is no substitute for settling in to a local context over a long period of time. Roots sink slowly as life is shared—over cups of coffee at kitchen tables, on bleachers behind little league dugouts, and beside beds in hospital rooms. There are no shortcuts to knowing people.
None of the ministry of Jesus before He reached the age of 30 is recorded. We don’t know why, but it could be He took that time to deliberately associate himself with those around Him. While we often seek tricks or gimmicks that put us on the fast track to effective ministry, there is no substitute for being part of peoples’ lives for a long time.
Congregational exegesis also requires humility. The first piece of advice I give to young pastors is: “Don’t pastor the church you want; pastor the church you have.” Instead of beginning by asserting our notions about how we think the church should be, we should begin by learning the church as it is. Instead of approaching the local church as if it were a clean slate waiting to be blessed with our infinite wisdom, we must become students of those who have lived the local story. We enter the story in the middle. God has been working prior to our arrival. And for us to faithfully bear witness to God’s continual activity, we must be willing to humbly hear what has been happening.
Lenora Tubbs Tisdale uses dance imagery: “To enter the dance fully requires of the preacher a certain abandonment to (the congregation’s) rhythms, a willingness to become so passionately engaged in the dance that its cadences actually reshape and redirect the preacher’s own steps” (Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art). To step into a congregation’s rhythm is to humbly set aside our own.
I still remember my first Sunday. My voice quivered as I stood in front of the congregation. I told them, “For the first few months, I only plan for us to do two things: worship God and get to know each other.” I felt a collective exhale in the sanctuary when I spoke those words. I needed to hear them more than they did. My first few months of ministry were much like Corban’s. I sought the wisdom of the older saints of the church, and I listened to them, so I could become a better pastor.
Eleven years and lots of listening later, I may not be the best preacher. But I am their preacher.
Daron Brown lives and pastors in Waverly, Tennessee.