City Exegesis

Principles for loving your city

Some believers use the city to plant a church. Others plant a church out of love for the city. Allow me to share a story:

A young family decided to move to East Los Angeles to start a church for the neighborhood. The man was white, and after two years of getting to know his neighbors, he started a Sunday service. He was having difficulty growing the church when one day a local asked if he were a police officer. He laughed and responded, “No, definitely not.” His friend later explained that the entire neighborhood thought he was an undercover cop because of the way he dressed and carried himself—and for this reason many people were staying away. Talk about a bad day for a church planter. . . .

He and his wife were heartbroken and began to pray about leaving the area to start a church somewhere else. After seeking the Lord, they decided not to leave until two things had happened: they’d raised up a leader who would transition into the primary role as lead pastor; and the church had grown to at least 200 people so that it could sustain a full-time salary for the new pastor. In the end, they stayed for another five years—growing the church and training a replacement.

When they’d moved to LA, they’d thought the city would welcome their dreams. They ended up sacrificing their dreams for the sake of the city.

The gospel teaches us that Jesus Christ loved the city of Jerusalem even when it did not love Him in return (Luke 13:34)—even with crowds that turned on Him, culminating in a final rejection outside the city walls (Mathew 27). Therefore, we ministers of the gospel must follow Jesus into a depth of love for our cities, come what may.

Three steps to exegete your city

It will be difficult to have deep and meaningful relationships within your city unless you focus on one particular region, neighborhood or people group. Metropolitan areas are simply far too big and complex to reach as a whole, with one church.

Take our church plant in Los Angeles, for example. When we moved to LA, we discovered that the metropolitan area contained 18 million residents, speaking 224 different, identified languages. So we first focused on a 10-square-mile region, then narrowed that down to one particular enclave: Highland Park.

My wife, Sarswatie, and I asked a Christian sociologist to give us a presentation of the history of LA, with an emphasis on neighborhood development. After the two-hour presentation, we spent time driving the streets. It was our first step toward “exegeting” our new neighborhood.

Josh and Sarswatie Buck and family

To exegete your neighborhood is to “draw out its meaning.” The meaning of any place lies in its story, culture and value system—different features of your mission field that overlap and are married to one another. This is where you start.

1. Learn the story.

To bring the gospel narrative into the story of your neighborhood, you must first know the story of that neighborhood—inside and out. Take special care to learn your neighborhood’s history from multiple vantage points—not just your default cultural position.1 What do the politicians, the wealthy, the poor, the single moms, the gay community, etc., believe to be the past, present and preferred future of the area? Then, take an active part in honoring the noble parts of the past as building blocks for the good of your neighborhood’s future.

Practical steps for learning the story: Read lots of books on your city,2 taking time to identify common themes and points of disagreement. Develop 10 questions that you ask every person you meet from your target area—you’ll uncover both shared values and points of confusion or tension. Then, read the Gospel of Luke with this question in mind: “How did Jesus enter into the story of His neighborhood?”

2. Study the culture.

Culture3 is the grid by which we interpret the world around us. Learning and understanding the cultural contours of your neighborhood is far more difficult than learning its story. A city pastor must know the culture(s) of the people well enough to apply the gospel of Jesus into culturally charged situations.

Practical steps for studying the culture:4 Repent of your cultural biases, racist tendencies and proclivity to “think you know” about culture.5 (This step cannot be overstated.) Develop close and honest friendships with community members from different cultural vantage points—your city will only be “a project” until the people draw close to you and your family. Get lost in the city, literally; explore unfamiliar streets and meet new people. Identify the neighborhood centers—where different people groups hang out. And seek out informants and “culture brokers”—those who are most in-tune with the heartbeat of your new home and will help you decipher what is going on.

3. Discover the values.

Community values are the overarching “good” that locals stand for; anti-values are the overarching “bad” that people stand against. The values of your community will lead you to the idols, pressure points and relevant topics. Some community values naturally complement the gospel, and other values must be confronted with the gospel.

For example “tribal loyalty” is a significant value in Highland Park; people value their people group (race, ethnic group, socioeconomic place) above all else. Antioch’s value of family complements the community’s value of tribe, so Antioch’s talk of family is easy on the ears of Highland Park residents.

Yet Antioch’s value of mission confronts that same value. The gospel of Jesus calls believers to love their enemies (Matthew 5:44), become family with other people groups (Colossians 3:11) and sacrifice for “the other” (Luke 10:25-37). Highland Park residents are skeptical of “the other” and will cross tribal lines only if to do so guarantees prosperity for their own tribe. Therefore, the talk of missions and reaching out to “the other” is a challenge for community mobilization.

Practical steps for discovering the values: As you learn the story and dive into the culture, work to uncover the belief system of your neighborhood (or people group)—aim to articulate five major values. Think: What do people sacrifice the most time, money or energy on? What do they dislike the most? What provides the most happiness? Finding answers to these questions will cause the values to rise to the surface.

These three steps to exegete your city will give you a roadmap to help you get to the heart of your city a little more quickly. But remember: Your city isn’t a project. It’s more like a person, and building that relationship requires observation, time and patience.

At the end of the matter, in order to have a sustaining love for people of the city, we must always be fostering and guarding our love for God. That will allow us to apply these lessons, principles and strategies to the glory of our great city-loving God.

1 History is always written more boldly by the victors and oppressors.

2Barna Group recently released its new Cities report, a comprehensive database measuring issues of faith for 119 different U.S. cities—and possibly yours?

3 There are seven basic elements of culture: social organization (i.e. family), traditions, religion, language, arts and literature, government, and economic systems.
4 For an extended list of practical steps to learning culture, read Neighborhood Mapping, by Dr. John Fuder, especially pages 19-20.

Important reads on this topic for the author included: The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander; Guarding the Golden Door, by Roger Daniels; Mañana, by Justo L. Gonzalez.

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