Recently, I’ve been writing about ways we can listen to our neighborhoods. I’ve been saying we need to lean in closely and hear the deep yearnings of those around us. Only then can we create bespoke ministry responses, not the off-the-shelf, prefabricated religious goods and services available in so many churches.
This process of digging deep into the soil in which we’re planted and designing truly contextual practices is called cultural exegesis. And it’s an essential part of the work of missional leaders.
Last week I introduced Michael Mata’s work on social research and began exploring how we can read the five S’s of any town or neighborhood – structures (which I looked at here), signs, spaces, social interactions, and spirituality. Later I want to add a sixth S of my own.
In this post I want to look at the second S in the list – signs.
Remember that scene in Bruce Almighty, when Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) is at the end of his emotional rope, driving through the darkness, begging God to send him a sign? He passes a flashing caution sign, but ignores it. Then a truck loaded with road signs reading Wrong Way, Dead End, and Stop veers in front of him. Still no reaction from Bruce. Caught up in his own worries and feeling sorry for himself, Bruce calls on God to send him a sign, while there are warning signs all around him.
Sometimes I feel a lot of pastors, church planters and community leaders are a bit like Bruce Nolan. Your neighborhood has signs up everywhere, and you need to start reading them.
What is written, posted or painted in a neighborhood tells a greater story than we are often conscious of. Taking the time to look intentionally will open our eyes to notice what we often miss. Billboards, advertisements, graffiti, tagging, bumper stickers, political signs etc. are all unique to each place. Reading beneath what is written helps to better understand the demographic, diversity, voice and values of a place.
Some signs provide needed resources, instruction or stated values for positive change. Others communicate violence, desperation, boredom, isolation or self-protection.
Sadly, churches seem to be quick to want to erect their own signs, as if to compete with the cacophony of other voices vying for people’s attention. And we’ve all seen the most embarrassing versions of church signs, haven’t we, from the hilarious to the offensive?
Instead, we need to do what Margaret Miles called “alerting the eye to keener sight” by becoming aware of the messages we receive from the images with which we live, and by assessing how those images are shaping our political and social perspective. If we get this right, we’ll be better able to develop a repertoire of images that help us to envision the transformation of life that God intends.
I remember hearing Christine Sine from Mustard Seed Associates in Seattle talking about a beggar in her neighborhood who had written a cardboard sign asking for money in English, Korean, Mandarin, and Farsi. She marveled that most ministers wouldn’t know what dominant languages other than English were spoken in that part of town. But beggars couldn’t be so ignorant if they were to survive in the city.
A while ago i was having coffee with a pastor in a local cafe in his parish. I looked across the street and saw a gym above a grocery store with a sign proudly displayed above the window, “Longest continuous running gym in the country!”
I thought that was pretty cool, but I wondered whether it could it be true. I asked my pastor friend.
He blinked at the sign, “Huh, I’ve never seen that before.”
But it clearly wasn’t a new sign. This pastor had the longest continuous operating gym in the country right there in his neighborhood and he’d never noticed it before. Do you think the owner might know a thing or two about the community? Do you think he could tell my pastor friend a few things about the social history of the neighborhood? This guy would be an amazing bridge into the community and my friend didn’t know he was there because he hadn’t looked up and read the sign.
After we finished our coffee we walked across the street and up the stairs to the gym above the grocery store. We had some cultural exegesis to do.
Take a walk around your neighborhood and start to read the signs. Read community noticeboards. Try to figure out who lives in your community from the signs they post or the signs that are posted to them.
Here’s some questions you can use when studying the signs in your neighborhood:
- Are there themes to the signs you see in the neighborhood?
- Who are they mostly catering to and for what purpose?
- Did it cost money to make this statement or mark or advertisement?
- What are the dominant languages used, values communicated, affiliations represented through these signs in the neighborhood?
- Who has a voice in this neighborhood and who doesn’t?
Remember, you’re looking for both the bridges and the blockages into genuine relationship with your neighbors. If you wanna find the bridges you’ve gotta read the signs.
And finally if you’re particularly interested in these ideas check out my forthcoming book with Christiana Rice, To Alter Your World.