Exegeting the Congregation
In his book Widening the Horizons, pastoral theologian Charles Gerkin proposes that practical theology is a “narrative hermeneutical” undertaking. Practical theology involves reflection upon the meanings of the biblical narrative (and its component stories, images, and themes), reflection upon the meanings of the Christian community’s life and work in its various dimensions, and a “fusion of horizons” that brings the “worlds of meaning” together in a mutually critical and potentially transformative way.1
While postponing a more detailed discussion of “horizon fusing” for preaching until chapter 4, I do want to affirm with Gerkin that preaching—an act of constructing local practical theology—is, at its core, an interpretive (hermeneutical) enterprise. It requires of the pastor skill in interpreting the texts of Christian tradition, skill in interpreting the texts of congregational life and activity, and skill in bringing the two worlds together in seriously imaginable and transformative ways for a local community of faith.
As has already been observed, however, pastors have not always been as well trained in congregational exegesis as they have been in biblical exegesis. While many pastors would like to aim toward preaching which can be deemed “local practical theology,” they are also in need of methodologies by which to plumb the depths of congregational contexts in order to come to fuller and more nuanced understandings of their subcultural assumptions.
In this chapter we will outline one approach to congregational analysis—a symbolic (or “semiotic”2) approach—that can assist the local preacher in discerning and interpreting the “texts” of congregational life and activity. Assuming that congregations are indeed subcultures—each with its own particular communicative network of signs and symbols—we will encourage pastors to become amateur