Discerning Mission

Reflecting on ecclesiology and ethnography

Back in May, Dr. Chris Scharen hosted a two-day conference at Luther which explored the interplay of ecclesiology and ethnography. Here Dr. Terri Elton offers some reflections on the meeting, and poses questions worth pondering:

What does it mean to bridge theology, in particular ecclesiology, and the social sciences? Is pursing such a bridge even a worthy endeavor? What motivates the search for this bridge? What benefit does such a pursuit have for the greater good?

In the room, ruminating on such questions, was a thoughtful and humble group of scholars who themselves are actively engaged in creating conversations between social science research and understanding the church. The group consisted of persons from many different geographic locations, from both inside and outside the United States, with roots in various theological streams and Christian traditions.  So what do I walk away with from these two days?

- Interdisciplinary work is hard, and engaging in it is exhausting and energizing, as it pushes past one’s current thinking and often exposes blind spots. I love that reality and I am troubled by it. As a researcher and scholar, I feed on the energy that comes when pushed outside my known way of thinking and being as I pursue ideas. And at the same time, this endeavor challenges me, it calls out my ignorance, reminds me of my limitations, and causes me to doubt my place within “the guild.” In other words, it lifts up humanness, both my agency and my brokenness. And I think it does the same for the church.

- Who ethnographic research is directed at matters, as does how it is pursued.  Perspective matters. Method matters. Language matters. People matter. God’s church matters. All of these are key aspects of the bridge that joins ecclesiology and ethnography. Yet, how one addresses each of these impacts what bridge is built, how sturdy the bridge is, and what impact the bridge will have. Will the bridge be helpful for God’s church and God’s people? Will I, as the researcher, get in the way of the message I seek to put forth? Is my language helpful or harmful? Did the research method used get at the question that caught my attention? Does this line of curiosity move the church forward in participating in God’s ongoing work in the world? Attending to these matters is important.

- Passion for God, God’s people, and God’s church is not everything, but it is something. Deeply engaging the work of understanding God, through disciplined theological endeavors, is important and critical work, as is deep listening and disciplined engagement with God’s church, because we, church leaders, teachers, and researchers, cannot simply rely on our love for God and our passion for Jesus Christ when it comes to studying the lived experiences of God’s people. Yet, such work, without a passion for God, God’s people and God’s church, takes on a different task. Personally, this means I need to continue to struggle with the disciplined work of ecclesiology and ethnography, individually and in conversation, all while I continue holding onto my passion and love for Christ.

So, as I continue to ponder, I offer these early reflections and invite you to wonder with me. 

Terri Martinson Elton Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN

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