In a 2008 commencement address to Duke graduates, novelist Barbara Kingsolver advised a wizened optimism to an audience raised in the Age of Irony, an audience only too well aware that “we’re a world at war, ravaged by disagreements, a bizarrely globalized people in which the extravagant excesses of one culture wash up as famine or flood on the shores of another.” In words that call to mind historical movements of human freedom fueled by emancipatory hope in action, Kingsolver says, “The arc of history is longer than human vision. It bends. We abolished slavery, we granted universal suffrage. We have done hard things before. And every time it took a terrible fight between people who could not imagine changing the rules, and those who said, ‘We already did. We have made the world new.’”

Both abolitionists and women suffragists were in part empowered by distinctively Christian hope to confront the evils they inherited, even as their adversaries misused Scripture to uphold structures of oppression.Young people today are inheriting the evil of rampant consumption and a planet showing signs of demise; they also need to inherit a form of hope equal to the challenge of their age. It is this kind of hope—a worldly hope grounded in God’s covenant—for which we go looking. It is this kind of hope you might recognize as you think about your own context in light of the churches we describe here. An emancipatory hope in action does not abandon the world or seek to perfect it, but it does set out to change it.

But how can we the church and its leaders best pay attention to hope? How do we listen to a congregation’s stories? Ethnography, the art of immersing oneself in a place long enough to hear its unique rhythms, is one such way of paying close attention to hope where it emerges. Ethnography is a specific way of listening deeply to congregations from a perspective of care and empathy, rather than pretending to be unbiased, detached observers. It is not only a research method but also a way of doing ministry. Learning to listen can transform the way we minister.

Ethnography: Listening with New Ears 

Ethnography seeks to uncover small truths in discrete places, thereby helping to bridge the gaps left by big-picture research methods that sketch the contours of large cultural movements.

Big-picture research projects are immensely helpful to those who care about congregations and young people. The National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), led by sociologist Christian Smith, studied the religious lives of more than three thousand U.S. teens and re-interviewed them when they were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three to see how their religious lives were faring as young adults. In a book reporting on the first study, Smith said that young people’s religious beliefs mirror those of their parents, but not in a way we can be happy about. In a mouthful of words that nonetheless became common parlance in youth ministry circles, Smith defined “moralistic therapeutic deism” as a form of colonized Christianity that he finds prevalent among the young people he and his researchers interviewed by phone and in person. Moralistic therapeutic deism bears little resemblance to historic teachings of the Christian faith, instead reflecting a version of American civil religion in which God fixes things, roots for your team, and rewards good behavior with a happy afterlife.

All of this is useful information to people in churches that care about their young people. Smith’s findings have stimulated conversation among congregational leaders who hope to reorient Christianity in the United States toward a more faithful living out of the gospel. In reviewing the book on Smith’s most recent findings, youth ministry scholar Kenda Creasy Dean uses it to do just that: “While most American institutions drop out of young people’s lives during emerging adulthood, churches are uniquely equipped to practice the art of spiritual accompaniment, sharing a way of life with young people that participates in God’s activity in the world before, during, and long after confirmation, until young adults are ready to spiritually accompany someone else. Smith’s research offers us hope, but not a blueprint. Churches should take it from here.”

Many churches would like to follow Dean’s advice and “take it from here.” But how? If indeed moralistic therapeutic deism runs rampant in U.S. culture, how do we wiggle free of it long enough to provide alternatives that reflect the gospel more authentically? Dean reminds us that many mainline churches do not see themselves reflected in the limp theology Smith observes. Their young people may not have been the ones interviewed; they may have a very different story to tell. These are the stories that slip through the cracks of large-scale, mostly quantitative research on young people and the church.

Ethnography—with its detailed snapshots of real human communities—suggests a way forward. Rather than interviewing thousands of people over the telephone using standard surveys during the dinner hour, ethnographers move into the neighborhood. They take a close-up look at one particular pocket of church life, which involves attending worship services, educational hours, car washes, and bake sales. Ethnographers listen carefully to the music and the lyrics in the hymnbook and on the iPod. They look closely at the art hanging on the walls and ask question upon question of members at all levels of leadership. All of this takes place over months and sometimes years of interactions that involve face-to-face, participant observation and telephone, e-mail, and web-based information gathering.

Sometimes, the act of listening intentionally and empathetically breaks open an insight that can fuel impassioned action in the one who is speaking. In ethnography, all of this is okay. Not only is it okay, it is expected and affirmed. Ethnography is a way of learning about people that discards an earlier sentiment that research should be detached, unbiased, and scholarship-at-a-distance.

Cultivating an Ethnographic Disposition 

Over the past decade, ethnography has become a popular way to engage in learning with people in congregations. The more researchers began using these tools unapologetically, the more they began seeing within them ways to improve the practice of ministry.

Something beautiful happens when a skilled listener creates a safe space for stories to be told in an unhurried, unworried fashion. Ethnographers find themselves at times entering into a holy space, a space in which the speaker may be saying something brand new, even to themselves.

Thomas E. Frank, a seasoned observer of church life, writes about turning to ethnographic practices of listening as a way to escape what he perceived to be market-driven perspectives prevalent in church-improvement literature. He found most of that writing to be largely prescriptive, tending to depict a congregation “as a franchise in a service industry, completely missing the remarkable imaginative life of a community of persons who stay together over time, practicing a faithful way of life together.” As an alternative approach, he favors a disposition toward ethnography that “honors this particular congregation, the one right in front of me, the one I am serving.”

Ethnography is a descriptive act that is not for the sake of sharing best practices of exemplary congregations alone, but, more significantly, to help readers see their own context from a new angle. “The soul thrives on contemplating difference,” Frank writes, “for if I see your place and symbols clearly, I can see my own more distinctively as well.” In addition, he says, “Imagination is sparked by the juxtaposition of opposites, the collision of difference.” Laying distinct worlds side by side can sometimes allow an unexpected view to emerge.

Even though you may be a leader in your congregation, you should learn to occasionally practice being an observer, listening closely to the people in your congregation, at times withholding your immediate response in order to slowly and carefully tease out a full description of another person’s way of seeing things. As Frank says, “Paying attention is . . . a spiritual discipline that not only centers one’s life but opens the way to entirely unanticipated dimensions of experience.” Perhaps you will find yourself stepping back for a moment to really pay attention to a person who typically drives you crazy. Instead of retreating to a time-honored response, you may just pause, listen, and turn to wonder about the story that lies beneath a strongly held belief about the salary of the youth pastor or the designated parking space for ushers. You may even go poking around to see if you can unearth the story. In given a listening ear, the story may release its power into a form more accessible to being used by God’s Spirit.

Practicing an ethnographic disposition doesn’t mean you listen to everything with equal attentiveness. You become attuned to what matters most to you; and you listen carefully in multiple places for what may be connected to that. If you are a person who cares about the future of the church and you see the importance of engaging young people in falling in love with its future, an ethnographic disposition can help you apply a “wizened optimism” to your zone of influence.

Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog   

Adapted from Greenhouses of Hope: Congregations Growing Young Leaders Who Will Change the World by Dori Grinenko Baker, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. 



AL409_SM Greenhouses of Hope: Congregations Growing Young Leaders Who Will Change the World  
by Dori Grinenko Baker 

The authors who collaborated on this book launched a quest for vibrant, life-giving, greening congregations and observed the diverse practices that grow there. They named these churches “Greenhouses of Hope.” A Greenhouse of Hope is a Christian congregation freeing itself to experiment with both newly imagined and time-honored ways of following the path of Jesus. Its members respond to God’s love through practices that genuinely embrace the gifts of youth and young adults. Out of these greenhouses emerge young leaders who want to change the world.   

AL338_SM Church on the Edge of Somewhere: Ministry, Marginality, and the Future
by George B. Thompson, Jr.

Many congregations today exist in the “middle of anywhere,” living comfortably with the surrounding culture and focusing their energies on serving the needs of members. These congregations have many strengths and gifts that they can exercise without changing a thing. But Thompson envisions a deeper, more prophetic call for congregations: a church on the “edge of somewhere,” one that is deeply engaged in ministering to the community while calling on others to commit to doing the same. 

AL394_SM Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation  
by Carol Howard Merritt 

Much has been written about the changing landscape the church finds itself in and even more about the church’s waning influence in our culture. From her vantage point as an under-40 pastor, Carol Howard Merritt, author of Tribal Church, moves away from the handwringing toward a discovery of what ministry in, with, and by a new generation might look like.

AL295 The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church   
by Diana Butler Bass 

Diana Butler Bass’s groundbreaking project to explore encouraging signs of vitality among mainline Protestant churches is now gaining the momentum of a movement. The Practicing Congregation is a central text on the road to envisioning a new way of being a church. 


Whitsitt, Landon_SM Ever wonder why young adults flock to Wikipedia and shy away from your church? Join Alban author Landon Whitsitt for a rich journey through the “wiki-izing” of your congregation.    
October 11-13, 2011, Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center
 Learn More 

For a full list of learning events, check out
  Alban’s 2011 Event Calendar  


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