This essay defends the significance of ethnography for ecclesiology. It does so by engaging with the ecclesiology of John Webster, particularly his essay ‘In the Society of God’, which directly challenges the appropriateness of ethnographic methods for a theology of the church. The discussion demonstrates the importance of Webster’s warning against the reduction of ecclesiology to an uncritical embrace of the apparent ‘givenness’ of empirical observations, but also argues that his approach is less useful for analyzing and criticizing the failures of the church community. The essay concludes by arguing that ethnography has the potential to enhance the church’s capacity to recognise, and thus confess, its sins, but also to deepen its corporate discernment and attentiveness to the presence of God’s activity in its midst.
D. A. MacGavranUnderstanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans1990); L. J. Francis and C. Roberts ‘Growth or decline in the Church of England during the decade of Evangelism’ Journal of Contemporary Religion 24.1 (2009) pp. 67-81.
S. SnyderAsylum-seeking Migration and Church (Farnham: Ashgate2012); W. Vaughan Jenkins and H. Kavan ‘Sermon Responses and Preferences in Pentecostal and Mainline Churches’ Journal of Empirical Theology 22.2 (2009) pp. 142-161.
The conference was held in March2011and the paper is published as: J. Webster ‘In the Society of God: Some Principles of Ecclesiology’ in P. Ward (ed.) Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans 2012) pp. 200-222.
J. Webster‘Theological Theology’ in Confessing God: Essays on Christian Dogmatics II(London: T&T Clark 2005) p. 22.
R. HütterSuffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans2000); M. Volf and D. Bass (eds.) Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in the Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2001).
See: M. Horkheimer‘Materialism and Metaphysics’ in Critical Theory: Selected Essaystrans. M.J. O’Connell (New York: Continuum 1995) pp. 10-46; T. Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 3rd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1996); B. Latour S. Woolgar & J. Salk Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton: Princton University Press 1979); S. Shapin A Social History of Truth: civility and science in seventeenth-century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1994).
For example see: A. HirschThe Forgotten Ways: Reconstructing the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press2007); D. MacLauren Mission Implausible: Restoring Credibility to the Church (Milton Keynes: Paternoster 2004); D. A. Roozen & C. K. Hadaway Church & Denominational Growth (Nashville: Abingdon Press 1993).
McGrath p. 110. For another example that shares much in common with McGrath’s approach see: N. Adams and C. Elliott ‘Ethnography is Dogmatics: Making Description Central to Systematic Theology’ Scottish Journal of Theology 53 (Autumn 2000) pp. 339-64.
See for example‘The Interior Castle’ in The Collected Works of Teresa of Avilatrans. K. Kavanaugh & O. Rodriuez (Washington D.C.: I.C.S. Publications 1980) as discussed in S. Coakley ‘Deepening Practices: Perspectives from Ascetical and Mystical Theology’ in M. Volf & D.C. Bass (eds.) Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in the Christian Life (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans 2002) pp. 78-93.