Ethnograpy 1: Living the Strories We Tell

You shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 26:5-8a, NRSV).

The stories we tell create the reality we experience and the future we move toward.

Every culture has its own stories, icons, and images. Icons, images, and stories weave together into a fabric, so familiar to those who live in it, that it is not even noticed or seen to be remarkable. Often one can find codes of behavior which become an unwritten code of right and wrong – lists of dos and don’ts - which result in limited imagination and possibilities never considered.

For several years I worked with Church Innovations Institute as an Associate Consultant. One of the skills I learned there was doing ethnography. We would ask a congregation to use a process of appreciative inquiry to develop an understanding of the ethnography of the congregation. Ethnography is the fancy word for finding out about a people’s culture through the stories they tell.

Rather than asking questions which would elicit a simple “yes” or “no” response, appreciative inquiry prompts people to tell stories. These prompts were planned in order to uncover some key areas of the congregation’s shared life. A team of listeners would invite a number of participants to engage in telling their own stories. The listeners would carefully record the responses to the prompts. The stories were compiled and then shared with a third-party group to identify key words, repeating themes, frequently alluded to events, names, and other elements. But unlike a simple tally, the “right” answer wasn’t necessarily where the majority of responses echoed each other. We always had a sensitive openness to the odd, unique, and isolated “voice crying in the wilderness” by itself.

This process lifts interesting insights and stories. Which when shared back with the congregation often provides information they had not noticed before. There were two congregations with whom I worked that had interesting stories revealed to them through this process. One was a congregation in a quiet rural area of Kansas. The other in a suburb of a major eastern US metropolis.

The Kansas church told stories of the diminishing number of children, of young adults not returning after college, of a looming death. The stories were similar to many in rural communities. They had trouble seeing a mission that would motivate them forward.  As they told other stories, generated through appreciative inquiry, they still were not able to see the larger narrative in which they were living. The smaller, individual stories were about gifted young people, who upon graduation did not return to the community, yet began living generative lives, contributing to their communities, and serving to make God’s reign known.  The congregation then discovered a new story: they were a sending church, a missionary incubator, preparing people to leave and share God’s love. They unearthed their mission and ongoing motivation.

The suburban church had a similarly discouraging story they were telling themselves. While they were not a diminishing congregation, they were a sheltered congregation seeking sanctuary in a violent neighborhood.  Again using appreciative inquiry, we discovered that the some of the experiences of conflict in their shared past had turned them into a congregation deeply educated and practiced in many conflict resolution and peacemaking skills.  Skills that transcended congregational politics, and could transfer to families, work, and school. As this story emerged, the congregation began to struggle with their sheltered posture in the neighborhood and began to believe God had been gifting them to make a positive impact in a conflicted neighborhood.

Our futures are shaped by the stories we tell. Oddly enough, often the life-giving stories have been there all along, untold.

Digging up icons in stories

Doing anthropology through ethnography (or archaeology by digging up buried stories) at the local congregational level uses a mixture of conversations, statistical measurements, and a view to the trajectories of history.  Usually a community “norm” emerges.  Frequently, what is called “normal” may not be normal to anyone else. Granted there may be shared commitments, and a shared language for articulating faith, but that does not mean each community is meaning the same things. The shared meanings of the community are not external measures, but rather “meaning systems-- rules, common intra-cultural understandings, shared aims, etc.-- in which they are imbedded” (Feinberg, 2006). We don’t create these meanings so much as we discover we have been swimming in them. As a fish is the last to discover water, we are often last to discover the meaning, language, and cultures in which our imaginations and ethics have been formed. Frequently, we can be at odds with the meanings in which we are embedded and the actions and choices we make. 

Several years ago, while consulting with a group of churches within one specific denomination, we discovered high levels of conflict.  Many congregations had chosen to adopt a popular set of assumptions about church being promoted by publishers, authors, and leaders outside the denomination.  As congregations proceeded down that path, the problems were not with the results, it was with the meaning of the results.  As the saying goes, “dance with the one who brought you”, these congregations were dancing with someone else.  The result was an incongruity between espoused belief and the behaviors of the new adaptation.  It didn’t fit. Even though everyone else was doing it.  Moving forward meant moving backward, to understand, re-embrace where possible, and retell the stories of their theological heritage. Recovering their community of faith origins provided context for the new realities to which they had come.

Ethnography enables one to discover the way in which the beliefs held are matching with the beliefs espoused.  Time and again, belief changes, and the content of belief needs to be considered with the way a belief is carried out.  Sometimes, the discontinuity between what is professed and what is acted out is too great to not be addressed. The meaning of the community life requires belief strong enough to hold it together, but also a flexible belief in order to adapt, to grow, and to develop (Martos, 2010). 

What are the stories you hear, or tell? If the only stories told are those of problems and struggles, things that need fixing, then we can become focused on problem solving.  Problems become the story and the story of hope and mission and imagination are left underground and unheard.

What stories are being told to move you forward in to God’s preferred and promised future? How many unearthed stories are waiting to provide a new future, and do you know where to dig for them?

References:                                                                                                                                      Feinberg, W. (2006). Philosophical Ethnography: or, How Philosophy and Ethnography Can Live Together in a World of Educational Research. Educational Studies in Japan: International Yearbook, No.1, pp.5-14.

Martos, T. B. (2010). It’s not only what you hold, it’s how you hold it: Dimensions of religiosity and meaning in life. Personality and Individual Differences, 49.8: 863-868.