Ecclesiology and Ethnography: Supporting the Next Generation of Scholars

Ecclesiology and Ethnography: Supporting the Next Generation of Scholars

By Easten Law

A network is only as strong as the ties between its members. A movement lasts only as long as its investment in future generations. With these truths in mind, Pete Ward reached out to graduate students in 2018, pondering what the E&E network could do to strengthen and support emerging scholars working in this tricky yet ever promising interdisciplinary space. In response, Sara Williams (Miami University), Avril Baigent (Durham University) and Easten Law (Georgetown University) began a quest to facilitate new forums for emerging scholars to connect with one another and discern their collective sense of vocation.

Through extended, albeit sporadic, discussion, there came a realization that this interdisciplinary conversation between the social sciences and theology is somewhat frayed. While different disciplinary fields share certain assumptions and hopes about the potential of this dialogue, they are being pursued in settings and communities that are still loosely captive to geography and/or academic silos. We believe these different conversations ought to be tied together to tighten the network, providing emerging scholars a more holistic sense of the church’s presence and practice in the world.

In 2019, these observations and hopes have been put into modest action in their respective “fields,” each with events focused on the experiences of graduate students. In January, members of the Society of Christian Ethics convened a workshop during their annual conference, led by emerging scholars around table discussions to address the ways ethnography is and can continue to reshape the study of ethics. Empirical studies of the church are not simply about the world of the church, but also about the church in the world. The perspective of Christian ethics thus grounds ecclesial practices by tying them to the interests of the common good of all.

In March, Princeton Theological Seminary’s second annual conference on world Christianity focused its attention on ethnographic method. Conveners held an evening plenary dedicated to showcasing the work of young scholars investigating the lived dimensions of the world’s many forms of Christian faith and religiosity. The conference’s focus on ethnography itself was built upon interests and trends discerned at the 2018 conference and published in the spring 2019 issue of the Journal of World Christianity. In a world that is ever being transformed by globalization and migration, a world Christianity perspective on ecclesiology and ethnography demands sophisticated responses to cultural diversity and religious pluralism informed by anthropology, history, and missiology.

Most recently, the annual Ecclesiology and Ethnography Conference held at St. John’s College at Durham University in September hosted its second graduate student reception where graduate students, practitioners, and senior scholars discussed questions of the field’s challenges and promises over glasses of wine. At the E&E graduate reception, graduate students and junior scholars alike lamented the difficulties that often came with empirically based theological research. Some felt they had to self-direct their work without the full support of their supervisors and/or colleagues. Many tired of the constant translation of terms and methods needed to bridge theological and social scientific worldviews. While all saw promise in the mixing of disciplines, real questions of how to focus and define their inquiry were raised including exactly which audience they ought to be writing for: the church, academy, or public? Tethered to these questions were also structural challenges of funding, publications, and the difficulties of collaborative research. While many confessed the liminal experiences of this endeavor could feel isolating, all affirmed their love for the creativity such work offered.

The struggle to work out these questions is beginning to bear fruit as senior scholars in the fields of Christian ethics, world Christianity, practical theology, anthropology of Christianity, church history, and history of religions listen and offer their feedback, advice, and mentorship. The Ecclesial Practices group has had great success convening multiple workshops on ethnography and theology at the American Academy of Religion’s annual conference. Canadian members of the network are now hosting their own E&E conference. Interdisciplinary reading groups are being convened to reflect together on method like those taking place through Duke University’s Theology, Religion, and Qualitative Methods Network. The Ecclesiology and Ethnography network is beginning to highlight graduate student work on its website and some members are experimenting with digital workshops that allow long-distance participation.

Especially encouraging, there are currently two special journal issues being edited with a focus on exploring these questions. The first, the spring 2020 volume of the Journal of World Christianity, highlights how ethnographic method is being used among emerging scholars in world Christianity by bringing together the voices of emerging and senior scholars. A 2021 volume of Ecclesial Practices focused on fieldwork in Christian ethics is also currently underway, addressing issues around bridging description and norm in ethnography and ethics. These special issues will put these discussions in writing for others to ponder, critique, and hopefully build upon.

All this evidences that the academy can be more than institutional jockeying for prestige and the pursuit of one’s own illustrious reputation. It can also be a community of practice where the trailblazers look back to listen to those eagerly seeking to follow and expand on what has already been built. We all work and play at the intersection between disciplines but none of us can sustain our inquiry into these complexities alone. Our heart is for the world church, for its diverse experiences and practices, and for its witness in increasingly troubling times.

Are you a graduate or doctoral student working in theology and social sciences with ideas to strengthen our network? Are you a senior scholar who sees the promise of such work and is seeking to invest? Whoever you are, please do reach out and get connected. We would love to hear from you. Please contact Easten Law via email (