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Congregation: Stories and Structures by James F. Hopewell


At the time of his death in 1984, James F. Hopewell was Professor of Religion and the Church and Director of the Rollins Center for Church Ministries at the Candler School of theology, Emory University. Published by Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1987. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Editor’s Foreword


James Hopewell died in October 1984, leaving a complete third draft of his only book. It is a complex work that reflects his varied career and diverse interests. The impetus for the research the book contains came from his assignment to develop a segment of the Candler School of Theology’s "contextual" curriculum. Another element of the curriculum, two years of supervised practice in clinical and social-agency settings, was already in place. Hopewell was asked to design a program to deepen students’ understanding of ministry in congregations. Since many Candler students serve local churches in pastoral roles while they attend seminary, the kind of field education program common in theological schools, a program that provided elementary exposure to the tasks of ministry, was not appropriate. Instead, Hopewell developed an array of courses of a new kind. Each was held in a congregation, was taught by a Candler faculty member and the church’s pastor, and took as its subject matter an actual issue or topic in that congregation’s life. The participants were lay church members and Candler senior students.

The aim of these courses was less to solve problems than to gain a critical and appreciative perspective on the dilemmas and strengths of local-church existence. Critical understanding requires analysis, and analysis requires the tools of theory. So Hopewell read systematically through the American and European literature on congregations and ministry of the last several decades, a survey of several hundred works that is recapitulated in this book’s second chapter and its extensive notes. His reading revealed that the field to which these works are assigned -- variously designated "practical theology," "church studies," or "ministry studies" -- is very diverse and imports much from the human sciences. At first, he constructed highly eclectic reading lists for his courses, attempting to cover the field of church studies with examples of its many parts and divisions. But soon he became convinced that the fragmented character of the field was undermining the intent to provide for students a deepened understanding of the nature of the congregation. The enormous variety in the literature notwithstanding, many of the subtleties and nuances of the lives of local churches remained unaccounted for, he felt. Even more serious, the literature neither reflected nor explained adequately how it is that congregations hold together in the face of strains and pressures -- a capacity that had impressed him in both the churches that offered Candler’s courses and in a congregation he had helped found a few years before. If this ability of congregations to persist was examined sufficiently, he reasoned, an approach might be found that would lend coherence, if not unity, to the great variety of ways congregations are analyzed and apprehended.

With this aim he devoted the sabbatical leave he describes in chapter 1 to the close study of two Protestant churches in a small Georgia town. Hopewell’s formal training had been in comparative religion, with a specialty in Islamics, and he drew from this training his principal research technique: participant observation, the method that ethnographers have used to gain firsthand information about religion and other features of non-Western cultures. He spent his sabbatical year, like an anthropologist in a primitive village, omnipresent in the two churches, attending meetings, worship services, and parties, talking to members, sifting documents and publications, observing patterns of community life.

As the year wore on, he made the discoveries this book recounts. The two apparently ordinary congregations had extraordinarily rich, dramatic textures. Though located only a block apart in a small town, each drawing members from the same social and economic stratum of the town’s population, the two churches were strikingly different from each other in ways their Baptist and Methodist affiliations did not explain. Each, he concluded, had a distinct culture, as unique and rich as those of the religious communities he had served and studied as a missionary in West Africa early in his career. Like those religious fellowships of Liberia and Sierra Leone, the north Georgia congregations conveyed their culture (later he used the more precise term "subculture") by means of distinct idioms, symbolic dialects constructed both to express and to maintain group identity. To understand the function of idiom (of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called a "network of construable signs"), he drew on the work of Geertz and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Prompted by these writers and especially by Victor Turner, he explored the special qualities of metaphors. This trail led to the work of Northrop Frye, and Frye’s theories of literary structure became the catalyst for what Hopewell regarded as the core of his theory of congregations: his contention that congregational culture is not an accidental accumulation of symbolic elements but a coherent system whose structural logic is narrative. As congregations first come into being, Hopewell argued, they construct a narrative that accounts for their nascent identity. They attract to their fellowship those who want to participate in the unique local drama enacted there. They maintain their integrity against incursions by reiterating their distinct local story. And they encounter the world by identifying similarities between its stories and their own.

The rest of Hopewell’s work was the elaboration of this major theme. He organized his prior research into narrative categories. The intricate world views and belief systems of congregations constitute the setting of their corporate narrative, while their traditional histories, the sequences of past events selected for retelling, correspond to plot. The ethos of a community -- a complex product of its natural conditions, inherited endowments, and considered decisions and choices -- become congregational character in a narrative framework. Hopewell used the structures of narrative not only to create his major categories, but also in a secondary way within each category. Thus the world views that constitute setting are arranged according to Frye’s system of narrative genres. A congregation’s traditional history not only represents one element, the plot, of its larger narrative structure, but also functions as a story in itself. And character, Hopewell provocatively proposed, is best grasped if studied in counterpoint with some mythic tale that "matches" a congregation’s style, tone, and moral posture, the features of its character.

In the light of this theoretical system, Hopewell developed the research techniques for probing congregational narrative described in chapters 6, 9, and 10. He studied closely several churches in addition to the original two and deployed students to probe several dozen more, whose stories now serve as illustrations throughout the book. He presented his material in lecture series, courses at Candler, scholarly gatherings, and seminars for clergy, laity, and church officials. Last, he began work on a monograph.

Shortly after the sabbatical year, Hopewell had summarized his findings and ideas in a series of essays which he shared but did not publish, since he felt that such a collection would not improve the fragmented state of church studies. He reorganized the essays into the first draft of a book that took as its organizing metaphor the congregation as body. Acknowledging an idea of Mary Douglas about expanding circles of metaphor, he suggested a correspondence among individuals’ stories about their own bodies, their corporate narratives, and their tales about the cosmos and its creator. Though this schema remains, in much reduced form, in the present volume, Hopewell found the central image, the body, unsatisfactory as a conveyance for his essentially structuralist arguments about congregational narrative. Stephen Pepper’s typology of world metaphors provided a new starting point. Hopewell recognized that his view was not organicist but, in Pepper’s term, "formist," an argument from similarity. Finding the structural images of house and household far more adequate, he wrote a new draft and then, in the year before his death, thoroughly rewrote it in response to criticisms and suggestions from the persons named in his statement of acknowledgment.

Despite the number and diversity of strands woven together in Congregation, the book is at base not a collage or collection. Like the congregation itself in Hopewell’s portrayal of it, the book is unified by its assertions about the power of narrative. It is further bound together by Hopewell’s strong theological convictions about how narrative functions as God’s work with congregations. In his service as missionary and later as director of the World Council’s Theological Education Fund, he had encountered and dissented from the notion that redemptive Christian norms and ideas transform culture by being imported into or imposed on it. In the course of his work on congregations, he came to believe firmly that the story that catches up and gives pattern to a church’s local culture -- its beliefs, its mission work, and its everyday administrative transactions -- also gives an account of God’s intention for that community of believers. Hopewell’s use of classical and northern European myths had led some early readers of his work to conclude that congregational story as Hopewell defined it described only the naturalistic, even pagan, stratum of congregational life, a layer that must ultimately be contradicted and transformed by the infusion of gospel principles. Hopewell rejected that view and adamantly maintained, in passages found in nearly every chapter of Congregation, that a church’s story, even when it recounts pedestrian and trivial activity, is the legend of God’s plan, if only its sounds and signs can be heard and read. Further, he insisted, a congregation’s particular story, because it draws from a treasury of narrative elements available to all groups of people as they struggle for survival and meaning, is its channel to participation in the worldwide mission of establishing God’s shalom. These theological convictions about how God works in the world through particular communities that contain in their narrative life the seeds of their own -- and the world’s -- redemption were the first source of Hopewell’s interest in congregations. They molded both the theoretical and the practical development of his work. In the composition of his final draft, they were summarized in the chapter "Christ and Eros" (chapter 11), which he regarded as the book’s pivotal section.

The draft that Hopewell left when he died was accompanied by notes for its final revision. I have followed his instructions wherever possible. Specifically, in consultation with Ruth C. Hopewell, his executor, I decided to limit my revisions to rearrangement of the text and editing for clarity and consistency. Where Hopewell’s notes dictated expansion, I complied only if I could find appropriate material in earlier versions of the book or in his unpublished essays. As a result, with the exception of a handful of sentences that function only to smooth transitions, nothing has been added to Hopewell’s own writing, though it has been, as he wished, substantially reorganized.

The major problem that the book has presented for its own reshaping is that it does not fall into any existing genre. Parallel efforts can be found in other fields. Some sociologists and anthropologists have begun to study community life from the perspective of narrative and dramaturgy. A few structuralist historians have used narrative genres (including Frye’s classification) to characterize historical periods. Theologians, philosophers, psychologists, and of course literary theorists are currently exploring the functions of narrative beyond literature itself. Hopewell’s book both draws and comments upon -- and at points advances -- these discussions in social science, literature, and theology, but it belongs in its entirety to none of them. Thus, with the assistance of an extraordinary editor, Davis Perkins of Fortress Press, I have made editorial decisions keeping in mind the serious but mixed audience the book may attract: social scientists interested in religion, theologians concerned about the church and its mission, and clergy and lay leaders who seek to understand their congregations at greater depth.

Hopewell wrote his acknowledgments of assistance and support in haste a few weeks before he died. Among his notes he left a much longer list of persons to whom he was indebted. Heading it is Elizabeth Whipple, who worked with him as editorial assistant as well as typist. Her knowledge of the project and meticulous work preparing the text were invaluable to me. This version could not have been completed without her. Also listed were many members of the Candler faculty and his two closest research associates, Mark Cole and Melton Mobley. Further, he had planned to express his deep gratitude to the congregations "with whom I have labored" and their pastors.

I want to add to this list my own expressions of thanks to those who made what might have been a difficult undertaking a rewarding one instead: Ruth Hopewell, who gave me the privilege of editing the book and consistently aided me in doing so; the Directors of Auburn Seminary, who granted a generous leave for my work on the project in Atlanta; Jim Waits and Elizabeth Smith, who anticipated everything I would need for the work to be done comfortably and efficiently; Lurline and James Fowler, who provided housing and friendship; Channing Jeschke, Candler’s librarian, who made available and helped to arrange Hopewell’s books and papers; Brooks Holifield, who worked with me on the last and knottiest problems in the text; and David Kelsey, on whose encouragement and sagacity I relied heavily when my assignment seemed most formidable. Finally, I must acknowledge a source of assistance often reported by those who have brought to publication the work of a writer who has died: a strong sense of the continuing collaboration of the author. Throughout, I have felt the lively cooperation of the man whose intelligence, courage, and love of God’s world are given form and expression in this book.

June, 1986
Barbara G. Wheeler
New York City

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