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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.


Chapter 6: Exploring World View


This chapter describes some methods for the study of the world view of the congregation. Some people who have already used these methods have, however, missed critical points of the undertaking. Before presenting the techniques, I therefore issue some warnings about the possibility of distortion or misuse.

a. My four categories do not exhaust the richness of parish world view. I devised the categories as a more adequate way to acknowledge variables of belief than a two-point liberal-conservative categorization permits. But even a fourfold typology does not delineate the full picture of self and world that the congregation sees. To discover that a parish has, for example, an empiric-gnostic orientation may be a helpful recognition, but that finding alone does not identify the whole range of motifs and images by which a local church understands its world.

Use of the techniques of participant observation and guided interviews, introduced in the present chapter, will help to prevent facile classifications of parish beliefs according to the fourfold scheme. Remember that the congregation is idiomatic; it constitutes itself by a very distinctive language whose indicative aspect identifies a world in some ways allied with metaphors widely employed in the culture but in other ways peculiar to that group alone. The four world view categories may help organize the interpretation of idiom elements, but they do not describe the full richness of parish settings.

b. World view is not adequately conveyed in quantitative measures. The test instrument described among the methods in this section is comparatively easy to use and score, and it provides a helpful way to compare the outlooks of both different churches and different people within a single church. But the instrument is essentially a confirmatory device to give a quantitative indication of the belief patterns that participant observation and guided interviews examine more adequately and accurately.

The temptation is to use the test as a free-standing indicator of parish world view. Its packaged approach and numerical conclusion appeal to mechanist leanings in all of us, and, especially for time-pressed consultants, it produces a quick payoff by summarizing world view in percentages and diagrams. Reducing to a statistical dot a member’s deep struggle to apprehend the world can, however, pervert the interpretive task of ministry. More necessary than the calculus of people’s scores is a disciplined sensitivity to the narratives they construct in the face of death and absurdity. What expresses the faith of a congregation is not numerical data but rather the stories that the numbers only grossly approximate.

c. The world view categories are nonhierarchical and nondevelopmental. As their graphic arrangement in a square suggests, they do not indicate a layered progression in value or a staged progress toward maturity. All categories are interdependent: holding a world view involves a negotiation that requires the presence of several available and attractive categories.

Having issued these warnings about possible misunderstandings of the methods offered to ascertain and measure world view, I now present three vehicles: participant observation, guided interviews, and a test instrument.

Participant Observation

The fullest and most satisfying way to study the culture of a congregation is to live within its fellowship and learn directly how it interprets its experience and generates its behavior. That approach is called participant observation. As the term suggests, the analyst is involved in the activity of the group to be studied but also maintains a certain detachment. Participant observation has not always been an accepted way of learning about a social group. Throughout history most of what was known about a people came from accounts of travelers or from persons who, though resident within the group, were paid to do some task other than observe its culture. Only in the past century have the discipline and resources been developed to enable substantial numbers of anthropologists and ethnographers to go "into the field’’ to study cultures as diverse as those of hill peoples and hospital wards.

Some participant observers have studied congregations,1 but in general the art of congregational observation is still at the travelogue stage. Most accounts of parish culture are loosely anecdotal or motivated by mechanist or contextual goals. Very seldom has anyone within a local church treated it as a field of study and reported out its patterns of culture because they constitute an important disclosure of the symbolic nature of the group. Several good reasons underlie the paucity of observations about parish culture. One goes to church for purposes quite different from, even opposed to, analysis. And observation within one’s own church is more difficult than the study of a distant culture. As Melvin Williams points out, a church member must become more of an "observing participant" than a participant observer, because the member is already an insider and accustomed to the values and behavior that he or she must now study objectively.2

But Williams reports that being an observing participant is both possible and rewarding.3 Diligent members of a local church can learn a great deal about its language and story. Though members can never achieve the detachment of an ethnographer who comes from the outside, they can become their own best informants, because they already participate in the structures that the outsider has to learn. The trick is that members must learn to function and observe as if they were outsiders so that they see afresh the myriad matters about the congregation that they now take for granted. Pastors and members can begin to see extraordinary aspects of common church happenings if they consider themselves visitors from another culture or time. They learn to ask what common things mean, why ordinary operations work.

A persistent curiosity nags observing participants. They look at routine events and hear common expressions as if for the first time. They now take nothing for granted. They listen intently to both formal and spontaneous discourse; they examine signs and gestures; they read all that is written; they do not avoid embarrassing episodes and fights. Shortly after any observation they must write down the details of what they have experienced, because the act of recording the event is critical to its understanding. As their notes (I use 5" x 8" cards) accumulate, they begin to pore over them for evidence of themes that seem to organize the congregation’s behavior and give meaning to its perceptions. They become not only specialists in construing the parish story but also its literary critic, gaining enough distance to assess what the story means, to explore its setting, trace its plot, and consider its character.

Detailed instructions about participant observation are readily available,4 and much can be learned about the method by reading the congregational studies of Melvin Williams and Samuel Heilman. One learns best, however, by doing it oneself, perhaps starting out with a limited inquiry focused on one of the following elements in parish culture:

jokes, stories, lore lines of authority and influence

the written material of the parish use of time

conversations that follow ritual

administrative meetings social class

sermons, classroom presentations demographic features

use of space history

organizations conscious and unconscious

social groupings symbols

processes of becoming a conflict
nuclear member

The list could be several times longer. Once launched in a particular direction, participant observers seek occasions that present an object of inquiry and try to uncover the object’s function and meaning. Again writing down what is observed is absolutely essential. It trains the eye for subsequent encounters and it begins the process of interpretation that ultimately brings new understanding to the congregation.

Within the information gathered are, of course, data about the congregation’s world view. Certain objects of inquiry, such as sermons and histories, will probably yield a higher proportion of world view data, but important insights may also be gained from other elements. Fights, parish bulletin boards, even the litter of closets, may also disclose what the parish suspects is really happening in life. Such information is especially helpful when used in conjunction with the results of guided interviews, described below.

Guided Interviews

Some of the data for understanding the world view of a parish come, as we have shown, from overhearing the parish’s conversations and speeches and from observing its behavior. Other, more structured, information must come from guided interviews, which are dialogues in which the inquirer directs predesigned questions to an informant. The result is open-ended conversations with members of a congregation who, as informants, respond to these questions designed to evoke pertinent answers. Concentrated information about the setting of the congregational story can be obtained through such conversations.

To encourage an essentially theological discussion with parishioners not given to that sort of talk, I base my questions in guided interviews upon crises experienced by the informants. A number of social scientists -- Peter Berger, Mircea Eliade, Clifford Geertz, Wade Clark Roof, Philip Slater5 -- note the link between the threat of chaos and the construction of world view. Relying upon the narrative idiom of their community, people address their understanding of the universe in response to crisis. Part of the function of parish story is to keep the congregation’s ontology in repair. When crisis threatens one’s sense of order, the community works, often by narrative, to reassert the circumstances that can accommodate even the threat. Thus by using questions that help church members speak about crises, something can be learned about the way they apprehend reality.

Members must be told in advance about the searching nature of the interview, but care should also be taken not to frighten people by portentous descriptions of what is about to happen. In fact, the conversations are usually rewarding for both the member and the interviewer. They often release thoughts that have long been bottled up. In inviting a member to an interview, the interviewer might first clarify the nature of the study and its purpose for the church. Then the interviewer might say, "Part of the study is to learn how members feel about critical problems now facing our lives, and I would like to get your ideas about them."

Usually lasting about ninety minutes, interviews seek responses to a limited number of questions. Interviewers approach the conversation without a hidden purpose, using the interview neither to argue with the informant nor to diagnose his or her problems. Instead, the interviewer treats the member’s answer as a disclosure of meaning important within itself, a symbolic construction that the interviewer must try to understand. While interviewers try to ask the whole series of predesigned questions, they also guide the conversations by spontaneous inquiries that pick up on particular avenues of thought advanced by the informant. The interviewer attempts, of course, to keep the discussion focused on the ideas of the informant and avoids personal responses that disclose the inquirer’s own views.

Informants are frequently anxious before the interview starts, persuaded that they know little of value to the interviewer and perhaps wary because of earlier experiences in which they were the objects of a catechism or experiment. Most, however, quickly sense the open spirit of the conversation -- that they are not being judged and that their answers are in fact useful and interesting -- and many grow enthusiastically articulate. Though the questions bring to mind crises, the freedom to address threatening topics in a friendly atmosphere often encourages informants to relate rarely shared parts of their own story. Some express surprise at the end of the interviews that they have had so much to say. Pastors who have used this method report that some interviews are among their most satisfying pastoral calls. So accustomed are members to being told what they should believe that to be asked what they in fact do believe may prompt unprecedented communication.

At some point in the session three questions are asked that portray crises related to person and group:

—Think of the death of a friend or a relative. What do you suppose was going on?

—Tell me about the way your faith has changed throughout the years.

—What is happening with someone who is senile?

Although these questions may be asked at any appropriate moment in the interview, I have generally begun with the one about death. The question often releases an extraordinary number of ideas and suspicions that the informant has seldom shared, and the exchange sets the tone for the rest of the conversation.

To understand other aspects of the world view of the informant, I ask some further questions about crises in larger contexts:

—Remember a time when life in your family seemed out of control. What was really happening?

—What is God doing with our nation?

—What would a new pastor do to the life of your church?

And some questions that deal with supernatural crises:

—Has God spoken to you? Given you a sign? Have you felt God’s presence?

—Tell me about any experiences in which you have sensed a spirit or spiritual force.

—How do you get in touch with God?

A record of the conversation is essential. Write down as much as possible of the informant’s answer as it is spoken, and later fill in the gaps. The interview may be tape-recorded, but manuscription has several advantages: (1) The act of writing signifies the importance of what is being said and encourages the informant to elaborate; (2) no later transcription is needed; and (3) the interviewer can ponder the text while clarifying and advancing the conversation. Use 5" x 8" cards. They permit easy comparison and rearrangement of notes. Mark the source and sequence of each card.

About half of the persons interviewed should be those who give formal and informal leadership to the congregation. The other half should be a sample of membership varied according to sex, age, education, and intensity of participation. Interview people individually, not as couples or groups. When questioned together, spouses or friends tend to settle for compromise statements rather than to search their own souls.

Steps in interpretation

1. After you have collected the results of several interviews, begin to read your notes as if they were spoken by inhabitants of a recently discovered village. Your task is to find out, with as little preconception as possible, how your informants describe what is going on in life, where it seems to be headed, and why. Explore how they perceive themselves as persons and how they typify their church, their world, and their God.

2. Underline phrases that characterize the nature of things and events.

3. Note recurrent themes: images that organize the ideas of several informants, similar phrases, common solutions, reiterated stories, repeated symbols. Put each theme on a separate card.

4. Arrange the cards in a spatial pattern that suggests the affinity of each to the four world view categories. The closer the card to the cardinal point, the greater the consonance between its language and the world view type (see Figure D).

5. Note features of the pattern. Start writing an account of the world that employs the themes and frequent phrases of the community.

From this base further inquiries could:

thicken the description of world view by a second round of interviews (some with the same informants) and by the information you have gathered from participant observation and analysis of documents written by members of the congregation.

test the picture by a survey instrument (such as the one described next) that asks similar questions, and by inviting members of the congregation to review and comment on the results of your observations.

determine whether the picture is more characteristic of nuclear than marginal members.

compare the view with that of another congregation. Because much of a congregation’s expression is already familiar to its churchgoing observer, the contrast between the patterns of two churches may lend a deeper appreciation of the variables in world view that each employs.

A World View Test Instrument

One’s perception of a congregation’s world view gained from participant observation and guided interviews can be verified by a relatively simple device, a questionnaire that poses questions similar to those asked in the interviews. The instrument is a forced answer test that requires its takers to choose one of four responses. The responses, which I derived from phrases collected in interviews with church members, reflect each of the four world view categories.6

We can see how the questionnaire works by examining one of the questions:

In the worst times of my life I find:
a. the divinity within me makes my troubles less crucial
b. comfort in Bible stories like that of Job
c. patience to work for better times
d. God blessing me in new ways

Respondents are asked to choose the response closest to the one they themselves would make. A few, often the more sophisticated members of the church, complain that none of the answers expresses their sentiments. They may be cajoled into choosing the answer that is the least offensive to them. Even in its constricting format, however, each item encourages the member to construct a small story of his or her life, imagining the tension created by a particular crisis and then resolving it by subsequent explanation chosen from among the several alternatives.

Printed below are several questions from the early (1979) version of the test instrument. The scores of different congregations that used this version are reported in the next section. Next to each response is the category it represents: canonic (Ca), charismatic (Ch), empiric (Em), and gnostic (Gn).

1. I see my religion as:

(a) not "holier than thou" (Em)

(b) filled with the Holy Spirit (Ch)

(c) born again in Christ (Ca)

(d) insight into my own spark of divinity (Gn)

2. When I die:

(a) I keep the blessings God has already begun to give me (Ch)

(b) I shall then be with Christ (Ca)

(c) I may later be reincarnated (Gn)

(d) I may or may not live afterward (Em)

3. When I see a picture of a starving child I think:

(a) if everyone did God’s will, this would not happen (Ca)

(b) the child is living out a phase of his many lives (Gn)

(c) why does God permit this? (Em)

(d) God is with him and easing his troubles (Ch)

4. I feel that I mature as I:

(a) grow in the presence of Christ (Ch)

(b) follow God’s plan for me (Ca)

(c) learn to love (Em)

(d) realize the divine potential in me (Gn)

A revised version of the complete, 27-question test and its scoring key are printed in the Appendix.

In most instances, the questionnaire was distributed, after a verbal introduction that included the assurance that there were no "right" answers, on a single Sunday morning to those who attended the worship services of the church. Those who received the test, therefore, were a sample of the active church membership. In some cases, members completed the test before leaving the church; in others, they later returned the document in a stamped, addressed envelope.

The instrument provides a quantitative assessment of the general belief orientation of a congregation. Because guided interviews with a large proportion of church members would take a great deal of time to conduct and analyze, an analyst may wish, after conversing with, say, twenty or thirty informants, to test the drift of findings by using the instrument. By displaying respondents’ scores graphically in the manner described in the next section, the test offers, moreover, a way by which members can see how their answers compare with those of the rest of the church.

As I warned earlier, the instrument is not a substitute for searching conversation with church members. When used by itself, it reduces to a numerical figure the tentative, complex negotiation a parish makes in a whole universe of interpretations to construct a specific world plausible to itself. In so doing, it can confirm the all too prevalent impression that the congregation is mainly a machine, described by numbers and oriented by forces. Thus it should be used with care, never as the sole analytical instrument.

Functions Of Congregational World View

As I learned in my study of Corinth, persons tend to cluster with others who see the world as they do. By that participation, they come to align their own outlook even more with that of fellow members.7 In the household of a local church dwell mostly members whose idiomatic discourse projects a mutually recognizable world.

Like the sociologists who study mainline churches, leaders of large or liberal congregations are sometimes persuaded that their members together hold an incoherent plurality of beliefs. "We have all kinds here," says one pastor, "a real Heinz 57 Variety parish." Recognizing no consistency in world view, they explain membership solidarity in their churches by personal and programmatic factors, and they shape their ministries around such means. They are mistaken. In no congregation studied so far are world views of members so diverse that one could consider that church a mere aggregate of miscellaneous believers. A single setting is common to most members, and for a minister to preach, teach, or counsel as if beliefs were private and optional fancies is both insensitive and irresponsible. Large churches may be structured to accommodate minor variations in world outlook (a 1,200 member congregation that was recently examined had four adult Sunday school classes, each of whose discourse favored by a slight margin a different world view category) but church story even there unfolds in a recognizable setting.

Through the discourse of its members the congregational story establishes its world setting. It is possible to demonstrate, using the results of the world view test instrument, the way that different congregations, even apparently inclusive mainline ones, have distinctive world views. Shown in the table below, in percentages, are the quite distinct patterns of response according to world view categories:

Church Ca- Gnos- Charis Em- Total*
nomic tic matic piric

A. United Methodist, CT (n = 71) 17.6 15.8 8.6 57.8 100.00

B. United Methodist, OH (n = 92) 16.0 16.4 11.5 56.1 100.00

C. Episcopal, GA (n = 71) 14.4 19.7 10.7 54.7 100.00

D. United Methodist, GA (n= 97) 25.2 11.1 17.0 46.8 100.00

E. United Methodist, GA (n = 99) 24.8 15.5 13.3 46.4 100.00

F. United Methodist, GA (n = 155) 32.6 11.2 23.8 32.4 100.00

G. United Methodist, OH (n = 105) 33.2 13.1 22.2 31.5 100.00

H. United Methodist, GA (n = 48) 39.4 9.3 17.5 33.8 100.00

I. Southern Baptist, GA (n = 114) 43.8 8.5 19.2 28.6 100.00

J. Church of God (Cleve-

land, TN), GA (n = 53) 47.4 2.1 31.1 19.3 100.00

K. United Methodist, TN (n = 63) 24.8 28.8 25.3 21.2 100.00

*Totals may vary slightly from 100.0, due to rounding.

A number of United Methodist congregations are included in this table to show the variations among churches in a single denomination. Denominations do not determine world view. A similar divergence could be shown among the scores of churches in other denominations. What the scores demonstrate is that congregations view their lives and act out their stories within distinctive settings. Some, like churches A and B, undertake a largely empiric negotiation. Others modify that perception by a secondary use of gnostic and canonic categories. Charismatic negotiations are more significant for churches F, G, and J. Church K is guided by a gnostic orientation.

Because the canonic and gnostic sides function both conceptually and statistically’ as opposites, as do the charismatic and empiric sides, it is possible to display the world view pattern of a congregation in graphic form according to the x and y axes of a coordinate system. The horizontal x axis in Figure E holds in binary opposition the canonic and gnostic sides, while the vertical y axis has as its poles the charismatic and gnostic sides. Dots on the grid indicate scores of individual members of the congregation. One can see both the collective negotiation of a congregation within the interpretive field of story represented by this instrument and also the internal linking of members within each church. A blank copy of the grid is supplied in the Appendix.

In my research to date, certain correlations appear between a member’s world view position and other church activities.

a. Parishioners who attend worship services nearly every Sunday seem to have scores closer to the mean orientation of the congregation than do those who participate in worship irregularly. Frequency of participation in other church programs, however, does not show the same high degree of correlation, suggesting a special, if not surprising, communicative link between worship and world view.

b. Pastors whose personal scores are close to the mean orientation of the congregation seem frequently to enjoy a more satisfying relationship with their congregations than do pastors whose own scores differ significantly from those of their flocks. Pastors in the latter situation must expend more interpretive energy to make themselves understood. Few congregations and pastors, however, understand why they are working so hard. Pastors and congregations whose world views differ significantly may instead express their discomfort with each other in ad hominem conflicts.9

c. Persons whose scores are on the periphery of the cluster of a congregation’s scores are often marginal to the life of the congregation in other respects as well. Those in one congregation who were interviewed because their scores deviated so decidedly from the norm were also dissatisfied with the behavior of that church. They did not express their discontent in terms of divergent beliefs; rather, they found fault with the leadership and conduct of the church’s programs.

d. Lay leaders of the congregation, however, do not necessarily have scores that approximate the mean orientation of the church. In a number of churches the scores of leaders are more canonic and/or charismatic than the congregational mean, suggesting that it is the role of leaders to bear in tragic or romantic heroic fashion the great tradition10 of a stylized orthodox Christianity while the rest of the congregation may carry on a little tradition, a household wisdom, less beholden to religious stereotypes.

Within the broad horizon of world interpretations are individual congregational households, negotiating their own relation to the four modes. Different parishes circumstantiate themselves in different ways, a few unequivocally dwelling within the narrative structure of a certain genre, many more favoring one category but using as well the interpretive power of another. In every instance, however, whatever cast its story takes, a congregation derives its world view from the struggle of the entire field of human interpretation. No church, no person, identifies the world merely by self-held beliefs. The world gains its meaning only because human imagination accounts for the world in an interwrought narrative texture of many views. The storied world substantiates, apportions, and links the full multitude of idiomatic parochial stories." To locate all beliefs on a single line between liberal and conservative poles is to succumb to a conceptual convenience that limits and flattens what people actually say they perceive and overlooks the larger symbolic struggle in which all people participate. One’s peculiar belief is a privilege wrought by the intricate labor of all humanity.

 

 

Notes

1. See chap. 2, n. 74.

2. Melvin Williams acknowledges that the concept of "observing participant" was earlier used by Bennetta Jules-Rosette in her study of an African independent church that she herself joined: African Apostles: Ritual and Conversion in the Church of John Maranke (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1975).

3. Melvin D. Williams, "The Conflict of Corporate Church and Spiritual Community," in Carl S. Dudley, ed., Building Effective Ministry, 56.

4. James P. Spradley, Participant Observation (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1980), and The Ethnographic Interview (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1979), are careful introductions to ethnographic field work, although the procedures they set forth may be more elaborate than "observing participants" may want or need to follow. Less painstaking procedures are found in Julia G. Crane and Michael V. Angrosino, Field Projects in Anthropology: A Student Handbook (Morristown, N.J.: General Learning Press, 1974). See also Morris Freilich, ed., Marginal Natives, and the introductory treatments mentioned in chapter 2, n. 74.

5. Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy; Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovering of the Supernatural (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1969); Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: The Encounter Between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Reality (London: Harvill Press, 1960), 19; Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 107; Wade Clark Roof, Community and Commitment, 156; Philip E. Slater, Microcosm: Structural, Pschological and Religious Evolution in Groups (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1966).

6. To determine whether the responses were in each case adequate reflections of the world view types, a panel of judges consisting of one professor and four graduate students in religion at Emory University rated each answer. No set of answers for a question received less than 80 percent agreement, and 18 of the 27 items were rated with 100 percent agreement. A table of the results of this process and certain other statistical tests of the world view instrument are reported in James F. Hopewell and G. Melton Mobley, "Identification of Congregational World Views: Measurement of Myth and Belief," paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Baltimore, Md., 29 October—1 November 1981.

7. Alasdair MacIntyre’s concept of the accountability of the self in social discourse is one way to explain the growth of consonance between a personal and a group story (After Virtue, 203).

8. Factor analysis confirms that the sides function as opposites. See Hopewell and Mobley, "Identification."

9. ED. NOTE: In oral presentations, James Hopewell warned against the use of the world view test as a device to "match" congregations and potential pastors. As he wrote earlier in this chapter, any use of the test as "a substitute for searching conversation" about world view/setting and the other dimensions of narrative explored later in the book was in his view more likely to yield a mechanist reduction than a deepened symbolic understanding.

10. Elites in a society generally represent and uphold a designated orthodoxy which Redfield calls the Great Tradition. Others in the community are permitted to pursue the Little Tradition, a less defined wisdom passed on unofficially through families and friends. Robert Redfield, Peasant Society and Culture (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1956), 67-104.

11. The world view differentiations seem to me to function in other religions. Islam possesses a canonic orientation in its Sunni form, a charismatic version in some Shi’ite sects and a gnostic side in Sufism. In Hinduism there are the canonic mode of karma yoga, the charismatic understanding of bhakti yoga, and the gnostic orientation of jnana yoga. Various developments in Buddhism reflect the same distinctions, such as the shift from a gnostic to a charismatic orientation required in the development of Mahayana from Thervadin sources. Buddhist sects in the United States today range from Jodo Shin-Shu (canonic) to Soka Gakkai (charismatic) to Zen (gnostic).

 

 

 

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