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.


(ENTIRE BOOK) James F. Hopewell provides a definitive study of congregational life. His thesis: we must understand each congregation’s unique story that catches up and gives pattern to a church’s local culture — its beliefs, its mission work, and its everyday administrative transactions, because it also reveals God’s intention for that community of believers.


  • Editor’s Foreword

    Hopewell found that local churches had the capacity to hold together in the face of strains and pressures, and he found little accounting for this in the appropriate literature. This ability of congregations to persist is examined here and an attempt is made to find coherence, if not unity, to the great variety of ways congregations are analyzed and apprehended.

  • Chapter 1: The Thick Gathering

    A congregation, undeniably Christian, nevertheless uses forms and stories common to a larger world treasury to create its own local religion of outlooks, action patterns, and values. I have begun to see how astonishingly thick and meaning-laden is the actual life of a single local church. Ministry in even a small church occurs in a much more abundant world of signals and images than I and, I suspect, many others had assumed.

  • Chapter 2: Househunting

    There are four approaches from which one examines a potential dwelling: contextual, mechanical, organic, and symbolic. To consider seriously the capacities of either houses or local churches, in other words, is to view them as textures, mechanisms, organisms, and means of signification. While all four perspectives are in play in any single instance of inquiry, one of the four generally dominates.

  • Chapter 3: Parish Story

    The idiom is primarily conveyed in story form, as the parish apprehends its corporate experience and as its members communicate their common life and draw resources from the narrative structures of the world. Telling such a story enables a congregation to comprehend its nature and mission.

  • Chapter 4 The Struggle For Setting

    Setting is a group’s cosmic construction that accounts for crises. This working picture of reality often goes unexpressed until challenged. Then, in that tension, the plot thickens, and world view as story is related, binding even in the light of its contradiction the self to the Other, the finite frame to the world’s outcome.

  • Chapter 5: Parish Setting

    World views reflect and give a focus to group experience, providing a map within which words and actions make sense.

  • Chapter 6: Exploring World View

    Certain correlations appear between a member’s world view position and other church activities: a. Constant attendees highly correlate with the mean orientation of the congregation. b. Pastors close to the mean enjoy a more satisfying relationship with congregations. c. Persons on the periphery are often marginal to the life of the congregation. d. Lay leaders are not necessarily representative of the mean.

  • Chapter 7: Parish Genius

    Hopewell describes a failed course of study at his church — Trinity: “Thus in characterizing Trinity, the absentees recounted its story as its history, the rest of us accounted for its story as its metaphor, and both we and they witnessed the story transformed as gospel.”

  • Chapter 8: Three Congregations

    Three congregations are examined, observing how a myth helps express and explore the genius that characterizes a congregation.

  • Chapter 9: Storytelling

    Telling the story develops the identity and mission of a congregation by establishing the setting of the story of a local church, its picture of the world; narrative proclaims corporate nature. The congregation in story is not permitted to reduce itself to numbers of individual contributors of money, names added to the church rolls, or ticket holders at congregational programs. Story instead weaves a living fabric of common episode.

  • Chapter 10: The Actions of Plot

    This chapter turns to the action of story, its plot, that conveys both collective memory and corporate hope, past and future, in the present bodied moment.

  • Chapter 11: Christ and Eros

    At certain moments, most often in their worship and acts of mission, congregations intensify their own search for the meaning of their corporate lives. It is in these events, which often seem to be parenthetical moments in church life, that the local church represents its participation not only in its own story but also in that of God.

  • Chapter12: Wiltshire’s World Story

    Whatever external investigators and consultants may accomplish in a congregation, its specific future still depends overwhelmingly upon its reaction to the information it gains about itself. It matters more what a congregation tells itself than what it is told. Deft analysis or intervention can, at best, resource the attempt of the local church to understand or change itself. Transformation requires a different order of knowing than that which outsiders provide.

  • Chapter13: Epilogue: The Ministry and Mission of Congregational Story

    Viewing the parish as house within the world house emphasizes its participation in the frame of all language. Human imagination as a whole provides the particular idiomatic and narrative construction of a congregation; its members communicate by a code derived from the totality of forms and stories by which societies cohere.