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Finding holy space in everyday stories

Finding holy space in everyday stories

Alban Institute promotes ethnography as a way to build up congregations and their leaders:

Something beautiful happens when a skilled listener creates a safe space for stories to be told in an unhurried, unworried fashion. Ethnographers find themselves at times entering into a holy space, a space in which the speaker may be saying something brand new, even to themselves.

Thomas E. Frank, a seasoned observer of church life, writes about turning to ethnographic practices of listening as a way to escape what he perceived to be market-driven perspectives prevalent in church-improvement literature. He found most of that writing to be largely prescriptive, tending to depict a congregation “as a franchise in a service industry, completely missing the remarkable imaginative life of a community of persons who stay together over time, practicing a faithful way of life together.” As an alternative approach, he favors a disposition toward ethnography that “honors this particular congregation, the one right in front of me, the one I am serving.”

Ethnography is a descriptive act that is not for the sake of sharing best practices of exemplary congregations alone, but, more significantly, to help readers see their own context from a new angle. “The soul thrives on contemplating difference,” Frank writes, “for if I see your place and symbols clearly, I can see my own more distinctively as well.” In addition, he says, “Imagination is sparked by the juxtaposition of opposites, the collision of difference.” Laying distinct worlds side by side can sometimes allow an unexpected view to emerge.

Even though you may be a leader in your congregation, you should learn to occasionally practice being an observer, listening closely to the people in your congregation, at times withholding your immediate response in order to slowly and carefully tease out a full description of another person’s way of seeing things.

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