Yesterday, I noted that Dr. Robert Price, associate professor of evangelism and urban ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard (IL), says, “Ethnography is the pastoral skill of mission. Leaders need to be ‘participant observers,’ to get inside the story of the context, from whence we proclaim the gospel.” When I read this quote it grabbed my interest and then made me pause and ask, “What is ethnography?”
Ethnography is a qualitative form of research aimed at exploring cultural phenomena. The resulting field study, or a case report, reflects the knowledge and the system of meanings in the lives of a cultural group. Ethnography is a means by which we can represent graphically, and in writing, the culture of a particular people. It is rooted in empirical data gathered from human societies and cultures and is rooted in the discipline of anthropology. It has become popular in the social sciences in general, and in sociology and communication studies more specifically. It is the outgrowth of what we call the “soft sciences.” The goal of ethnography is to reflexively respond to the study of people so as to grasp more clearly the social lives of a people group. If done well ethnography will observe the world of the people it studies from their perspective not from that of the observer.
I think Dr. Price means, in the aforementioned reference to leaders becoming “participant observers” through the skill of ethnography, that this modern social science helps us practice missional theology in a way that is consistent with Paul’s understanding of his Gentile mission.
Although I’m free from all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them. I act like a Jew to the Jews, so I can recruit Jews. I act like I’m under the Law to those under the Law, so I can recruit those who are under the Law (though I myself am not under the Law). I act like I’m outside the Law to those who are outside the Law, so I can recruit those outside the Law (though I’m not outside the law of God but rather under the law of Christ). I act weak to the weak, so I can recruit the weak. I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means. All the things I do are for the sake of the gospel, so I can be a partner with it (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Common English Bible).
Scot McKnight says the same about gospel ministry when he rightly concludes, “Missional gets its start when we discern what God is doing in this world, and particularly doing in our community, and what God is calling the ecclesia to do in the light of that big mission of God.”
What does this have to do with theological education? I believe everything.
Spirit-drenched ministry is mission empowered by Christ and his love. It takes place when God’s people know who they are in Christ and then “get inside the story of the context” in which, and from which, we live and proclaim the good news. We announce “the good news of the kingdom” by our acts of love and by our proclamation of the reign of Christ. We invite people to enter into his reign and to live his life in this world. We show and tell – there is no division between the works of the kingdom and the news of Christ’s redemption. The division of these two core elements of our witness is the fruit of a tragic division in the church in the early twentieth century, a division that happened when denominations and institutions divided over liberalism and conservatism. Liberals spoke about the “social gospel” and conservatives opposed this and argued that the gospel was about words, words that proclaimed good news of redemption in Christ. The problem is now obvious – there is no such division in the gospel of the kingdom.
Increasingly seminaries are being forced to move beyond this history into a new time when culture has radically shifted and the overwhelming majority of the next generation, the so-called Millennials, has never been in the church, much less understood the gospel.
Most churches think that a great pulpit ministry, a friendly congregation, and an attractive building, all joined with good programs for younger adults, will (somehow) reach this new generation. They are profoundly wrong in this analysis and far too few have understood why this is true. The place to begin is with a firm grasp of the gospel of the kingdom. Then we can move people to a rich and outward focused understanding of the nature of our mission as the people of God. When we’ve done this we are ready for ethnography; i.e., and understanding of the way in which people live within their respective cultures.
America has become a nation of very diverse cultures and peoples. If we ever were a single people, which in fact we were not, we now are clearly an unchurched people of diverse ethnicities and color who know less and less of the teaching of Jesus. We live in a time when mission is not for serving “overseas” but mission is in our neighborhoods, work places and schools. Leaders who grasp this new context, and then become “participant observers,” will be those who are able to get inside the story of peoples and proclaim the gospel with life-changing power in effective ways.