Last month I spent just under two weeks in a major European city which has long been home to a large and growing immigrant population. The Europe-focused ministry that sponsored the trip brought me along to help train some of their staff in the principles and practices of ethnographic field work (as well as beginning such work in that city). Doing ethnographic surveying is one of the first 2-3 steps in their plan to try to launch rapidly reproducing church movements there among the immigrant peoples there and in dozens of other cities in the next five years. The subsequent steps involve a well-developed strategy for prayer, a structured evangelism blitz, and following up all who respond by organizing discovery Bible studies and simple, reproducible churches - ultimately encouraging those who are part of the movement to begin taking it back to their homelands.
One reason I wanted to participate in this project was to help me re-think my assumptions about culture. Specifically, I'm struggling to understand what place cultural differences and cultural learning have in ministries that are operating with pre-determined strategies and tactics. These guys knew exactly what they wanted to see happen and how they were going to go about it. Why would they want to learn about culture? Were they prepared to change anything on the basis of what they might learn? If not, was the research really necessary? Ethnography - seeking an insider's perspective by learning about a culture from face-to-face interviews with the insiders - is something I haven't been willing or able to let go of, over the years. It's something I love, and who else will wave the flag for it? But maybe I should look for other avenues and give up my ideas that church planters should be interested in this kind of stuff.
I realized, as my questions crystallized, how much my early training in ethnography was focused on developing strategy. Our big questions were 1) who are the people groups (stratification), 2) what are they like (social structure) and 3) how can they be reached? The last question we usually explored through the lens of social dynamics and the studies of receptivity, ministry history, and church growth.
The thing is, as the years have gone by, those three big questions seem to resonate less and less with people I train. The mission community as a whole has found answers to question #1 and has relatively little felt need for people group studies. I would like to see missionaries hold their people-group lists a little more lightly; they don't tend to reflect many of the sociologically significant divisions that really exist on the ground - functional "tribes" - because language and ethnicity don't tell you everything or reveal the ways communities are affected by social dynamics like globalization, government policies, and immigration. At any rate, as the lists of sociolinguistic peoples have improved and gained acceptance, interest in stratification studies of any kind has waned.
Interest in question #3 has also declined. For one reason or another few seem interested in developing strategies highly informed by cultural research. Even the whole area of "contextualization" is often discussed in broad sweeping terms (what words should we use for God when we talk about him with Muslims?) as if it has little to do with on-the-ground contexts, the ways in which one community, city, or region differs from another. And here I thought that was the point of contextualization!
So, more than a decade ago I stopped thinking of our research reports as strategy reports, and focused more on writing them as cultural descriptions. And if I'm honest about it I have to admit that even in our earliest days of ethnography for church planting, few of those who embraced the research used it in any great degree to develop their strategies (though they did use it; see below).
One factor in our lack of influence over vision and strategy was that most of our researchers had little training in ministry models. They did not know how to use language that would show respect to their readers' training and assumption and still make a difference in how missionaries pursue church planting. Since I had learned everything I do more or less on the job, it was hard for me to see beyond the models I'd inherited. I sensed they were limited or broken or waning in relevance, but I didn't know what do do about that. That's one reason I decided to go to grad school, actually.
One thing I noticed was that even those who did not think we had anything to contribute to strategy development often ate up our prayer materials, videos, and cultural descriptions. There's still a niche market for people group profiles, National Geographic style articles, prayer guides, great photography and all that. As long as those things were part of the picture, both those who had very loose ideas about strategy - maybe considering it arrogant to go in thinking they knew what they were doing - and those who had their strategies all figured out in advance - like my colleagues on this trip to Europe - could see the value in doing ethnography. They wanted us to do it, or to do it together with us. Maybe it was time for me to let go of my high-minded ideas about why.
Here's what remains. I think it's more than enough. Even for those who don't see ethnography as a building block for their strategies can experience the following benefits:
1. Doing ethnography and/or reading the results of it still provide anyone involved in a church-planting effort with valuable help in loving and understanding the people they want to reach.
2. Ethnography also uncovers moving and significant stories to share in raising up prayer and more workers.
3. Ethnography can uncover anticipating obstacles and opportunities for ministry efforts - felt needs, hopes and fears, and patterns of relationship.
4. Ethnography can reveal a better idea what stories and principles are likely to mean the most to people, informing evangelism, discipleship, and teaching efforts.
In my book, that’s plenty. Maybe we were just taking ourselves - and the role our work could play in strategy! too darn seriously.
Our ethnography training sessions in Europe were all videotaped and the ministry plans to use them in creating a curriculum to train teams in other cities. The video team also got footage for promotional materials they’ll be able to use in raising up prayer teams and evangelism teams. They’ll probably use some of the stories we heard to create a one-week prayer guide for supporters of the prayerwalking teams to use back home.
Maybe it won't all happen. Maybe it won't all work. (I'm not the only one carrying around models that may not be sufficient for their purpose!) I could turn my hands to other things, but I am no longer haunted by a fear that I must, that the model would have to be thrown out all together. I can rest easy that my investment in passing on what I do know about ways to explore another culture was worth it. I got some answers to my questions.