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What we see around us is often very revealing. Groups come together in specific places, and those places shape who they are and give expression to their identity. There are several ways to approach an exploration of the spaces a religious group occupies, but they are all aimed at opening your eyes to the social realities and meanings you might miss without exploring the nooks and crannies at ground level.

Getting Started

  • Your Presence

    Make sure that relevant participants know you are there and why. Ask permission if you are observing an event that would not ordinarily be open to outsiders. Then find a place that allows you to see the action, but not be too far removed. And decide how you will take notes. In some settings that won’t be a problem, but in others, you may need to limit your note taking to a few unobtrusive “jottings” that will jog your memory when you write up your notes later.
  • Being There

    If you are an insider to this group, be careful to really notice the things you normally take for granted and ask yourself what someone else might notice instead. If you are an outsider, don’t be afraid to ask questions about what you see. Either before or after the event, engage participants in conversation about the things you might not have understood or that seemed especially striking to you.
  • Pay Attention!

    Pay attention to non-verbal expression, physical surroundings, and emotional tone, as much as to the words. Spaces, decorations, movement, and feelings can tell you a lot. You might sketch a picture of the room, where people are seated, and who is sitting where, and what happens around the edges.

The Tool Kit: Stepping Back to Watch and Listen

Our Studying Congregations Tool Kit features easy to use quick guides for better understanding a community of faith. This PDF download is ideal for religious leaders, seminarians and anyone else who wants to learn how to make critical and insightful observations in a disciplined way.
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The Tool in Action

Space Tour: Queen of Heaven Parish

Pilar spoke to us in a rapid clip as she gave us a parish campus tour at Queen of Heaven parish in Southern California (all names here are pseudonyms).  As graduate assistant Liz Castro and I walked with her alongside the parish school, we learned that her children had attended the school, and that she was proud of the way in which the principal and teachers celebrated different cultures and taught students appreciatively about the differences between them.  She also noted the cultural diversity within the school, including its faculty. ...
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