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Ecclesiology and Ethnography – Do They Go Together?

Without the fancy words, that is to say, “What does observing and analyzing ordinary church life – studying congregations – have to do with thinking theologically about what church life means?”

About a decade ago, Professor Pete Ward, from Durham University in the UK, and Dr. Chris Scharen, Auburn Seminary’s Vice President of Applied Research, had an idea. Since more and more people were employing ethnography to explore and think about church life, perhaps they should have a chance to talk with each other. Out of that was born the Network for Ecclesiology and Ethnography.

This very fruitful network now hosts both gatherings as the “Ecclesial Practices Group” at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion, but it also hosts an annual gathering at Durham University, which will be joined in 2019 by a gathering in Canada. They even have a Facebook page. There must be something to talk about!


These are scholars and church leaders who are willing to deeply immerse themselves in the lived experiences of congregations. They are employing many of the methods you will find in the toolkit on this site.

Theirs is not simply a descriptive task, however. These are people who want to gain theological wisdom from what they see. At the 2018 conference in Durham, for example, presentations examined worship innovations, the paths young adults take in choosing a church, and how a community in South Africa responded to the murder of a church leader. They asked how ideas about what church is are transformed by these happenings.

They also ate together, sang together, and helped each other think about the importance of the work they are doing. Not unlike a congregation!

Here are the dates for the 2019 conferences, if you’d like to join the conversation:

June 12-14, 2019

St John’s College, University of Manitoba

September 17-19, 2019

St. John’s College, Durham, UK

Nancy Ammerman
About the Author
Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman is Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Sociology and School of Theology at Boston University. A longtime member of the Congregational Studies Team, she is Project Director of