I helped to found a pub church. Over the course of several years, a group of friends and I frequented a favorite local pub every Friday to eat fish and chips. In a moment of convergence, it occurred to us that the pub was a perfect place to gather as church – a more ideal place. There were enough in our group whose experiences of church had been negative, hurtful, and for some even abusive, that a typical church building was a place they were no longer willing to enter. To use the terminology of John Inge’s Christian theology of place, the traditional church building had become negatively storied. Like all places, the church building was a place filled with meaning, but in this case it was negative meaning, developed as a result of shattered hopes and hurtful memories. In contrast, the pub was a place of community and friendship, a place where we could relate to one another anew, and where we could imagine engaging with God again. Our idea of a church in a pub was born.
At the time, we thought this was novel, born of our own imagination and experiences, but I quickly discovered that such creative ideas about church were becoming quite common in United States but in the United Kingdom (not to mention throughout church history!). Yet what is reflected in these new forms of church is a deep listening and responding to people’s experiences of church and to their desire for a church that could be experienced as Good News.
“Deep listening,” as a tool for critical theological reflection, is the focus of this essay. I will offer a quick glimpse of my larger research project on the ecclesiology of the Emerging Church that led me to this method of narrative analysis. I will then present the Listening Guide, a feminist voice-centered method of narrative analysis developed collaboratively by Carol Gilligan et al. that is designed to keep the researcher open to discovery. This a valuable tool for doing theology, a tool that facilitates our understanding of what is being experienced in a particular historical moment and values the voice and participation of all who make up the Body of Christ—not simply that of a select few. It is also a practical tool for critical theological reflection that affirms the continuing incarnation of Christ in all the participants of the church as a corrective to the pervasive pattern within theology of allowing a handful of few (too often, white male voices) to speak for the many.
The theological task
My favorite definition of good practical theology comes from Gustavo Gutiérrez who defines theology as: “Critical reflection on praxis in light of the Word of God.” This means that theology is always engaged in the tension between reflection and action – praxis – and is concerned with reflecting upon praxis critically in light of what God is up to in the world. This theology takes seriously concrete reality and makes critical judgments that may lead to more faithful action according to the Good News as embodied by Jesus in community. This theology has social, political, and economic implications. It is meant to transform the world.
My interest is the transformation of the church. There are two aspects of the church that concern me and motivate my work on Emerging Church ecclesiology. First are the experiences of judgment and exclusion that people encounter within church as well as the judgment and exclusion of lesbian, gay, bi, and trans people experienced in their interactions with Christian-identified family and friends. Second, it is evident that pervasive patriarchal patterns in the church persist in the public presentation of the Emerging Church. There are a handful of ‘usual suspects’ repeatedly cited in Emerging Church blog posts, articles, interviews, and conference posters that dominate the public presentation of the Emerging Church and create its popular imagination. As it stands, that predominant image highlights a popular few and effectively erases the vast majority of the people, especially the women, who make up the movement. No church, especially a church that seeks to emerge in ways that are organic, relational, and inclusive, can be adequately represented by a subset of voices.
Broadly speaking, the “Emerging Church” refers to a relationally connected network of congregations within Western Christianity that seek to rethink and reform the church in light of what it understands to be important elements of a changing culture and in response to experiences of Christianity and church as “unchristian.” The literature of the Emerging Church purports that Emerging Church congregations embody a vision of church that is organic, relational, and inclusive in form. While I do not have space here to offer a detailed description of these three characteristics, early on in my investigation of Emerging Churches I noted that first wave feminist theologians, who raised robust challenges to the church regarding the largely overlooked sexism and patriarchal practices embedded within it, also developed and contributed much toward an ecclesiology that would make for a more organic, relational, and fully inclusive church. However, Emerging Church literature does not reference or acknowledge this fact –erasing the work and contributions of feminist liberation theologians before them – belying the Emerging Church’s desire to be a relational and inclusive church. I also encountered critiques of the Emerging Church which addressed its predominately white male leadership. Further, the concerns first raised by feminist theologians decades ago were also being raised by women involved in the Emerging Church.
So was the emerging church forming in ways that were organic, relational, and inclusive? Specifically was it sufficiently self-critical of sexism and patriarchy within the church? To answer this question, it was important that I listen to the voices of Emerging Church participants beyond those in the published literature. I had my questions and concerns regarding the Emerging Church and I had feminism as the particular critical lens I brought with me as I theological reflected upon it. But I additionally needed my critical reflection to be informed by the praxis of a broader circle of Emerging Church participants, to be informed by the larger Body of Christ, so that I would remain open to discovery and keep myself from seeing only that which might reinforce my own suspicions or biases. Such a theological task was well served by the Listening Guide.
Getting technical with the Listening Guide
In order to capture the fuller picture of the texture and context of the Emerging Church’s ecclesiology, beyond that which is popularly portrayed or thus far captured in the literature, I conducted a qualitative research study with twelve Emerging Church congregations from across the United States. The intent of my study was to draw in the insights and experiences of the wider range of people who make up the Emerging Church than just of those who have published books. The findings of my study were based on research that includes participant observation, review of the congregations’ printed materials, and 47 interview/focus group sessions with participants from among the twelve sites. I applied the Listening Guide method of narrative analysis to the transcripts of my interviews with participants in order to uncover the ways in which they did or did not experience the Emerging Church, through their participation in their particular congregation, as organic, relational, and inclusive.
The Listening Guide is a voice-centered relational approach to narrative analysis. The method involves a series of four sequential ‘listenings’ that are designed to “bring the researcher into relationship with a person’s distinct and multilayered voice by tuning in or listening to distinct aspects of a person’s expression of her or his experience within a particular relational context.” In the case of this study the voice being tuned into is that of persons and groups of Emerging Church participants and their expressed experiences of their Emerging Church congregation. The approach of multiple listenings assumes that “many voices are embedded in a person’s expressed experience” and that “the psyche, like voice, is contrapuntal (not monotonic) so that simultaneous voices are co-occurring.” Gilligan et al. contend that the significance of listening to the “many voices” is that that it is in the tensions between the voices that new insights can be gained – that discovery is possible. Thus, the researcher listens for distinct and multiple aspects of the person/persons’ expressed experience in order to uncover new findings.
The “listenings,” rather than “readings” of the text, are named thus to highlight the active participation required on the part of the researcher, i.e. the listener. This acknowledges the active presence required of both teller and listener; this relational method recognizes the researcher’s role and “intentionally brings the researcher into relationship with the participant through making our responses, experiences, and interpretive lenses explicit in the process, and by listening to each person’s first-person voice before moving in to listen for answers to our own research questions.” This makes explicit the researcher’s active role with the aim of maximizing the researcher’s ability to listen and not have her responses interfere with the listening process. Ultimately, the method “listens to, rather than categorizes or quantifies,” the text – the transcribed interviews.
The Listening Guide is framed by three overarching questions about voice: “Who is speaking and to whom, telling what stories about relationship, in what societal and cultural frameworks (Brown & Gilligan, 1992, p.21)?” With this framework in mind, the researcher conducts a series of four sequential readings: 1) listening for the plot, 2) listening for the first-person voice, 3) listening for contrapuntal voices, and 4) composing an analysis.
Listening for the plot has two steps. In the first step one attends to the landscape, to what is happening, to the stories being told, to what is happening in them, when, where, to whom, and why. One also attends to repeated images, metaphors, or dominant themes; to contradictions or absences, and finally, to the larger social and cultural contexts within which the stories are embedded and expressed, as well as to the context within which the researcher and research participant come together. In step two of the first listening, the researcher attends to her response to the narrative by “identifying, exploring, and making explicit [her] own thoughts and feelings about, and associations with, the narrative being analyzed.”
The second reading focuses on listening to the first-person voice of the speaker by noting each use of the first-person pronoun “I”. The researcher underlines, or marks in some visible way, each “I” spoken in the text and the verbs that follow it. These are then pulled out and written down on a separate paper, each “I” phrase written on a separate line, like a poem, and in the same sequence as they appear. The purpose is two-fold: it moves the participant’s subjectivity to the foreground in order to listen to how the person speaks about her or himself in relation to the topic in question, and it enables the listener to get to know the “distinctive cadences and rhythms” of the teller. This listening attunes the researcher to what the participant knows of her or himself before talking about her or him; it resists dealing with the research participants in an objectifying way. In terms of the research questions, isolating the first-person voice facilitates listening for distinctive moments of variation, dissonances, and shifts in the person’s expression of their experience, referred to as “hot spots,” that may be key places for further exploration and inquiry.
The third listening connects directly back to the research question and is more explicitly designed for ‘discovery’ within the research area. This begins by identifying a particular ‘voice’ for which the researcher will listen – an aspect of the research question – and determines the markers by which this voice is identified. For example, one of the specific voices I listened for in my analysis was that of relationality – the church as relational in its structure and design. Markers I looked for to identify this voice were mentions of participation, of decision-making, and of roles and responsibilities. I marked these by underlining with a particular color. This is done at least one more time, if not more, to listen for another voice related to the research question. I did this three times, listening for relationality, organicity, and inclusivity. The voices are marked in different colors or highlighting in order to make it easy to see how the voices relate to one another and to see what is revealed in the relationship between the voices. Is there dissonance, harmony, or contradiction? Listening for at least two contrapuntal voices recognizes the reality that there is a multiplicity of voices and aspects of experience always at play in any given situation or relational context, and it helps reveal what may not be immediately obvious.
One then looks at how these contrapuntal voices relate to the first-person voice and its expressed experience. These points of intersection may become points of interest for the researcher and key for the discovery of new understandings regarding the research topic.
I conducted both individual as well group interviews with participants of the twelve congregations I visited. My research project is ecclesiological, its interest being the church as a body made up by the collective of all its participants. When I researched the Listening Guide, I did not find any study in which the guide was used with the transcriptions of group interviews or focus groups. I therefore adapted the second listening to account for participants’ individual voice as well as their sense of the collective voice. In the second listening, usually focused on just the first-person voice, I added an additional step of listening for the collective “we” voice. Initially, as I conducted the second listening, I followed the Listening Guide’s structure, isolating the first-person voice and drawing out each use of “I” and the verbs that followed it. However, as I did this, I also began to take notice of the use of “we” within the text. What stood out was that there would be long stretches of text when the first-person voice dominated only to be abruptly interrupted with a short spurt of “we” voice. What was clear in those moments was a sudden shift in the person’s experience, one that moved from their individual internal experience to an outward one in which others played a clear role. Note, for example, the illustration that follows in which one participant is giving expression to her conflicted feelings about the significance of Jesus. As she began her story, she exclusively used the first-person voice:
I’m in a personal struggle
I don’t know
I don’t associate
I find it hard
I still love
I don’t know
Then, she made a sudden switch to the “we” voice:
We’re all here
We all do
We all see
We be authentic
We have right now
The whole of her last line states, “This is all we have right now; to be authentic.” After her long litany of “I believe,” “I wonder,” “I think,” “I don’t” and “I find” statements, she ends her story by moving from the “I” to the “we” voice. For me, these clear ruptures revealed something about how the participants were experiencing their Emerging Church congregation, and so I adapted the method accordingly. I listened not only for the contrapuntal voices regarding the church as organic, relational, and inclusive, but also for the moments of tension and convergence between the first-person voice and the collective voice – between the “I” and the “we.” I then also noted the relationship between the “I” and “we” voices to the distinct markings of my listenings related to the research question regarding the organicity, relationality, and inclusivity of the emerging church and participants’ experiences within it.
Thus far, these four listenings – plot, the isolated first-person voice, and at least two contrapuntal voices – have created a ‘trail of evidence.’ There is a visual trail of different colored underlining and markings left with each listening, as well as a trail of notes, researcher responses, and interpretive summaries. This trail of evidence then serves as the basis of the researcher’s interpretations in relation to the research questions in the fourth and final step of the Listening Guide. Composing an analysis is the final step in which the researcher ‘assembles the evidence’ and pulls together what has been learned about the research question through this process and how he or she has come to know it.
For the study of Emerging Church congregations, an essentially social and relational subject, this method of analysis allowed me to listen to the “many voices embedded in a person’s embedded experience,” to take seriously the experiences of the persons as persons and not as objects of study, and to have my questions and concerns about the Emerging Church be informed by more than just the few voices that are represented in the literature. It facilitated a process that allowed the data to ‘speak for itself’ and assisted in keeping my biases and pre-commitments as the researcher from getting in the way of discovery. The method also implicitly recognizes the constructed nature of knowledge. I intentionally sought to have the knowledge I produced about the Emerging Church, specifically its praxis, to be informed by a wider circle of people – persons who not only have a stake in the subject matter, but for whom the faithfulness of the church has direct personal and collective implications.
The significance of listening deeply to the Body of Christ
As early as 1970, in an infrequently cited book titled The Emerging Church, Bruce Larson and Ralph Osborne, Presbyterian Ministers, wrote about the church they saw emerging as one that was organic, as in responding to “God’s new thing” as it comes to be known and “discovered locally, at the grassroots”; inclusive, as in open to and inclusive of not only “the dramatic changes and developments in contemporary society,” but also to the questioning and critique of those inside and outside the church; and relational, as in moving away from the non-Christ-like ways that have become embedded in church – hierarchy, clericalism, and other ‘outmoded strategies,’ “habits and restrictions of a bygone day.” More than twenty years before the Emerging Church we know today came to be, Larson and Osborne were already anticipating the development of this new kind of church, a church appropriate for its time and the changing culture.
They proposed that central to the workings of a church that is transformed by the “amazing workings of God’s kind love” is the gift of the divinity of Christ’s continuing incarnation in the humanity of the church. The significance of this is that humanity itself is the means of God’s love through which the church is transformed. The extent to which the whole body, i.e. the humanity of the church, serves as a resource to express the divinity of Christ continues to be an important question in our undertaking of the theological task. Larson and Osborne contend that, “In too many instances, the Church has neglected its primary resources: the divinity of Christ continuing [Christ’s] incarnation in [Christ’s] people, and the very humanity of those in whom [Christ] continues to live.” If Christ’s divinity is recognized as continuing among all who make up the body of Christ which is the church, then this must apply in all matters of church, including the research methods and tools used for our critical theological reflection, especially if the good news of Jesus Christ is to “always be new and relevant, always re-inventing itself.”
I offer the Listening Guide as a valuable method of analysis for the church’s practice of critical theological reflection. Our intentional practice of listening deeply to the multiplicity of voices “on the ground” guards us from the easy habit of listening to only the dominant voices. This method takes seriously the continuing incarnation of Christ in all persons of the church.