Erin Raffety: Understanding congregations through digital ethnography

Church marquee reads: Sunday Services held via Facebook 10 a.m.

Bigstock/Daria Nipot

Using a method from anthropology, a pastor and researcher studies congregations through “deep hanging out” online.

Erin Raffety combines her training as a cultural anthropologist and a Presbyterian pastor to understand and inform her theology -- and to understand what’s going on in congregations.

As the pandemic forced churches online, Raffety and researchers she’s working with on an ethnographic project pivoted online too, adapting their in-person methods to the digital world.

“I helped train student researchers in doing ethnography, and then we had to take all of that ethnographic work online suddenly, as everything happened with COVID,” she said. “Because we still wanted to get to know these congregations and work with them.”

This effort is part of a national study, headed by Gordon S. Mikoski of Princeton Theological Seminary, in which a team of researchers is working with 23 congregations to learn about ecclesial imagination and how it helps congregations adapt and reinvent themselves.

“Honestly, it’s been one of the most hopeful things in my life, doing this research over the last several months,” Raffety said. “We want people to be encouraged by it.”

Erin RaffetyRaffety is a research fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey. Her primary research interest is congregations and people with disabilities. She spoke to Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about the ethnographic research project and how ethnography is helpful even to nonresearchers. The following is an edited transcript.

F&L: Briefly describe what ethnography is, and explain your usual methods in nonpandemic times.

Erin Raffety: “Ethnography” is a confusing term. It’s both an epistemology and a methodology, so it’s both a way of knowing and a way of being in the world. It’s the process by which we do research, and the books that anthropologists write we also call “ethnography.”

The method that I was taught and I use is participant observation. While we come to congregations or to people with particular questions or concerns, we really try to have humility about what the congregation or the people we’re studying think is important -- what concerns they have, and what they have to teach us. It’s a really dialogical process.

I always refer to it as “deep hanging out.” Typically in ethnographic research, I would spend as much time as possible with the people I’m trying to get to know and study, and that would be in both formal and informal settings.

I would be following them around through lots of experiences and processes in their lives. That means actually participating in worship and the life of the congregation and the other things that they’re up to.

We ourselves are the instrument of research, so the goal is to actually be aware of and embrace your bias and then to participate as a full person and, through your dialogue with the people that you’re studying, to really get to see something true and real about human life.

F&L: Could this approach be helpful for folks in congregations who aren’t researchers?

ER: The work of ethnography is really slow, so you have to take a lot of time to get to know people. I think that there’s this really important thing that happened in our research, where we didn’t have the anxiety of having to solve all the problems that COVID presented to these congregations.

We’re just walking with them through it. And so we have a very different point of view in terms of being open to watching God move among them.

When you are a pastor, you’re just experiencing, “This is so impossible and this is so hard, and nothing I’m doing is making a difference.”

When you’re a researcher, you have a different perspective. These congregations are continuing to do ministry amid circumstances that we couldn’t have even imagined. They’re now creating community online.

I’ve definitely talked to pastors who have said, “When we break out into Zoom groups and people are in groups that they normally wouldn’t sit in in coffee hour, they’re having conversations that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

I don’t want to be too trite and say, “Take on this researcher role with your congregation and it will be easy.”

Because it’s actually really, really hard right now. What we’re hoping is that our research is able to say, “Here are some ways that God is helping congregations thrive despite all these challenging circumstances.”

Beyond just experiencing it as a moment of challenge or stress, I think there’s this question in my mind: Isn’t this an incredible moment of reformation for the church?

And who are we becoming? And what is God doing?

When you get to ask questions like that, you just experience everything so differently. I think curiosity is a way of loving the world and being in love with the world and being in love with what God is doing.

That sounds quite simplistic, but I do think that reorientation to being curious about what God is doing can sometimes be a real resource in ministry and leadership.

F&L: What can you and others learn from this kind of study?

ER: I never say I do research on people, because I just think that’s really inaccurate. I always say that I need people and I need congregations to better understand the world, so I do research with people. I think it’s a really important reorientation, especially for budding ministers.

I think in theological education, one of the things that sometimes we’ve maybe failed to teach our students is that congregations have a lot of wisdom and resources to offer them, and they’ve been around a lot longer than the pastors that come to them.

F&L: What are the challenges when you move to the digital space? Are there best practices?

ER: There are people that have been doing studies of lived religion and religious communities that are online for decades. One of the things that they have pointed out is very few communities exist only online.

There’s this fluidity between the online and the offline lived experience that’s important to get at and to not simplify into this binary. We’re already living in this hybrid world.

Because of the pandemic, many more practices of sociality have gone online. People rapidly moved services online, and so we said, “OK, well, we’re going to use the methods that people are using to worship -- like Zoom -- to participate in and observe their worship.”

In some ways, this entire experience of the pandemic has been like a crash course for any ethnographer in how to do digital ethnography, because it’s all you have. Obviously, this has some differences in a digital environment, but it’s still very relevant, I think.

It certainly creates challenges. Part of it is because of our biases. We have this sense that -- and a lot of churches have the sense that -- what’s happening online right now isn’t a real reflection of who they are.

One of the challenges is that people in congregations, but also researchers, tend to have this suspicion around, “Is what is happening online real? Does it matter?” There’s all this nostalgia about the way we were doing things before the pandemic.

That’s all relevant, because that’s actually how people are feeling.

But it takes away from the fact that what’s happening right now is actually people are having to worship online. So there’s this incredible gift that we’re getting to study it in real time and experience it as they experience the challenge of it, and some of the emotions that come with it.

There’s something so significant about getting to study this particular cultural moment -- and what other methods would you use? Of course you would use Zoom.

F&L: So the switch could be as simple as going into a Zoom service to observe and participate versus going to a congregation’s in-person Sunday worship?

ER: Yes.

F&L: What are you learning?

ER: I can tell you about one of the preliminary hunches that we have about the research.

One of the things that we noticed when our researchers started attending Zoom worship services or going to Bible study online or going to staff meetings with the churches is they were saying, “Hey, I’m feeling I can connect with the pastors and staff” -- because when you’re watching a Zoom service, they’re all visible. “I’m getting to know the leadership of this congregation really well, but I can’t see the people, so I’m having a hard time getting to know the congregation.”

This is what I think your average worshipper is complaining about too.

I can put on gallery view in Zoom, but I don’t have that experience of looking around the entire service and experiencing the body of Christ.

Because worshippers are having the same challenge that our researchers are having, a lot of churches have made adjustments and have found their own ways to make the church, make the congregation, visible.

In one congregation we’re studying, they’ll all unmute at certain times in the service and pray contemporaneously all together. You have that cacophony of voices, and you have that sense of being surrounded by people that for them is very familiar. They are creating familiar routines, rituals, contexts.

Heidi Campbell has been doing digital religious studies forever. She talks about different modes of either transferring or translating practices online, versus transforming.

That might be an example of transforming, where a congregation is saying, “OK, what are people really looking for? What are they looking to connect to? We’re not just going to put our service online.”

F&L: Have you all faced issues with people who don’t have access to technology?

ER: That’s a really important constraint of our study. Pretty early in the game, we decided we’re not really going to be able to do this type of research very well if a congregation doesn’t have an established website or doesn’t have some sort of video presence and isn’t doing these things remotely.

One of the goals of our study is to include a very diverse sample, so we have a lot of racial, ethnic diversity. We have a lot of geographic diversity. I think we definitely have a decent amount of diversity in terms of size, and also socioeconomic, but [technology] certainly was a constraint, because we just don’t have any other way of getting to know churches.

F&L: How are congregations adapting?

We have a researcher who, when he started to work with a congregation in Arizona, they mailed him a seed packet, a wildflower seed packet, and a little cactus. The church has a “Touchpoints” ministry where they are using tangible items to connect people during COVID. The wildflower seed packet and cactus were part of a package they mailed to all new members. Another thing they’re doing for existing members is exchanging small painted rocks to feel members connected in a “touchable” way across screens.

I think that that’s just an interesting example of how they’re working -- the online versus the offline space.