Using digital ethnography, the first phase of our project developed portraits of 23 thriving congregations from among a variety of candidates recommended by denominational leaders and fellow ecclesial researchers. The aim was to expand upon the seven key characteristics of thriving congregations, as identified by previous researchers, by helping to identify That Extra Special Something (TESS), which researchers claim “is probably the most important factor” in breathing life into a congregation and its ministries. As practical theologians, we were interested in both who and what thriving congregations are, and what they could become through their exercise of ecclesial imagination. In our second phase of research, we will study the process by which worshipping communities come to understand themselves and their strengths, implement new ventures, and carry these out to various degrees. Therefore, one aim of the research is to refine not just theories of TESS, but to understand how ecclesial imagination can become a resource for continuous thriving in an atmosphere of religious decline. Additionally, while not a part of the original project proposal, the unprecedented movement of congregations into digital spaces due to Covid-19 has blurred and challenged what we know about typical interaction between religious spaces on and offline, as well as established methods for data collection, making the atmosphere ripe for the use of digital ethnographic methods; we have yet to understand what this crisis, its trauma, and forced movement online does for our ecclesial understandings, but this project is well positioned to foster such understanding.
Thriving Congregations Initiative