Representational versus relational approach

The topic of my research project was titled ‘emerging congregations in new housing areas’. I decided in my first week to have some conversations with pastors and leaders who were working in these areas. I hoped to become a little bit acquainted with some of their experiences and concerns. These conversations were an experience for me I will not easily forget. The first pastor I spoke with, said to me: “I think you better can stop with this inquiry. It’s not happening here.” Later on, people were a bit more nuanced, but over and over again I heard stories about how difficult it was to build relationships with people in these new housing areas, how hard it was to establish connections and to find people who had some interest in a tradition of more then 2.000 years old.
Next to that, I saw the suspicion with which some of the pastors looked at me. Would I have the intention of finding solutions? Did I came with my own frameworks and ideas with which I would evaluate what was going on here and what could be advisable in this situation? In a way, they were discussing the value of many of the prescriptive models that are current and popular within church development literature. ‘How to be church’ is central and pastors often perceive a gap between what ought to be and what is. Someone told me: “In models I never read about what we are confronted with in practice: about all kinds of jealousy or the implicit rule: who brings the money can make the decisions.” Many of the pastors within new housing areas referred also to the context they were working in. A context where the old models aren’t working anymore, where church lost its central position and not a lot can be taken for granted. You could call it a situation of liminality. In their opinion this asked a total different approach then ready-made models for implementation.

These stories were not very unfamiliar for me. I already recognized them in the theoretical reflection that exists within scientific theoretical discussions, especially in the shift from a representational towards a more relational approach. Much of the church development literature is characterized by for example structural solutions or prescriptive models intended to adapt to a new situation. In these cases, the search for patterns and empirical regularities is prevailing. These approaches are based on the reduction of complexity, focused on uniformity and assuming a situation of stability. You could say that they are examples of a representational way of doing research. This is challenged within the last years by more interpretive approaches of doing research. No one was waiting for advices or new models. They attached not to much credit to that. Several of the pastors were waiting for people who wanted to value the theories of practice that were developing.
It has a lot of affinity with the relational approaches that are emerging in research. In a way, it’s a different scientific paradigm and a lot is shifting then. There are consequences for the designing of the research, different requirements for validity, different criteria for analysis and so on. I don’t want to recommend this relational research as a solution in every situation and the new panacea for congregational studies. I only experienced that in this complex and ambiguous situation in new housing areas a more explorative approach with a turn to practice could be fruitful.

And the last one I want to mention, is a line of distinction that is constitutive for my own position as a researcher.

Intervention versus inquiry

The last experience that I would like to elaborate on, is the problem of implementation that is often experienced in practice. The same question can be heard, not only in relation to prescriptive research that frequently concludes with a list of recommendations, but also with policy plans and plans of strategy and actions: “How to put this into practice?” Lacking resources or lacking enthusiasm prevents realization. Plans frequently die a slow death. Sometimes activities are not as intended or side effects are overwhelming. It’s not much effort to extend this list of questions and problems that are experienced with implementation of plans and recommendations. In a same way it’s not much effort to elaborate the theoretical reflection about it. These questions and problems could be linked to many of the scientific dilemmas that are elaborated in the last decades. It can be connected for example with the dispute about the relation between theory and practice or the structure – agency debate.
What I think, is important when reflecting on this implementation dilemma is to take this theoretical exploration also into account. New insights in the relation between inquiry and intervention have been arising. Especially in the last years, the importance and role of description and understanding in the change process is stressed. By this, there is an acknowledgment that description and understanding are as much intervening in the local and situated processes of producing and reproducing of meaning as approaches where intervention has a more explicit position. Even when you have the intention to stay outside the situation you try to investigate, you are intervening. The detached observer is a myth as Gadamer already said. There are some possibilities as reaction: you can ignore it or try to reduce as much as possible this interference. My choice is to accept it and to look for possibilities to work with it and value it. When inquiry is intervention, how can I intervene in such a way that it is fruitful for the field? How can the gap between analysis and action be diminished. I think it’s no surprise that I’m looking for methods that take engaged research as starting point. Methods with roots in participatory and collaborative inquiry, action theoretical approaches and appreciative inquiry.

These are three lines of distinction for the choices I’ve made. Reflecting on the relation between organization and theology, a relational approach and the relation with practice. Now I will elaborate the specific topic that is the focus of my inquiry and the research question that arises from this.

The problem of renewal

During the nineties many new housing areas were arising in The Netherlands. The development of these areas were part of a national policy program that provided for the building of 635,000 houses in the decade from 1995 till 2005, and an additional 170,000 houses in the five years that would follow. Large new housing areas with 500 until more than 25.000 houses in compact areas near cities were planned, all part of an ambitious and detailed governmental master plan. The research project I am working on was initially intended to stimulate the investigation into the start and development of religious practices and communities of belief within these new housing areas. However, the initial hope from the beginning within church circles that Vinex areas could become a laboratory for new experiments, a place where church communities could start again with a blank slate and everything could be altered, shifted within a few years. When I joined the project, the experiences from practice became well known and spread. The practical experiences were differentiated, but always witnessing a laborious and ambiguous situation. New housing areas were increasingly equated in church circles with an increasing tendency to secularisation, uprooted postmodern inhabitants with no sense of connection to the neighbourhood and a strongly hesitant attitude towards belief and the church. 
I think what is specific for these new housing areas isn’t so much the new possibilities for being church that they would bear, but the overrepresentation of the age group between 25 to 40 years old. These are areas with a lot of young families, most of them with double incomes and children. Time is a scarce item for this group. Next to that, however, it is the age group with one of the lowest levels of church affiliation. Where in other congregations these processes are hidden by a dominant group of people above 55 who take a lot of responsibilities within the congregation, in new housing areas this group is to a large extent absent. So, new housing areas are not so much the experimental garden of new forms of church, more the laboratory for shifts in locality, a Christian tradition that becomes marginal and a diminishing denominational affiliation.

Especially within this situation it becomes apparent how old patterns of explanation and description are reaching its limit. When looking at the existing literature that evaluates new congregations in new housing areas the categorization that is used, is notable. I will list a few of these different forms of categorization and confront these with the results out of the survey I took myself of all the religious initiatives within new housing areas. This is based on more then 110 telephonic interviews. The first categorization that can be noticed in existing literature is between old and young congregations. The assumption is that congregations that already exist for a long time are static and history prevents renewal. New congregations are perceived as dynamic without breaking down under the burden of tradition. For this reason the focus is often directed towards church planting projects while existing congregations are neglected. To the contrary, in the survey, a lot of conflicts about tradition were noted even in initiatives that existed for two years. Pastors were telling about their perception that all the attention was going to internal conflicts and organization. While in congregations that already existed for a few hundred years the construction of a new housing area could turn out to be the beginning of a whole process of renewal. A division between old and new congregations doesn’t give much recognition to this nuanced processes of traditioning and retraditioning. It even stays out of view. Another example is the classification that is often used between so-called free congregations and denominational congregations. This suggests that in the first a longer tradition is absent, while in the second a denominational tradition is dominant. However, many of the initiatives that developed within a denominational setting can’t be easily recognized as such. Regularly, they don’t present themselves as such and the people who get involved have a very diverse denominational background. The same is true for the so-called free congregations. A lot of influences from different traditions are visible. Another example is the focus on the influence and connection of a congregation to its geographical context. It doesn’t take notice of the much wider relational context by which people are involved. Shifts in locality are hardly noticed. Concepts that were useful in an older situation doesn’t bring these new shifts into account.

The problem of renewal is that renewal is very difficult to recognize when using the conceptual frameworks that were appropriate in an earlier situation. The question is how to be able to recognize these shifting patterns for example between context and community or between history, tradition and experience? Tracing empirical regularities in a situation of liminality isn’t without risks. . Maybe you could say when looking for characteristics of these new situation, that the most important characteristic of this situation of transition is transition itself. Approaches based on the reduction of complexity which are abstract, objectifying and disembodied run the risk to become isolated from the context at a great pace and by losing connection, becoming meaningless and sometimes also counterproductive.

On this place I will focus on the different ways organizational concepts can be used in theoretical reflection and in practice while keeping this explorative openness for renewal. I will start with an example from my research project.


Last year I worked together with a starting congregation. The attempt for me was to initiate a dialogue that is open; I try to enable more open discourse among various people who are involved in the starting congregation and between them and people who live in the neighbourhood, or are involved in other societal organizations. I would like to give one example here of how I was using dialogue for stimulating theological reflection and how this helped to deconstruct different organizational concepts and finding other possibilities.

When I entered the congregation one of the questions that seemed important for people in the church board was: “How to become present in the neighbourhood.” I had a lot of considerations and points of attention around this question. However, what I would like to focus on at this moment is how relations were shifting by the use of dialogue.

After conducting a social network analysis together with the people who were attending three Sunday services, the question was reformulated together as: “How to build connections with these inhabitants that are at this moment not present in the congregation?” The fact was that one of the most important conclusions of the network analysis was that participants mostly were originated from the oldest neighbourhood of Nesselande. Only three persons came from the other – more recent part which also contained a district with social housing. I started the research with individual conversations (using reflexive dialogue as method). The community worker who also was interested to participate in the research introduced me to a group of mothers who had organized themselves to prevent their children from slipping into criminality. Next to individual conversations, I invited people for group sessions, sometimes with a homogeneous, sometimes also with a diversity of backgrounds. People were invited to tell their stories and experiences, analyses are made in these groups and dialogues, and people are invited to comment on emerging analyses. Analysis in this way isn’t only done by use of generalization, but also by sharing and deepening stories and experiences. At the end of these round-table conversations I ask participants to tell something which was most surprising for them. Some of these remarks would I like to mention here. These are remarks from a shared conversation with the group of mothers and people who are involved in the congregation. They show how these dialogues are used as analysis, but also how it’s in a same way inquiry as intervention.
• One of the women at the table told how impressive it was for her to listen to the story of a single mother with four children. “I already heard about your neighbourhood and not in a positive way. When I met you and listened to you, I just realized that you are also a mother, fighting as a lion for your children. When I was in your position, I should do the same. We both are mothers, I think I understand you in that way.”
o This is a quotation out of its context and by that also a bit dangerous. But it shows how different ways of constructing can become visible by listening to experiences. Not only in terms of objectification, it was broadened here. Shifts in relationships between people was one of the forms that became visible within these dialogue. Other possibilities of relating.
• One of the members of the church board who was responsible for the presence of church in the neighbourhood spoke about this when I spoke with him in the beginning of my project as trying to attract more people to the congregation. At the end of one of the dialogues he participated in, he noticed: “What was surprising for me was that there were much more people who were speaking about belief then I would have imagined on forehand. I always was thinking of this neighbourhood as a desert, but I understand now that it isn’t.”
o This is a small example of shifts that could be noticed in concepts of church. The reflection on church is broadened after this by the church board who invited Christian people from different backgrounds with the leading question: what is our shared responsibility. The concept of a congregation as a reified bounded entity was enriched by this with a more network-oriented approach.
• A last example was someone who wanted to follow the inquiry and asked already after three weeks for a report and results. As an answer I invited him for one of the round table conversations. Afterwards he said: “I always think: We have to know who lives here, we need a profound analysis. After these stories I heard tonight I think there are also other ways then reports. Then you read about people, now we were doing what is the real work: meeting each other.”
o This is a quotation that shows a shift in the construction of what is  perceived as organizing. This reflection came during the whole inquiry project regularly to the surface. Sometimes people found it very difficult to grasp: they experienced a lack of control. Other people found this a very natural way of policy development. It was interesting to look together for possibilities to deal with this. The binary  between managerial and non-managerial perspectives could be an easy result of my approach. The pitfall of this inquiry is to understand theological reflection and  organizational discourses, linkage and meaning, relational and transcontextual concepts in a dualistic way instead of interweaved. One of the consequences was that abstract theories weren’t as much as possible avoided. It only means that theories are brought into context as another perspective that can enable reflection.

I use these conversations also for my own analysis. But I try to bring it always back in context, to make it a part of the local processes of meaning. In a way, I try to challenge guiding assumptions, fixed images of others and of relations and to look for possibilities ‘to reopen the formative capacity of human beings in relation to others [to God] and the world’ (Sangren, 1992). With this I come to the last part of this paper.

The relation between organization and theology

My own research question is focused on the entanglement of the relationships between meaning, context, praxis and linkage. In this way the focus on linkage [a focus that is central in most of the network oriented studies] and the focus on meaning [central in for example a lot of studies within the field of systematic theology] is integrated. Linkage and meaning are seen as co-creating each other within local-historical and local-contextual processes.
As a consequence, organizational concepts are released from the restricted use of neo-tayloristic and later also system theoretical meanings. Some of the shifts that are part of these more emergent approaches are consistent with the shifts that are perceived in the religious context of new housing areas and can help to stimulate theological reflection as performative, contextual and embodied.

These shifts can be: (and I will give three shifts)

• A shift from univocal and uniform systems – based on reified and disembodied concepts of community to a process-oriented approach that gives space to pluriformity and polyphony where meaning is constantly produced and reproduced in relational processes and is arising by participants and in social interaction. This is consistent with the experience of a field where denominations and church are in the margin and spontaneous networks from people with a very diverse background arise. It also gives space to an embodied theology.

• A more network-oriented and relational concept of community where locality and context are regarded as dynamic and relational and the binary between an active agent and a passive community is avoided. Leadership is seen more as a process then an individual agent, giving space to looking at processes of power; the idea of an active congregation who has to attract a passive context is doubted. Networks are crossing these boundaries, based on meaningful relations.

• From a focus on cognitive knowledge and verbality towards a process of theological reflection that is performative where meaning and action are interweaved as well as the process of community formation and the content. This means that the ‘how’, the process of becoming, is the focus of attention, it is forming the ‘what’. Policy development is as much in the meeting of people, the singing of songs as in the different ways of reflecting.

By this interest for organizational deconstruction, I hope to find new possibilities for a place for theological reflection within organizational discourse and for contextualising and looking for the situatedness of organizational concepts within the practice of congregations; away from transhistorical and transcontextual ways of using. Above all I try to value the formative role of theology within the development of beginning congregations