Identity and Practice in New Churches: My Dissertation Proposal in Brief

I'm officially ABD (all but dissertation) which means I'm being asked regularly what my dissertation is on.  Here's a shortened version of the "statement of the problem" from my prospectus. 

At the beginning of the 21st century in the U.S., despite historically low confidence in organized religion and the rise of the “Nones,” new churches and new forms of church are springing up across the country. Many of these assert the centrality of missional identity and practices of Christian witness, but the effects of such missional priorities on the faithfulness and spiritual vitality of these churches are uncertain. As a project in “practical ecclesiology” this study of new churches will utilize both sociological and theological methods to explore the dynamics between ecclesial identity—a church’s corporate self-image and implicit ecclesiology—and practices of mission, community and spirituality. My thesis is that some of the resources needed by Western Christianity in 21st century are being developed by the newest cohort of churches, but that uncritical adoption of their practices and perspectives in pursuit of effectiveness is theologically (and practically) perilous.



The project will develop in three moves. First, using survey and qualitative work in Seattle churches founded after 9/11/2001, it will offer an interpretive typology of the ways in which corporate identity and practice are related in ecclesial life, thus making a contribution to congregational studies research, which has given limited attention to new churches. Second, departing from the productionistic logic prevalent in church planting literature, this project will contribute to this field by offering robust theological assessment of the types and practices of new churches, drawing upon scholarship in Christian witness, Luke-Acts, missional ecclesiology, Christian spiritual formation and missional spirituality. Third, and finally, this project will draw from the ecclesial practices and the theological literatures to make constructive and practical proposals for church leaders seeking to lead the Western church into missional faithfulness and spiritual vitality in the 21st century.

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