The dance of a changing church: a practical theology of congregational transformation
Vandergrift, Jean Halligan
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The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has prioritized the ministry of "congregational transformation" for the revitalization of its congregations in decline, subtly framing the aim of this effort as one of becoming "a faithful and growing church." However, research is lacking as to what has actually changed from the past to the present in Disciples congregations purported to have made progress in this priority, particularly in terms of their lived ecclesiologies. The literature on this type of church change also reveals a need for a more robust ecclesiological understanding of congregational transformation. Accordingly, this dissertation follows a practical theological method that foregrounds ecclesiology - both theoretical and as it is practiced in congregations - in order to uncover what can be learned about the intentional ministry of congregational transformation, its definition, motivation and aims, and its faithful practice. The ethnographic research within three congregations revealed a change of ecclesial identity from one of "Church for Us" to "Church for Witness" across the processes of transformation in these congregations. When these findings were put in dialogue with select theological sources within Disciples tradition, the ecclesial identity of witness was found to be compatible with that tradition, and the reality to which the church ought to bear witness articulated as the good news of Jesus Christ - the reign of God happening. The dissertation relies on feminist commitments in reflecting on the reign of God and makes use of the process-relational theology of Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, especially its model of becoming, in order to provide a coherent account of how transformation transpires in relationship to God. The transformation into a faithful witness-bearing church, then, occurs as the congregation practices or "dances" the reign of God, a dance that corporately and continually turns toward the lead of God, following a process that thereby integrates the means of congregational transformation with the desired end of becoming a faithful church.