Gordon Mikoski, associate professor of Christian education at Princeton Theological Seminary, is the lead investigator of a Lilly Endowment grant program called Thriving Congregations. More than 90 organizations have received grants as part of this initiative, designed to help congregations strengthen their ministries so they can deepen their relationships with God, each other, and the wider society. Mikoski and his team’s piece focuses on ecclesiastical imagination.
“We interviewed several sociologists who, based on their discussions with congregations, compiled a list of characteristics that thriving congregations share. But there’s an additional factor they said that they can’t get their hands around, yet they feel it as soon as they encounter people in these congregations,” he says. “We wondered if it might be the shared imagination these congregations have about God, the nature of the church, and how it relates to the surrounding environment.”
The idea is that each congregation is its own cultural world that creates a meaningful theology world for itself. Due to the pandemic, the Thriving Congregations project went all digital, with students using digital ethnography to identify themes of ecclesiastical imagination in 23 congregations. In phase two of the research, the team will assist 12 of the congregations in making their ecclesiastical imagination explicit in order to function as a resource for innovation.
Mikoski says the students have been “breaking new ground on digital ethnography” and will share learnings with other researchers. The team will also publish portraits of the 23 congregations on the Seminary website using text and photos.
“People read these and it shapes their imagination of what’s possible,” he says. “Like a Shakespeare play, each one is a concrete story that, when done well, illuminates something of what it means to be human.”
With Drs. Afe Adogame, Yolanda Pierce, and Eric Williams, Mikoski is also a co-convener of “The Troubles I’ve Seen”: Religious Dimensions of Slavery and Its Afterlives, a virtual conference taking place October 22-23, 2021, sponsored by Princeton Seminary, Howard University School of Divinity, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The conference will focus on the religious and theological dimensions of the afterlives of slavery. A second conference at the University of Liberia in 2022 will highlight the transatlantic dimensions of slavery.
“These conferences are part of the Seminary’s commitment to ongoing engagement with slavery and race issues, and of a fundamental sea change at Princeton, as it moves into a new era,” he says.
Mikoski notes that this project, like Thriving Congregations, relates to the theme of imagination; specifically, “the theological imagination of Princeton Seminary in the 19th century, which unfortunately made it impossible for people at this institution to envision a multiracial society. Now in the 21st century, Princeton Seminary is transitioning to a more multiracial and inclusive approach to theological education with a creative imagination for a fully inclusive society.”
Both initiatives embody Mikoski’s interest in imagination as a philosophical, theological, and anthropological phenomenon, he says.
“One thing that makes us distinctly human is our ability to imagine, yet it is underdeveloped in the church realm. Imagination is one of our superpowers.”