Working With Human Subjects

An Internet-Based Study Thesis Methods

Faith, Identity and the Rhetoric of the Emerging Church Online

Jennifer Stewart



To conduct my study of the language of online emergent Christian religious communities, I investigated a number of online community websites that identify themselves as “emergent” or “postmodern.” My research questions were investigated through analysis of texts produced by writers who participate (electronically) in conversations surrounding the issues of postmodernism and the future of the Christian faith. Because both group and individual articulations of religious identity exist, I looked at both individual and corporate statements. Thus, the texts I considered reflect the writing of individual authors, as well as the statements of several prominent organizations within the emergent movement. The intersection of these distinct points of articulation helped me to get an overall sense of how this movement conceives of itself, both on the individual and community level. To that end, my project consisted of the following:

First, I looked at individual organizations’ mission or purpose statements, which are contained in the “about us” and “who we are” sections of their websites. I wanted to consider how these groups and organizations articulate their positions and identities within broader Christian religious traditions. There are four specific sites whose mission statements I investigated as part of this project. Second, I analyzed postings to the online message boards of one of these sites. Within that site, I selected and read distinct threads of conversation and then analyzed the discussions of topics/issues that were of interest – both to myself and to the community members.

Sites of Data Collection

As explained above, two types of textual data were collected for this project. The first type consisted of mission statements from four websites loosely associated with the emergent church movement:

Each of these sites has a statement of “who we are,” or “about us” that describes its beliefs and goals. These materials are publicly accessible from each main homepage and can be considered public domain documents. Rationale for selection of these sites follows below.

The second type of text collected consisted of threads and individual postings to the message boards at The Ooze. These were saved electronically as Word documents. To protect the anonymity of the posters in my discussion of the findings (further discussion follows), I replaced each screen name with a pseudonym. To collect the type of posts I was interested in, I monitored postings to the online boards periodically, copying and dating messages of interest (as determined by my selection criteria).

Ethical Considerations in Internet-based Research

Although postings to Internet message boards can be generally thought of as public domain texts, there is an ethical concern that individual authors of such texts have their anonymity protected. Several useful guidelines for protecting the anonymity of subjects in Internet-based research have been developed by the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR). The AOIR suggests asking a number of important questions when considering the use of Internet-based texts in research.

First of all, one should consider the existing expectations of anonymity by those participating in the site under examination. To determine this expectation of privacy, several questions can be asked: First, “[i]s there is a posted site policy that establishes specific expectations – e.g., a statement notifying users that the site is public, the possible technical limits to privacy in specific areas or domains, etc?” and secondly, “[a]re there mechanisms that users may choose to employ to indicate that their exchanges should be regarded as private […] to indicate their desire to have their exchanges kept private?” (Ess 5).

The sites I have chosen, with the exception of The Next Wave, all have stated privacy policy statements accessible from their main homepages. Each site has a varying level of detail regarding its privacy policies, but The Ooze, from whose message boards I collect textual data, contains the most complete of the four I am utilizing. Policies for the distribution of personal information, acceptable uses of personal information, use of cookies and IP addresses, and parameters for use of the site content are clearly spelled out and consistently updated. Within its “Terms of Service” disclaimer regarding “Communication Facilities” (a designation that includes the electronic bulletin/message boards, and chat rooms), The Ooze explains that users, “expressly acknowledge and agree that the Communication Facilities provide a means of public and not private communications.” Furthermore, the Terms of Service guidelines inform users that “[b]y submitting Content, you also agree to permit any user to access, view, store and reproduce the Content for personal use.” Through these guidelines, any user of The Ooze is made aware of the public nature of texts that are posted to the online Communication Facilities.

Registration is required in order to access and post to the message boards, but minimal personal and demographic data is collected in the registration process, and I did not collect or reproduce any personal demographic information as part of this study. The site’s privacy policy explains that “each user will be given the opportunity to create a User Profile; all of this information is optional, and it is only for other users to be able to connect with you based on the information you choose to provide.” Users have the option to hide data such as age, location and email address from other community members. In short, users are not required to reveal any personal information to other users, beyond a selected screen name. In conclusion, when comparing the policies of The Ooze to the ethical guidelines suggested by AOIR, it can be argued that use of textual data from The Ooze does not constitute a breach of privacy because the users of the site are aware of the privacy limitations of the context.

The second consideration when utilizing the texts of participants in online community sites is the user’s status as subject. AOIR suggests asking, “[a]re participants in this environment best understood as ‘subjects’ (in the senses common in human subjects research in medicine and the social sciences) – or as authors whose texts/artifacts are intended as public?” AOIR makes the distinction between subjects, who are interacting in “reasonably secure domains for private exchanges,” and authors, who “may be understood as authors intending for their work to be public.”

The domain of the message board is a publicly accessible format, distinct from personal email or private chat rooms; therefore, as AOIR proposes, “fewer obligations to protect autonomy, privacy, confidentiality[…] follow” (Ess 7). Additionally, upon agreeing to the stated “Terms of Service” when registering, users of the site agree to give up all legal rights to their posted texts, relinquishing copyright to The Ooze. By agreeing to relinquish the copyright to their published work, the users are “signing” a type of agreement typically made between authors and publishers. Using these guidelines, message boards at The Ooze represent a public domain and users of the site may be understood to be authors. This study is analogous to reading a co-authored book. Furthermore, because The Ooze site itself refers to users of the communication facilities as “authors” (in its “Terms of Service” disclaimer), there is no necessity to inform them of the use of their texts, anymore than one would inform the author of a book that he or she will be quoted in a research paper.

Part A: Website Selection Criteria

The first samples of data I collected were mission statements from typical organizations within the “emergent” framework. Currently on the web, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of websites associated with the concept of the emerging church, or the Christian church in postmodern context. Needing to narrow down the scope of my project, I used the following questions to isolate representative sites for investigation:

1. Who is involved in the making of and use of the site? Who seems to be the intended users or audience? Who are the individuals or groups running the site? Do these groups and individuals represent significant voices within the emerging church community?

2. How representative of the emerging church movement does the site seem to be? What kinds of articles are published on the site? What do the creators explicitly articulate about their position within the emerging church movement or within Christianity as a whole?

3. Is the site linked to by other sites? Is the site part of a network or web of interlinked sites that constitute the online framework for conversations on this issue?

4. Most importantly, do users of the site have the possibility of interacting with one another in conversation – either by message and bulletin boards, discussion forums, chat rooms, or the ability to post comments in response to articles published on the site?

Investigating Mission Statements

After considering the above criteria, I was able to select four sites, The Ooze, Emergent Village, Ginkworld, and The Next Wave, whose mission statements I obtained and looked at as part of my project. Each of these sites has a posted statement of “who we are” accessible from the main homepage. Though each uses different terminology to refer to this type of statement (on Ginkworld, it is entitled “our dna.” On Emergent Village, “What is emergent?”; The Next Wave uses “about.”, and The Ooze has an extensive “about us” link), each of these articulations serves the purpose of orienting the site user in relation to the site creators’ theological and organizational beliefs. The content of these statements is discussed in the following section of this project.

Patterns and Commonalities

Once these mission statements were selected and read, I looked for recurrent categories of discussion and points where the language and metaphors used by one site intersected with that used by the others. These similarities, as well as how they are distinct from one another, played a part in answering my question of how these emergent religious communities speak about themselves. There were both common categories and unclassifiable elements within the text that needed elaboration. After these comparisons were made, recent literature on the subject of the emerging church was used to help understand these statements in relation to earlier developments in Christian thought on the subject faith and identity.

Part B: Selecting Message Board Posts

The process of selection of a site for message board data collection follows similar criteria as the selection of sites for their mission statements. The questions of who seem to be its users and publishers, how representative is it, how often is it linked to, and whether there is ample opportunity for conversation, were all taken into consideration when selecting The Ooze as the location for data collection of message board texts. Present on the masthead and beneath the title, The Ooze, is the tagline “conversation for the journey,” which can be read as evidence of the organization’s desire to provide a forum for discussion about faith issues. The stated desire of The Ooze’s creators is:

[T]o create environments where church leaders (traditional teachers/theologians as well as emerging storytellers/artists) can converse about and collaborate on resources and experiences for the broader faith community. This is done by providing places for people to gather and communicate both online and offline about how to be the story of Christ to our emerging culture. (, “About Us: Desire.”)

With its 14,000 member registry, made up of individuals from dozens of countries, and nearly 200,000 individual postings to its message boards, The Ooze provides access to a broad range of perspectives and voices within the emergent community. Because I did not collect or even access information about the age, geographical location, or denominational affiliation of the authors whose texts I selected, it would be impossible to generalize about the make-up of The Ooze community. From my own interaction on the message boards, I can confirm that many of the general characteristics that Webber and Tomlinson describe in younger and post-evangelicals hold true for most of those members. They come from all denominational backgrounds and branches of the church. A wide range of ages, genders, sexual orientation and geographical locations are represented as well.


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Choosing a Conversation

Once The Ooze was selected, particular threads of conversation on its message boards were then isolated. The Ooze divides its boards up into several broad categories under which individuals can create new messages. The main menu board, however, cannot be added to by ordinary users, but only by moderators chosen by the site staff. The message board main menu lists the following categories for discussion: General Message Board, Community Discussion, Culture Discussion, Faith Discussion, Ministry Discussion, Postmodernism and the Church, and Political Discussion. Any one of these categories may give a glimpse into the emerging rhetoric of this community, but because my research question centers particularly on changing language and metaphors within this group, my investigation focused on threads that consciously discussed language, metaphor or definitions. To find these threads from among the thousands archived on the site, I used the site’s search function and several keywords to isolate threads that related to my area of inquiry. The search function allows an individual to search both the title and content of individual posts for the selected keywords. I was interested in the conscious redefinition and articulation of meanings, so the following keywords were used to find threads that focused explicitly on language: “define/definition/ new definition/ redefine,” “metaphor(s),” “metaphoric,” and/or “name.”

Once a thread was isolated, there was still a further selection process that needed to take place. A content search using the chosen keywords revealed hundreds of threads, many of which did or did not deal explicitly with discussions of language and metaphor. Threads that related to defining or redefining commonly-used terms (such as the “A New Name for Evangelism” thread below), discussed changing metaphors, or those which tried to articulate new possibilities for Christian identity were most fully investigated.

Selecting and Categorizing Individual Posts


A New Kind of Church
Posted By: Name Removed

A New Name for Evangelism
Posted By: Name Removed

What is the Institutional Church?
Posted By: Name Removed

Shepherd or Lead Sheep?: A Pastor’s dilemma
Posted By: Name Removed

A Theology of Cyberspace
Posted By: Name Removed

THE OOZE as Fight Club
Posted By: Name Removed

Why is it called, “The Ooze?”
Posted By: Name Removed

Once a particular thread was chosen, posts within that thread were selected based upon similar criteria. In general, the following questions guided the selection process: Does the author directly discuss metaphor or conceptual systems that guide thinking? Does the writer show an explicit awareness of language and how it is used? Does the author attempt to redefine the meaning of existing terms, or present new terms for discussion? Does the poster suggest or create new metaphors for discussion? These questions focused the selection of individual posts on language and the way members of the online community use it, and thus they were geared toward answering my research question about how emergent communities define, critique and analyze their beliefs and purposes rhetorically and metaphorically.

After conducting a search of the message board archives, selecting and reading several different threads of discussion, distinct types of posts began to emerge. Most of the posts in these threads fell into one or more of the following three categories:

1. Defining, in which the author asks for definition or redefinition of terms, requests others to define currently used terms, or offers new definitions, metaphors, or word choices.

2. Critiquing, in which the author expresses dissatisfaction with current terminology or metaphors.

3. Analyzing, where the writer shows explicit awareness of language and how it functions, or deconstructs current metaphors or conceptions, or “fleshes out” and expands on those metaphors.

These categories describe much of what is taking place in the threads of discussion chosen for analysis.

After selecting and thoroughly reading six individual threads (A New Kind of Church; What is the Institutional Church?; A New Name for Evangelism; Shepherd or Lead Sheep, A Pastor's dilemma; Why is it called The Ooze?; and A Theology of Cyberspace), the posts revealed a number of questions being asked by this community. Perhaps of greatest concern for those in conversation about the emerging church is the question, what does it really mean to be the Church? (And that is Church with a capital “C,” referring to the larger Christian body, and not just an individual congregation or denomination). Beneath that question, sub-questions also arose: what are the Church’s parameters? How should its activities be carried out? How are things changing, or what things need to be changed? How does an online community challenge or contribute to an understanding of what constitutes Church? And, most importantly, what terms and metaphors used in the Church need to be/ are being reconceived, re-imagined, or jettisoned? The conversations surrounding these questions will be discussed in the following chapter.

Part C: Points of Intersection

The final step in my project was to look for points of intersection between the two sets of data collected. One of the goals of my project is to examine how both individuals and broader organizations articulate their religious identities. Comparison of the language and metaphors used by each group enabled me to get an overall sense of how this movement conceives of itself, both on the individual and community level. By examining these two sets of data and finding common points of reference, recurrent metaphors and oft-used terms, I hoped to discover what concerns are driving this emergent community.



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