research program

Mark Ward Sr is an ethnographer of religious communication who studies American evangelicalism as a distinctive culture.

One in four Americans identifies as an evangelical Christian, making evangelicalism the nation’s single largest religious tradition. As a voting bloc, evangelicals exercise a major influence over US politics and civil discourse.

The word ethnography is derived from the Greek meaning “to write the culture.”  The ethnography of communication is a research methodology, rooted in sociolinguistics, in which field observations of language in social interactions elicit descriptions of a speech community and the culture that its members construct through shared rules for interpreting talk.

Dr Ward has conducted four major fieldwork projects including four years touring weekends with an evangelical singing group,  three years observing a single evangelical congregation, a year observing a small group Bible study, and ongoing observations of evangelical radio, television, and streaming media.


In more than a dozen years of study, Dr Ward has developed a pyramidal picture of American evangelicalism as a speech community with three structurated levels of discourse:

A macro level of national evangelical institutions and their mass-mediated representations of cultural norms—transmitted via a religious media industry that, like US media industries in general, has assumed a vertically integrated, oligopolistic structure.

A meso level of planned locally public rhetoric—primarily Sunday church sermons but also other organizational discourses—that functions at the congregational level to structure joint local deliberation of cultural norms and social actions.

A micro level of spontaneous natural talk and private role enactments that reproduce cultural norms.


A key analytical framework for Dr Ward’s research program is Speech Codes Theory which holds, in part:

Proposition 1: Distinctive speech codes are operative in the speaking of any arena of human action.

Proposition 3: A speech code implicates indigenous notions of “psychology,” “sociology,” and “rhetoric.”

Proposition 5: The terms, rules, and premises of a speech code are inextricably woven into speaking itself.

Through more than 40 scholarly articles and essays, Dr Ward has shown that (1) American evangelicalism is a distinctive culture with distinctive a speech code, and (2) this code is inextricably woven around culturally distinctive assumptions about the nature of persons (psychology), how they should be properly linked in social relations (sociology), and symbolic actions efficacious to establish evangelical personhood (rhetoric).


In particular, Dr Ward has described how evangelical speaking is patterned around several key cultural assumptions.

Psychology: People are by nature either “believers” who are “saved,” or “unbelievers” who are “lost.”

Sociology: People should be properly linked in hierarchically ordered social relations according to authority (pastor/preacher, male elders/deacons, laity) and gender (“men” as “brothers,” and then “ladies”). “Believers” may properly engage in “sharing” and “fellowshipping” together, but relations with “unbelievers” are necessarily grounded in “witnessing” and “apologetics.”

Rhetoric: “Sharing your testimony” and espousing a “biblical worldview” are efficacious to establish evangelical personhood.

Dr Ward’s standpoint in relation to evangelical culture is an “insider” who came of age in evangelicalism after a teenage conversion experience and thus can access the culture’s unarticulated cultural assumptions.


Through his research, Dr Ward traces how the evangelical speech code, in its  metacommunication, symbolic terms, and cognitive scripts, circulates not only at the interpersonal level. As language in social interaction, these phenomena are woven throughout the community’s macro, meso, and micro levels of discourse.

The latest iteration of Speech Codes Theory credits Dr Ward as author of the theory’s Proposition 8: The Speech Code As Distributed Proposition …

Elements of a speech code can appear across the private, locally public, and communal contexts of their use.


By extending his description of evangelical culture beyond the interpersonal micro level, and further to its meso and macro levels of discourse, Dr Ward has delineated evangelicalism’s structural features—opening up critical examination of its power relations.

He believes that seeing religious communities as speech communities with distinctive cultures can lead to improved interfaith dialogue and civil discourse when these are understood as intercultural communication.