Six avenues, six months on.

Saltley Trust Director Ian Jones  explains the six avenues we’re now exploring with the results of the research into what helps disciples grow.



It’s difficult to believe it’s now nearly six months since the What Helps Disciples Grow? celebration and launch event.  Over the past few months we’ve been delighted by the up-take of the report: there have been over 1500 downloads of the report since publication, along with several hundred downloads of the questionnaire and of the raw data.  It’s been encouraging to visit somewhere new and sometimes find a copy of What Helps Disciples Grow? stuck to someone’s pinboard or sitting on their desk.  But this is only helpful insofar as it generates further thought and action around discipleship.  So what have we been exploring since the report was published?

FIRST, we’ve really enjoyed talking with a variety of different people about what they make of the report’s findings.  Did it confirm something they suspected already?  Did any of the findings surprise them, and if so, how?  What sort of emerging agenda does it suggest for further work on discipleship?  Some of the questions we’re currently musing over, and/or which have been suggested to us so far, include the following:

  • Calling: A significant percentage of respondents had experienced a direct calling from God, or were open to the possibility of this. How can we understand more about these experiences, and so help others understand calling better?
  • Worshipping together in Church: We expect worship to be formational, and almost all of our respondents said they’d been helped by some aspect of regular church worship. But church services don’t have as much impact on strength or vocation or depth of discipleship as some other activities.  So, how can worship offer opportunities to develop discipleship better, particularly where Sunday morning is the only time of the week that a church community gathers?
  • Music: music for worship was high up the list of what people told us had helped them grow. But when you open your average book of hymns or worship songs, comparatively few deal head-on with the nature of discipleship and the Christian’s practical response to God in daily life.  How could this be redressed?
  • Developing and Facilitating Discipleship through Theological Education: if growing disciples is the name of the game, how does theological education (at all levels) help clergy, readers/preachers, licensed lay ministers and others gain the understanding and skills in how to develop discipleship in others? What would theological education be like if it was centrally concerned with enabling prospective church leaders to develop discipleship in others, not just develop their own personal discipleship?
  • Getting stuck/getting unstuck. The report suggests that most of us have periods of growth, but also periods of challenge and difficulty.  Many respondents have developed good habits to support their growth as disciples, but many also highlight the hindrance offered by bad habits.  So how could we understand more about how Christians get ‘stuck’ in their faith and practice, and what helps people become ‘unstuck’?  Also what are people’s experiences of developing good habits and overcoming bad ones?

These questions don’t nearly exhaust the possibilities arising from the What Helps Disciples Grow? survey results.  We’d love to hear your reflections on the kinds of questions it raises for you, and any project ideas it sparks off.

SECOND, we’ve had a number of people approach us about re-running the What Helps Disciples Grow? questionnaire survey in their own neck of the woods – either in original or adapted form.  We’re very much open to this! Depending on the sample size we may even be able to help with data entry and analysis – particularly where we can keep a copy of the results.  The more times we run the survey with different groups, the more it clarifies the findings and builds up a stronger picture of what really does help people grow as disciples.  So if you’re interested to run the questionnaire in your own church, diocese/denomination or area, do get in touch.

THIRD, we’re also currently exploring ways of taking aspects of the survey further.  One of the most striking patterns to emerge from the survey results was the existence of four possible ‘pathways’ of growth in discipleship: individual experience, corporate worship, group activity and public engagement (i.e., engagement with the wider community or world, either through or beyond the local church).  We now want to explore that pattern further: do these encompass all the main ways in which people grow as disciples, or are there other pathways we haven’t yet noticed?  Should local churches be encouraging people to concentrate on all four paths?  Does one path take priority, and does this depend on personal preference?  So, currently we’re working with our quantitative research collaborators, Profs Leslie Francis and David Lankshear, to refine questions from the survey for future research.  If you’d be interested in helping us trial some revised questions, perhaps as one element of another survey you’d like to run, let us know

FOURTH, we’re also aware of aspects of discipleship which are important, but which there just wasn’t scope to cover in the original survey.  One area we’d like to explore further is just what people understand Christian discipleship to be.  Our hunch is that we can understand much better what people say helps them grow as disciples, if we know what they believe they’re growing towards.  As anyone who has ever tried to define ‘discipleship’ knows, the Christian life can’t easily be pinned down to a neat list of bullet points.  This is because as Christians, we follow a person, not a list of rules or even a philosophy.  However, it’s equally unsatisfactory to say that because we cannot precisely define discipleship, it’s impossible to define it at all.  So we’re beginning to think about how to devise a survey to explore people’s concept of discipleship. If you have some ideas, get in touch!

FIFTH, though there’s still so much to learn, we’re pushing ahead with developing new projects, based on some of the key findings from the original survey.  One of the most intriguing findings was the relationship between ‘depth of discipleship’ (feeling confident/competent about various aspects of Christian practice) and a sense of having grown through the ‘public engagement’ pathway.  We’ve long suspected that participation in mission is not only the outworking of discipleship, but also a key way in which formation as disciples takes place.  So we’ve begun testing out our hunch, and exploring it further, in our new Christians in Practice project, being undertaken collaboratively with the Church Urban Fund, Arthur Rank Centre, Church of England Ministry Division, and Dioceses of Birmingham and Lichfield.  This seeks to understand more about what motivates Christians to engage in/participate in their local communities, and how they’ve grown in faith and practice as a result.  We’re currently recruiting churches and individuals to take part in interviews and another questionnaire survey over the next six months.  If you could help with Christians in Practice in this or any other way, visit the project site and contact us.

FINALLY, it’s been great to see how people are using ‘What Helps Disciples Grow?’ in different ways in their churches and small groups.  So to support this further, we’re developing a short course for small groups, drawing on some of the key survey findings, to explore questions of calling, the Christian journey through life, and different types of activity which might help growth in Christian discipleship.  This will appear on the What Helps Disciples Grow? page of our website shortly – watch this space!



Discipleship in a Nutshell

They say that everyone should have an ‘elevator pitch’ for their work.  If I had to sum up the What Helps Disciples Grow research in once line, it would be this:

‘Ordinary Christians are far more active in their discipleship than you imagine.’

I would tell that to lay people as well as ministers.   Lay people have a way of underestimating each others’ faith, too.  And their own.

Our research demonstrates that lay people generally believe that:

  • God calls everyone to a particular role, time or place;
  • their growth is their own responsibility;
  • when their faith is hampered, they blame themselves more than anyone else

In other words, they see themselves as the navigators of their own faith.   That’s what they tend to think; and it’s backed up by practice.   On average, the 1200 or so people we surveyed had been helped in their journey of faith by twenty different activities.    And while six of those were aspects of church worship, fourteen took place away from Sunday mornings, and typically at least five – such as praying alone, or listening to broadcast Christian teaching – required their own initiative and motivation.

So, the typical West Midlands church has a dynamic and energetic laity with a strong sense of their own responsibility, exposing themselves to a wide range of activities in order to grow in their faith.   They pray, read the Bible, have spiritual experiences and try to put their faith into practice.

Is that the story we expect?

Perhaps not.  When I shared it with one church leader, she said with surprise:

‘It doesn’t feel like that!  It feels like all their expectations are on my shoulders.’

And she was by no means the only one to be startled by these findings.  It’s easy to look across the quiet sea of faces during worship, and miss the hidden depths behind each one.   Especially as, in coffee after the service, few will be talking about the challenges or adventures of their faith.

Still, unless the laity are confused – or lying to us – there’s a significant problem of communication and comprehension here.  Discipleship is happening, but we’re not seeing the evidence.

One way to think about this may be to note that our research also demonstrated that many of today’s Christians tend towards a practical, relational spirituality.  Spiritual preferences based on exploring the bible, prayer, holiness, and charismatic gifts were selected by far fewer; and in virtually every church, showing God’s love in a practical way was the most often preferred spirituality, followed by spiritual preferences around community relationship.   While this wasn’t a question that tested a scale of action versus reflection, we can still note the emphasis on practicality.

This may suggest that while Christians are widely confident to explore their faith through action, the process of describing it is a different matter.   Jeremy Worthen, in Responding to God’s Call speaks of three ways of doing theology:

  • primary theology
  • reflective theology
  • academic theology

Primary theology is ‘speaking to or about God, where speaking stands for any kind of activity through which we seek to address God ourselves or communicate god’s address to others.  Liturgy, sacraments, preaching, prayer, … service and witness, art inspired by Christian faith.’  (p.131)

Primary theology is getting on with stuff, akin, perhaps, to the practical, relational spirituality that dominated in our research.

Worthen goes on to make the point that when they want to explore or analyse what they’re doing, lay people then begin to explore that primary theology with reflective theology; and ultimately, if further resources are needed, they may enter into academic theology.   Ordained and trained church ministers, however, are generally going along the path in the opposite direction – from academic theology, to primary theology.   You can stand in exactly the same spot, but if you’re facing the opposite direction, the view looks very different; and if your journey to the meeting place has not been the same, how you feel about where you have arrived may not be the same either.

Seen as representatives of the academic, and even experts in the reflective theology, the church leader is naturally the person for the lay person to turn to with questions.   ‘Where I’m going,’ says the lay person, ‘is where you’ve just come from: what’s it like?’.  But what laity and leader both need to remember is that the lay person is not coming empty-handed.  The need is less often for instruction, more often for encouragement or reflection (that second layer of theology, above) or for resourcing (academic theology).  As a Reader in my local church, I’m lucky enough to get an annual review with my parish priest, which allows me to step back, evaluate and appraise my faith journey and how it’s expressed.  That’s hugely affirming, and enormously helpful.    I know of one parish priest who goes further, and offers an ‘annual review’ to every member of his congregation – and if most Christians are vibrant, exploring, growing people, why shouldn’t it be so?

Ordinary Christians are far more active in their discipleship than we imagine.  They think, reflect, pray, experience and try to put their faith into practice.  Perhaps in the light of that, our first tasks are to:

  1. Learn about their activity with them, value it and reflect on it;
  2. Help congregations learn from and value each other’s discipleship

To put it another way, whether we’re church leaders, or fellow lay people, we can see the grace of God in the efforts of each other, receive it, share it and celebrate it.  As Professor David Ford says (and not being able to lay my hands on the quote, I’m paraphrasing somewhat) one role of a Christian leader is knowing when to bless, how to bless, why to bless, who to bless and even whether to bless.   That blessing of discipleship has enormous life-giving power, both for the one blessed, and also the one who blesses, for it helps us to see the riches around us.


Celebrating Discipleship

The launch of the What Helps Disciples Grow research took place on Tuesday 19th April.  Over 100 church leaders gathered from around the country at Carrs Lane Church in Birmingham, to hear and explore the findings.


Christians learn all the time

Delegates heard us highlight the number and range of experiences and activities that help ordinary Christians in their journey of faith.    The average Christian in the research identified 20 different activities, the most often cited including:

  • regular church worship
  • listening to sermons
  • trying to put faith into practice in daily life
  • music in church worship
  • praying alone

Frong CoverBut the importance of less often selected activities was also highlighted.   Over half of Christians had been helped in their journey of faith by a direct call or experience from God.    The question was posed, how do we recognise and welcome that in our churches?

And which of us, for example would expect that over half of Christians have found recorded or broadcast Christian teaching helpful?

Many of these activities are self-initiated, and happen out of our line of sight, so the task for church leaders is not to make learning happen, but to allow it to happen, and to support it.

The opening presentation also highlighted how today’s Christians regard their Christian growth as their own responsibility, and tend to blame themselves when their growth stutters.    The need for today’s disciples to hear grace preached was emphasized.  We encouraged church leaders to see their task as encouraging, as much as equipping.   There’s more about this in our report which you can now download here.

Four Pathways to Discipleship

Given access to the data we collected, Professor Leslie Francis used


Professor Leslie Francis speaks about four pathways of discipleship

sophisticated statistical analysis to identify four distinct pathways of discipleship.  They
are Church Worship, Individual Experience, Group Activity, and Public Engagement.  All are important, but some have particular weight.

These pathways interrogate two different measures which could also be identified in the data: Strength of Vocation and Depth of Discipleship.


Both Strength of Vocation and Depth of Discipleship especially correlate to individual experience, a discipleship path which includes personal prayer; reading the Bible alone; close friendships/relationships; spiritual director; and direct call or experience from God.

Experiential Learning

In recognition of the wide range of ways in which Christians are shaped, the What Helps Disciples Grow event invited delegates to learn through experience as well as reflection.   Many took up the challenge to wear white, in recognition of our baptisms as well as the colour of the Easter season.   What does it feel like to be unified in such a way?   Could such an idea translate into our local churches?   These questions were not reflected upon formally, but invited by the event.    Jackets came off to reveal a cloud of angels, as we stood to sing three songs of discipleship chosen from those gathered  on this blog earlier in the year.

whdg-white choir

The networking is always the cherry on the cake at such an event.  What Helps Disciples Grow was an ecumenical event drawing people together from around the country.    A shared interest in discipleship meant a terrific buzz from the start.  We’re still picking up on the connections that were made.   If you were there and made a particular connection that you valued, we’d love to hear about it.

whdg nicola heather rhiannon

The afternoon brought a shift of gear, with smaller group sessions.   Workshops gave delegates a chance to think about practical ways of putting the learning into practice.   Andrew Roberts outlined his work with the Birmingham Methodist Circuit’s 10 Holy HabitsRev’d Andy Delmege spoke about the importance of context to discipleship, referring especially  to the Jesus Shaped People discipleship programme.     Other workshops explored the four pathways of discipleship; worship, music and formation; and testimony, discernment and experience of God.   We’ll post up reflections from these workshops in due course, where it’s appropriate and helpful.

whdg-andy delmege

Andy Delmege leads a workshop on discipleship and context

No event is complete without the opportunity to browse and even buy; and many partners were showcasing their own offerings in discipleship:


  • Ed MacKenzie and Andrew Roberts from the Methodist Church sharing their newly published Family Worship and 10 Holy Habits respectively;
  • CPAS’ DiscipleKit and CODEC’s Trove: two exciting online resources for finding the right discipleship resources for any church or individual;
  • Student Christian Movement discussing their emerging work in supporting student discipleship;
  • The Unlock initiative to help promote Bible engagement in urban communities;
  • Roots, the magazine and online source for worship and learning resources.
  • CLC bookshop with a stand of current discipleship books.

As it all came to an end, we looked ahead.  What are the next steps?   We recognised the enthusiasm in the room for individuals to be linked together around this important concern; and heard ideas for further research as well as putting what we’ve learnt into practice.   The full details of that closing discussion will probably make another blogpost.

‘Walk the journey, share the load…’

That conversation continues now…. and we’d love you to be part of it, whether or not you could be at the event.   Let us know how you respond to the report; and what you think the next steps might be, for you, your church, or the Saltley Trust.



What Helps Disciples Grow – programme

Worship?  Conference? 
When Christians meet to worship, they aim to be formed as individuals, and as a community.

So, when we run an event for Christians, that aims to inform and form them, as individuals and communities, surely that event at least echoes worship?    We’ll test that idea out gently on Tuesday, as we journey through the day together.    There will be prayer, song, and even a collection….   other aspects of the day will be more traditional, but we’ll find they are informed by worship all the same.

9.15-10.00   Registration; coffee; view stalls; interactive exercise

10.00-10.15   ‘Greeting’

10.15-10.30   ‘Confession’ – what stops us helping others to grow in their faith?

10.30-10.45  ‘Gloria’ – recognising that our sins are forgiven, we sing of our hopes of discipleship

10.45-11.30   ‘Word’ – the findings of What Helps Disciples Grow (Simon Foster)

11.30-11.45    Break

11.45-12.30   Rev’d Professor Leslie Francis: Four distinctive pathways of discipleship

12.30-1.30     Lunch

1.30-1.45       What does the word ‘disciple’ mean?

1.45                ‘Collection’ (really!)

1.45-2.50      Workshops

2.50-3.30      Table groups

3.30-4.00      ‘Dismissal’ – What’s the mission?  Prayer.  A song.

4.00-4.10       Departure

– or wait for….

4.10                  A short service of Holy Communion

4.45?               Review – anyone who’s still around is welcome to join us nearby for a drink.

What? Wear White?

I think I alarmed a few delegates, with the joining instructions for the What Helps Disciples Grow event:

The greatest burden I’m going to place on you is to ask you to wear something white.

I’d better explain before we go any further.

What Helps Disciples Grow is a learning event.   One of the things we’ve seen in our research is that there are lots of different ways in which disciples learn.  One of the most important of these is through church worship.

Another thing that our research has reinforced for us is that Christian learning is experiential learning: it takes place through experience as well as reflection; practice as well as theory.


The experiential learning cycle

So alongside the talks and the workshops familiar to any conference-goer, there will be worship, shaped around the pattern of the day; and some experiential moments, too.   That’s where wearing something white comes in.

Let me deal with the details first.   It’s optional.  I hope you find a way of taking part, but I know exactly the feeling when the party you were invited to suddenly turns out to be a fancy dress party.  (Also, I learnt since writing that, that many clergy don’t have any white clothes, and many women have a very good idea of what colour they feel they look good in – it’s not always white.)

In the light of that, my challenge is to wear something white.   Top to toe?  Sure, if you want.  But it could be a shirt, a scarf, or even a white carnation.   The overall impression matters as much as the individual expression.

But individual expression can be good, too.  Somewhere in the picture below, amongst all the robes, is a guy who’s heard the dress code and is wearing a white tee-shirt with a union jack on it!

eritrean church

This is where the idea first came from.   At my regular church, we’re host to several other churches, one of which is an Eritrean Orthodox Church.  As they gather before worship, and disperse across the churchyard afterwards, we’re treated to a beautiful display, because in the Eritrean Church, most people robe.    Not just the choir: the whole congregation.    The tradition of wearing white symbolises our baptisms – that we are washed clean – and flows from the same source that gives those who serve at Holy Communion the white alb.

Not everyone’s wearing white, and it’s a bit of a mish-mash.  Some wear all white; some a scarf, some a bit of white, and one or two of those guys towards the back have dispensed with it altogether: but the effect is impressive.

For Eritreans, it is normal: for us when we gather at What Helps Disciples Grow, it will be distinctive; maybe formative, in some way. In trying it out (experiential learning) we find ourselves reflecting:

  • How does it feel to be united in this way?   Does it affirm what we share, when we come together as one body, from different churches, denominations and traditions?
  • Do we see each other differently because we have united ourselves in this way?
  • Is this something that I could ever imagine my own church doing?

I am a lay member of my church, and actually I’ve never thought about that last question.   But if you’re from a vaguely liturgical tradition, you will know that during Lent, Anglican and Catholic churches, at least, are adorned in purple.    Priest, altar and perhaps lectern will have at least a splash of purple about them.

Ours does; and a couple of weeks ago I had the sense that our congregation was joining in too:

wearing purple2

As it happens (it took me years in the church to learn this stuff) the colour for Easter season, when we meet, is white.   Hence my gentle request to you.   To wear white at What Helps Disciples Grow will represent our common baptism over our denominational differences; our world-wide celebration of Jesus being raised from the dead; and will be a learning experiment too.

By the way, I pointed it out to my daughter, and this is the response I got from her:


Got any white boots?


Our Discipleship Music Shortlist

A couple of weeks ago, we asked what hymn or song of praise most spoke to you about discipleship.     The seven you’ve chosen so far differ from each other in one fundamental and interesting way.    Scroll to the bottom if you can’t bear the suspense.


Will you come and follow me?  By John Bell.   No surprise that there’s an Iona song amongst our nominations:  I thought there would be more.   We imagine Jesus calling his disciples with very practical and earthly description.   He talks about the tasks (‘kiss the lepers clean’) and the cost (‘will you leave yourself behind?’) of following, and shows how the life of the disciple weaves together with the life of Jesus to become one (‘will you let me answer prayer, in you and you in me?’).

Nominated by Andrew Roberts of the Methodist Church.


Trust and Obey.   By John H. Sammis.  A nineteenth century song about the strength of a personal relationship with Jesus.  Like many newer worship songs, it emphasizes dispositions and emotion (‘be happy in Jesus’) – quite a contrast with the previous song which in which the relationship with Jesus is formed through action.    Trust and Obey does speak of action in the final verse, but perhaps sees that action as fruit of faithful disposition, rather than the cause of it.   Who’s speaking?  Well, it begins ‘When we walk with the Lord…’, and carries on using ‘we’, but it does so in the didactic way of teachers and leaders.  Each verse ends with the command: ‘Trust and obey’: I hear in this hymn the voice of a preacher addressing their flock.

Nominated by Marc Clarke.


All are Welcome.   ‘Let us build a house where love can dwell’, begins this Marty Haugen song.   Where the previous two songs are about the discipleship of the individual, this one imagines a church congregation singing to one another, in front of God.   Capturing the many activities of the church community – welcome,  worship, hungering after God’s word – it would be a good sing on a church away day or review, as well as a more regular reminder that the church is a central expression of our following Jesus.

Nominated by Mandy Stanton, Lay Discipleship Officer in the Diocese of Blackburn.


O God, You Search Me and You Know Me.   By Bernadette Farrell.   An intimate hymn which is a re-working of Psalm 139, which wonders at the closeness of the divine presence – and how hard it is to shake God off!   It is one of the most treasured psalms, and in its humble and poetic words to God, it is as much reflective prayer as worship.

Nominated by Robert Barlow, Vicar of beautiful Teme Valley South  (I’ve been there, but I bet you haven’t!).


Brother, Sister, Let me Serve you.   By Richard Gillard.   I’m not linking to most of these songs because I’m cautious about copyright, but here Richard’s uploaded a video of him singing the song himself too, and it’s lovely; he’s quite a guitarist.   In poetic lyrics (‘let me hold the Christ-light for you’) this song imagines today’s disciples singing to each other – and hopefully to those outside the church too.   Shared emotions and shared tasks, set in a shared faith and journey.

Nominated by Doug Chaplin, of the Diocese of Worcester and Frances Biseker of the Methodist Church.


Deck Thyself, My Soul, With Gladness.  By Johann Franck.   The oldest hymn in this list by over 300 years.   In some versions it has an epic nine verses, eight lines each, and proceeds at a gentle, graceful pace.   Centred on communion (‘From this supper let me measure, Lord, how vast and deep love’s treasure’), it’s very much at the devotional end of discipleship (‘Ah! How hungers all my spirit/ For a love I do not merit’).   Both music and words are deeply reflective: the singer begins by singing to their own soul, ends by singing to God, and in between, sings to anyone who’s listening.

Nominated by Joe Hasler.


I the Lord of Sea and Sky.   By Dan Schutte.  ‘I have heard my people cry… whom shall I send?’ are the words which invite us to sing both God’s call and our response.  In God’s mouth are a judgment of the what he sees on earth, an appraisal of what’s needed (‘I shall break their hearts of stone/Give them hearts for love alone’), and his call; in ours, a faithful response.   So here, God sings, in faith, hope, and love, to anyone who will listen.  Nominated by me – Simon Foster, of the Saltley Trust.


What fascinated me about this selection is that each of the hymns so far chosen represents a different kind of conversation.  In every one, someone is addressing someone else, but it’s never the same arrangement.

  • Will You Come and Follow Me:   Jesus addresses us.
  • Trust and Obey:   An authority figure addresses their flock.
  • All Are Welcome:   The church addresses itself.
  • O God, You Search Me and You Know Me:   An individual addresses God.
  • Brother, Sister, Let me Serve you.   Individual Christians address each other.
  • Deck thyself, My Soul, With Gladness.     A Christian addresses her/his own soul.
  • I the Lord of Sea and Sky.     God addresses the world, and we respond as individuals.

Which is strange, is it not?   Without thinking about it, I would have said that we when we sing hymns, we are singing to God.   It’s obviously a lot more complicated than that!


Singing Discipleship

Help us find the best discipleship songs and hymns for our launch event in April. 

Music forms us.   It’s long been said that ‘the one who sings, prays twice’.  The tradition goes all the way back: Jesus and the disciples sang ‘the hymn’ at the Passover, and the Bible itself captures the lyrics of music offered to God, in the Gospels, the Psalms, and many other places.


Music and song is woven through almost every Christian tradition

The formational aspect of Christian music shows up brightly in our research.    In the survey, of around 1200 churchgoers, 83% said they had been helped in their journey of faith by music in church worship – with 40% strongly agreeing.    60% also said they’d been helped by recorded/broadcast Christian music.    It looks like most Christians find music helpful, and many find it very helpful.

It’s such a significant result that we’ll be exploring the formational role of music in an afternoon workshop at the What Helps Disciples Grow? event in April.    And earlier that day, we too will be singing together some of the songs of worship that best represent the task of discipleship.

That’s where you come in – by helping us identify the hymns or songs which best reflect the call of Christian learning, growth, formation and discipleship.  We want to choose three to set the day up and frame the afternoon workshop.   So, we’d like to know from you what hymn or song speaks to you most about discipleship.

It could be an old favourite or a little-known number to share with a wider community.   It might speak of discipleship in any of its aspects – of Christian growth, of calling and response, of journey.    But I hope it will have something of a personal response, and if you want to say why or how a particular song is significant to your discipleship, we’d love to hear it.  (Please tell us if you don’t want us to share it further).

You can nominate your discipleship hymn or song through the contact form, or in the comments below, but the best place might be on our Facebook page, or Twitter  where your idea might trigger others… and who knows: it might be your choice that 100+ church leaders sing together on 19th April!



Advent at What Helps Disciples Grow

As twilight deepens outside, it’s quiet in the Saltley Trust offices.   There’s just me, and the mice downstairs.    I like the darkness of this time of year, so my desk is illuminated only by the two screens of my computer.   The light that pours onto my keyboard is that of a sprawling spreadsheet, filled with the honest reflections of over 1330 people from 33 churches.

What a gift from those people.

Everything I do with the data suggests that these questionnaires are honestly and accurately completed.   The difficult, even personal, questions we put to people have been answered faithfully and willingly.

IMG_3572Each one is a treasure.   It is easy to think, when you complete a questionnaire like this, that your response barely matters.  Yet for a researcher, it’s almost the opposite.   I could write a great modern parable of the lost sheep, about a questionnaire that slid down the back of the desk, and how I dismantled the desk and the computer to get it back!

Why?  Partly, it’s that the numbers are so important.  There’s far more confidence in a big bundle of answers than a few.   And with the numbers come patterns, so that the few still mean something, in the midst of the many.    Was your questionnaire the same as most others?  Then you helped tell me what most people think.  Was it quite different?  Then you helped tell me about different types of people.    Was there just one question you answered differently?  Then you helped tell me about how people vary in their Christian practice.   Whatever you wrote, if it was done in faith, was a gift that told me not just about one sheep, but helped tell the story of the whole flock.

What a gift from those churches.

Every participating church gave up a sermon to take part.  Some churches got a lot back in return:  I’ve spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the findings with churches.    For differing reasons, I’ve spent no time at all with others.   But all have offered me more than I’ve offered them.   The privilege of occupying one of your 52 Sundays this year is one I can’t repay, but at least we can say that together we have worked together in making an offering to the whole church, and hope that it is a gift she can receive and use.

(That gift, of course, will be formally presented at our launch event on Tuesday 19th April, in Easter season, a different season of light, and maybe you have already signed up to join us.)

But in the meantime, it’s Advent, the time of waiting, the time of glimmering light, of hope in the darkness.   It seems like a good time to be huddled at a white screen in a dark office, waiting for the data to reveal its truths and its hope – meager as they may be in relation to the truth and the hope we shall shortly celebrate all over this land.

It seems a good time for gratitude.    To all who supported the research, whatever gifts you brought – thank you.

Bookings Open for ‘What Helps Disciples Grow?’ Event.

On Tuesday 19th April 2016, St Peter’s Saltley Trust will be  sharing and celebrating the learning and opportunities from our What Helps Disciples Grow? research project.

We’re planning an exciting and interactive programme which picks up on much of what we’ve uncovered.

Join us to:

  • unpack the results of our research;
  • explore the role of the church in Christian growth;
  • connect with resources and people to help you in your mission

Throughout the day, we’ll explore, in a range of ways, some of the themes thrown up by the research.   We’re still working through the data, but these themes are very likely to include:

  • what does ‘discipleship’ really mean?
  • personal call, personal responsibility: how today’s Christians look at faith;
  • music and discipleship: what’s the connection?
  • the things that are rarely done, but much valued by those who do them;
  • prayer and growth;
  • practical faith.

We’re also planning opportunities to hear about related initiatives elsewhere:

  • 10 Holy Habits
  • Learning Theology without Books

To book a place, please download, complete, and return the booking form:

What Helps Disciples Grow Booking Form

The full-day event takes place in Birmingham.   There’s a small charge to cover some of the cost of the day.

More than just a Conference.

One of the key messages emerging from the research is the centrality of church worship to Christian formation.

To explore that theme further, our event will be shaped throughout by worship, in order to explore the formational nature of both Sunday Worship and structured learning events.  Once registered, you’ll hear more about that in the coming months.

Mistakes. People. Prayers.

What does completing a questionnaire have to do with praying?

If I were doing this research again, I would do some things differently.

Below you can see a part of a question in our questionnaire about what has helped in the journey of faith.

The question has a number of endings including this one: ‘… a particular person e.g. missionary, teacherplease state:’

Particular person 3

As a survey question it turns out we can’t use it in the same way as those around it, because it breaks the pattern of the question response, and that throws people a bit. People are asked to tick, tick, tick tick, then write and tick.

People respond in different ways.   Some leave this line blank, even when they answer all the others around it.   So we can’t rank it against the others, which is something we might want to do.

Others write in an answer, but then don’t tick a box – not stating whether they agree or strongly agree.  Again, it changes the data and what we can do with it.

But, God’s grace being what it is, this question has an upside that no-one could predict.   It helps people pray.  One of the strange and beautiful things that people do with this question is write the actual name of someone they value in this space.

Here’s an example:

Minster Reg Brighton 2

Now, I wasn’t around in the 1950s and plainly I have no way of knowing who Reg Brighton was.   I doubt he was famous beyond his locality even then.  Yet I’m given a name like this perhaps every thirty questionnaires or so.  This particular respondent has written a little context, but often I get the name and no more.

Those who write a name here must know that there is no chance I, as the researcher, will know who they’re talking about.  As data, this name can be in no way useful to me, so why bother?  Nonetheless, the respondent treasures this name so much that it is worth their time and trouble to write it.   In this moment of writing, I suspect the respondent is not speaking to any earthly being, but to a different and higher one: one who can know everyone and everything.

So, suddenly, my questionnaire is no longer merely a research instrument, but also a vessel for prayer: a prayer of gratitude, and in this case, of remembering someone now gone.

This respondent is telling God how much the person named matters to then.  But in allowing me to overhear, they are also telling me that they have experienced their growth in faith as a profoundly human, relational matter.   There is one single person who overwhelmingly gave them the faith they now have.    (This, in the functional language of my questionnaire, is a strongly agree.  And some.)  Probably the respondent is saying, ‘if it were not for this person, I doubt I would be the Christian I am today.’

So for a moment I pray with this respondent: God bless Reg Brighton, and all those he helped, in a century now past.

And while I started by saying I would do it differently next time, I wonder if I really would.   Having entered their worship space to carry out my research, I am only too glad if my questionnaire allows people to remember, give thanks and offer prayer.   And as far as the research goes, well, research is about discovering the truth, and people are never more truthful than in their prayers.