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!