Over the past 18 months some important research has been taking place in the midlands area about discipleship, asking questions of many Christians about what helps or hinders them in their growth as disciples.
I found this a very interesting study. Not just because it’s rare to hear lay Christians being asked about their faith development in such numbers, but that the questions required them to respond as disciples, or ‘intentional’ Christians. A disciple simply means a ‘follower’ or ‘learner’. Pope Francis says, “Jesus didn’t say to Peter and to his Apostles, ‘Know me’ he said, ‘Follow me!’” So, do we see ourselves as disciples, or learners, of Jesus? How this happens in everyday life is what the study tried to encourage us to discover and reflect on.
The research was undertaken by St Peter’s Saltley Trust, a midlands charity which aims to develop Christian discipleship so that people can live out the Good News to those around them. The research was done across various churches, including a Catholic parish in our Archdiocese. Parishioners filled out the questionnaires as part of their regular Sunday church attendance.
Some of the questions asked included: What has helped/hampered your Christian journey? My church is good at helping people to..? I feel most alive as a Christian when..? My Christian journey is the responsibility of..?
On 19th April, the research findings were launched at an event held at Carrs Lane Church in Birmingham. The day also doubled as a time of prayer and worship and it was sensitively led by the researcher, Simon Foster. Simon gave us an overview of the research and some of the following findings presented themselves:
- 80% of respondents agreed that God calls everyone to a particular place, role or task.
- Nearly all respondents agreed that their Christian growth was primarily their responsibility, with about a third agreeing that the church also bears that responsibility to some extent.
- Activities which respondents said had helped their faith journey included attending church regularly, putting faith into practice daily and personal prayer.
- People said that they recognised an ebb and flow to their discipleship, with obvious periods of both growth and stagnation.
- It was interesting to note that people cited laziness and bad habits as the primary obstacle to spiritual growth ahead of commitments of daily life, which I found a refreshingly honest answer. Third on the list, and significant for how we encourage people to grow in their love for God, was fear of making a greater commitment.
- Respondents felt most ‘alive’ as a Christian when another person showed them God’s love in a practical way and through Christian fellowship and conversation.
- On the Church, people said that it was good at helping people to care for each other in the community and putting faith into practice in everyday life, but less good at helping people to pray in different ways and speaking about their faith journey.
There is much to challenges us in this research: As individuals, how much effort do we invest in our own growth in faith as disciples of Jesus Christ? Do we ‘blame’ the church, or even God, for those times when we fall short of our Christian calling? Do we take time to discern the voice of God as He leads us towards him, and do we learn how to pray? The research also suggests that people are looking to the church for guidance and direction – on these and many other matters – that can help them to live as intentional disciples.
The report ends with a reflection on the formation our church leaders receive on bringing each member of their congregations to a deeper and growing discipleship.
“There are opportunities for denominations and theological colleges to consider how far:
- Ministerial training prepares future ministers to be people who facilitate and enable discipleship.
- Ministerial training prepares future ministers to curate worship in a way that facilitates and enables discipleship learning as part of the worship of God.”
The full report can be found at http://www.saltleytrust.org.uk/whdg/
If you have any thoughts and reflections on this I’d be interested to hear them at our new blog, which will be going live very soon: https://spiritualkiss.wordpress.com/
Finally, one of the researchers encouraged us to become empirical theologians! Data such as this can help us in the mission field to develop new and effective ways to reach ‘the least, the last and the lost’ (and even the lapsed!) to embark on the adventure of discipleship. Research can perhaps help us to learn how best to scatter the seed of God’s Word: “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Matt 13:8)