Editorial: learning faith

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Editorial: Learning faith | ANVIL volume 39 issue 2

by James Butler

Discipleship, faith formation, learning and training are important themes within mission and the church. At Church Mission Society there is a particular interest in how people grow and develop in faith, and their gifting around mission and pioneering. Within denominations, the questions of faith development are high up the agenda, particularly with declining church attendance and the decreasing prominence of faith in the West. This edition of ANVIL picks up the question of how people learn, grow and develop in faith. It presents some of the fruits of the Methodist learning research project carried out at the University of Roehampton and funded by the Susanna Wesley Foundation. By turning to the everyday experiences of faith and learning within eight sites across the British Methodist Church, the project sought to develop a grassroots account of what we came to call “faith learning” and draw wider insights for how churches and groups approach the questions of discipleship, learning and growing in faith.

Some of the key themes that emerged from the project, and are reflected on in detail within the articles and interviews in this edition of ANVIL, concern the importance of conversation, informal spaces and care in faith learning. As the articles in this edition will describe, while much of the attention within narratives of discipleship and faith formation focuses on formal learning through courses, Bible studies and sermons, very often the most significant times of faith learning happened in the midst of everyday life. It was through life events, big and small, through informal conversations, in the chance encounters that took place, and through the long-term relationships of life lived together that faith was shaped and changed. This will not be a surprise to most people, and as we share these insights, people often recount similar stories and experiences from their own lives. However, what we have felt as a team is that the significance of the informal and conversational nature of learning is yet to be seriously integrated into the accounts of discipleship and faith formation, and its implications for mission and evangelisation are yet to be deeply and practically understood, in ways that keep them central. There is a need to learn how to honour and value the informal without somehow trying to formalise it or instrumentalise it for our courses and discipling methods. In the articles and interviews within this edition we hope that there will be much to stimulate your own reflections and thinking around faith and learning, and some helpful and constructive ways to honour and value the kinds of faith learning we saw within the project, in churches and mission contexts.

This edition begins with a brief introduction to the research project and to the methodology used. The short article “Researching the grassroots experience of faith learning” provides a summary of the research project and an introduction to theological action research. This gives the context for the rest of the articles and will provide a point of reference for some of the terms used in the rest of the edition. The nature of collaborative research projects like this is that the different teams, research sites and participants have all experienced the journey differently and learned different things. By hearing from multiple voices across the research, this edition of ANVIL provides multiple perspectives on the project, in keeping with our commitment to paying attention to diverse voices, and to the renewal of grassroots practice. In the light of the whole project these different accounts, within the articles and interviews, act like a prism that refracts that light differently depending on the context, experience and role of the writer, resulting in different patterns of faith and learning.

The University of Roehampton reflector team have written the three main articles. The first is from Clare Watkins, the principal investigator on the project, who was particularly struck by the richness of the accounts of church and mission within rural settings. So often the rural church is seen as being in need of the resources and support of thriving urban congregations, and yet Clare’s article highlights the many ways in which rural churches, though small and fragile, have much to offer the conversation too and are themselves a gift to urban and suburban churches.

I was the researcher on the project, carrying out much of the data collection. For me one of the most interesting things has been the way that the very ordinary accounts of people I have met have seriously challenged the narratives around discipleship that are often pushed in church and mission settings. I heard how people’s faith was shaped and changed by the ordinary and everyday experiences of life, and how that shaped much of what they did. In contrast to the impression that many people in churches simply fill the pews on Sunday, I met faithful people acting in generous and servant-hearted ways in their families and communities, which was often invisible to the churches they attended. In this paper I explore how these insights can help us move away from thinking of discipleship as something that a leader initiates, and instead put the Spirit’s work and everyday life at the centre of learning and discipleship.

The third article is co-written by Sue Miller, Stan Brown and Graham Jones. Given that this was a project focused on British Methodism, they particularly explore the ways the insights of the project relate to, illuminate and draw on Methodist and Wesleyan accounts. Making connections between the insights of the project and many of the recent initiatives of British Methodism, they demonstrate that this is in keeping with the historic emphasis on holiness within Methodism, and argue that seeking wisdom is at the heart of grassroots learning.

The project focused on eight different research sites. One of the research sites was the Wales Learning Network and the fourth article describes this group’s experience of being a local research team. Delyth Davies, part of the network, writes about her experience of the project and the way in which participating in the project shaped the network’s work. She particularly draws out the ways in which conversation and relationships became key focal points for their engagement with churches and groups.

The last three articles are short interviews with participants in the project. We asked them to reflect a bit on their experiences of learning and some of the insights from the project. We gave all three pseudonyms to protect their identity. Liz reflects on her experience of life-long learning and the way she has been shaped by the people and places around her. Eleanor talks about how participating in the project caused her to look a little differently at learning and how her own journey as a pioneer has shaped her learning since. Finally, Sarah spoke about how her own faith has been shaped by her experiences and about being a family worker in her local Methodist church. She reflects on the learning she has seen around her in the families she connects with.

As always, we have a healthy selection of book reviews of recently published books around mission, pioneering and theology from our broad team of reviewers. We hope you enjoy this edition of ANVIL. If you have enjoyed exploring the themes in this edition, we would like to draw your attention to the fact that a book about the project will be coming out in 2024 (hopefully!).

About the author

James Butler is pioneer MA lecturer and assistant coordinator for Pioneer Mission Training at Church Mission Society. He teaches in the areas of mission, ecclesiology and practical theology. His PhD explored how small missional communities sustain their social action. He also works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Roehampton, researching themes of learning, discipleship and social action.

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Learning faith

ANVIL 39:2, November 2023

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