Researching the grassroots experience of faith learning

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Researching the grassroots experience of faith learning: introducing the learning project and theological action research

by James Butler

This project exploring the grassroots experience of learning in the Methodist Church was conducted by a team from the Theology and Action Research Network (TARN) at the University of Roehampton.1 It was funded by and carried out in partnership with the Susanna Wesley Foundation.2 This theological action research project ran for four years from 2016 to 2020 and worked with eight different sites across the Methodist Church in Britain, particularly focusing on the lived practice and experience how people learn, grow and develop in faith.

The project sought to respond to the rise in use of discipleship language as part of many churches’ call to renewal and mission. At the time that the project began, discipleship language had appeared as an important part of British Methodism’s own focus on renewal, particularly evident in the self-description of a “discipleship movement shaped for mission” and with the introduction of the Discipleship and Ministries Learning Network (which later became simply the Learning Network).3 A key document that had sought to reimagine and restructure learning within the Methodist Church was the “Fruitful Field” report, and one strand of this research was seeking to explore how people learn in light of the changes brought around by that report.4 The instinct of the research team was that while there was much that was good about the turn to learning and the language of discipleship, there were some problems and blind spots that needed attention. There was an expectation that there was much more to be learned both theologically and practically from the lived experience of Christians who were learning and growing in faith. This project sought to pay close attention to such experience.

One of the commitments in theological action research projects is to work in partnership with the sites taking part. It is a participative and collaborative approach to research, where a team from the site is involved in every stage of the research from the initial designing and planning to data collection and all the way through to discerning the data and identifying the learning from the project. In working this way, we seek to break down a researcher–researched paradigm and instead see everyone as co-researchers, albeit with different levels of expertise and experience in different areas, all bringing a wide range of different skills and experience to every stage of the research. We talk about them as reflector teams: local reflector teams from the different sites, and the University of Roehampton reflector team who reflect on the data across the sites. They are named reflector teams because of the particular role that they have in reflecting individually on the data and coming together to engage in reflective conversation.

Each site becomes, in effect, its own mini research project with its own research question, plan and data reflection. We worked with a range of sites across the Methodist Church: two local churches; a circuit; one learning network; two formal training institutions; the local preachers and worship leaders’ training team; and an ecumenical charity supporting rural learning. Each site identified a team of about five or six people from among them who would carry the research for the site and would work collaboratively with us through the project. There are a number of advantages to working in this way: it focuses the research on the details of lived practice and the questions, joys and tensions within it; it brings a broader range of perspectives and interpretations; it creates a range of feedback loops where practitioners are able to add to and challenge interpretations of their practice; and perhaps most importantly, it builds in the renewal of practice into the process. This renewal of practice comes about because the people whose practice it is are directly involved in reflecting on that practice, and it was often the experience that rather than identifying actions points to be implemented, the final steps were identifying the learning and change that had already taken place or the things that had been planned.

Theological action research has five key characteristics:

  • Theological all the way through
  • Understanding of “theology in four voices”
  • Disclosing theology through conversational method
  • Theological Action Research (TAR) as formative transformation of practice
  • Method allowing practice to contribute to the transformation of theology

In terms of understanding the project, what is key here is the commitment to conversation, to theology and to practice. It is a conversational method that means having actual conversations between people, preferably in the same room. These conversations happen all the way through the project: discussing the possibilities of working together, deciding together on a research question, planning the research, in the data collection and in reflecting on the data together. Another key characteristic is being theological the whole way through. This means seeing the whole process as theological rather than seeing theological reflection as one part within a wider study. To do this, theological action research understands that theology has coming from four different voices: the theology embodied in what people do (operant voice), what they say (the espoused voice), normative documents such as Scripture or church tradition (the normative voice) and the formal work of theologians (the formal voice). These voices are not discrete but are overlapping and interpenetrating. The conviction of theological action research is that these voices need to be heard together. It is in listening to these voices in this way that fresh theological disclosures emerge – new learning and connections. Theological action research has a deep commitment to both the renewal of practice and the renewal of theology. More details about these characteristics and theology in four voices can be read in Talking about God in Practice and Disclosing Church.5

While there are many strengths of theological action research, there are challenges. Working in collaborative teams is more labour-intensive and the project is much more closely tied to the ups and downs of the research site. Collaborative partnerships are more demanding and there is more work involved in developing the research sites and the relationships needed to carry out the research. We have a number of stories about the ways in which our research has gone in different directions, been interrupted and been frustrated because of different agendas, approaches and live events; however, we also have plenty of stories of the ways in which the process and the outcomes have been enriched by the journey through such issues and the collaborative work needed to navigate them.

The University of Roehampton Reflector Team have all contributed to this ANVIL edition. Clare Watkins is the principal investigator and one of the originators of theological action research. She is a reader in Ecclesiology and Practical Theology at the University of Roehampton. James Butler is the researcher and has worked on a number of theological action research projects. He is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Roehampton and MA lecturer at Church Mission Society. Sue Miller is the director of the Susanna Wesley Foundation, who funded the research, and has worked in various roles across the Methodist Church. Graham Jones is a regional learning and development officer within the Learning Network in the Methodist Church and is an ordained presbyter, and Stan Brown is also ordained and during the duration of the project was a circuit superintendent. We are grateful to others who contributed to the research team, particularly Elizabeth Davies, Susy Brouard, Janice Price and Roger Walton.

Theological action research is an invitation to a conversation, a process of reflecting together on lived practice, not so that one can then do theology, but as a theological practice of attentiveness to the many theological voices around us. On one level it is simply the process by which this research was carried out, but it was also interesting to see how the different teams at the different sites identified the kinds of conversations and practices involved as the things they needed to invest in more to encourage the kind of learning we were seeing in the research.

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.

More from this issue


  1. Theology and Action Research Network, ↩︎
  2. The Susanna Wesley Foundation, ↩︎
  3. Martyn Atkins, “Contemporary Methodism: a discipleship movement shaped for mission [The General Secretary’s Report],” Methodist Conference Reports 2011 (The Methodist Church in Britain, 2011), accessed 4 June 2018, ↩︎
  4. The Ministries Committee of the Methodist Conference, “The Fruitful Field: A consultation document (The Methodist Church in Britain, Autumn 2011): accessed 19 December 2022, ↩︎
  5. Helen Cameron et al., Talking about God in Practice: Theological Action Research and Practical Theology (London: SCM Press, 2010); Clare Watkins, Disclosing Church: An Ecclesiology Learned from Conversations in Practice (London: Routledge, 2020). ↩︎

Learning faith

ANVIL 39:2, November 2023

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