Learning at and from the edges

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

A new research project seeks to examine how people grow and learn as followers of Jesus in edgy spaces. James Butler introduces the work.

CMS describes itself as working and making disciples “at the edges”. These edges might be the edge of what churches are doing, the edges of society or edges of comfort zones. It is a calling to be with Jesus in the places which are often overlooked, but places where God is already at work.

This will feel familiar to pioneers who are often drawn to edgy spaces, and, according to the Church of England’s definition, are the first to respond to the Spirit at work beyond the church. Groups, communities and churches which are developing at the edges where people are discovering what it means to meet Jesus in their midst and grow as church. There is a whole wealth of examples around our pioneer network: boxing church, classic cars, estates, sewing clubs, ex-offenders, LGBTQI+, the list goes on.

There are Christian communities appearing and developing in seemingly unlikely places where the grace and love of God is being experienced afresh. People who have never encountered Jesus before are realising that they want to follow him and are seeking to do that.  We might call this discipleship, growing in faith or simply being a Christian. But what does discipleship, learning and growing in faith look like in these spaces?

With my colleagues in my other job, at the University of Roehampton, we have been looking at the grassroots experience of faith learning, and how so much of the significant learning in relation to faith and the Christian life takes place in the informal spaces, through everyday conversations and interactions. It is not sermons or courses which stay with people, but people and conversations.

Off the back of this research, which found learning taking place at the peripheries of churches, we are beginning a new project looking at learning in edgy places. We are exploring what faith learning and discipleship looks like at the edges. This research is being carried out in partnership with CMS, St Peter’s Saltley Trust and the Susanna Wesley Foundation.

The project will run for two and a half years and work with six sites within in the West Midlands. All the sites chosen will be in some ways edgy or marginal. Our hope is that in intentionally turning to these edgy spaces and places and seeing how people grow and develop in faith we will develop new insights which will help the sites we are working with.

We also believe the insights and learning which comes from these sites will benefit other communities, churches fresh expressions and pioneers working in these edgy spaces like the ones we connect with at CMS.

Our theological action research approach means that rather than turning up as researchers to collect data, each site is treated as its own research project and a group of people from the site work with us as coresearchers to design, carry out and learn from the project together.

The communities we work with might be pioneer projects, fresh expressions, churches in social or economically marginalised communities, diaspora churches or groups working in areas of social justice. The groups are connecting with people who have had little to do with church or Christianity and have experienced being marginalised by others. Through the experience of previous research projects, and through our networks of pioneers, we are convinced that there are riches to be uncovered which will have important and fruitful insights for faith learning and discipleship.

As we embark on this research we’re excited to be asking questions like:

  • How is the Holy Spirit at work in ordinary people’s lives away from the formal church spaces?
  • What can we learn by exploring how people’s faith develops and changes in the everyday spaces and the challenges of everyday life?
  • If we intentionally turn away from the experience of more mainstream congregations to the more peripheral spaces, what might we find out about faith and learning?

There are a number of ways to stay in touch.  You can follow us on Twitter @EdgyLearning and sign up for occasional email updates. Do get in touch with me directly if you’d like to connect with the project or find out more about theological action research.

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