Learning at the Edges

The question of ‘learning’ and growing in faith has been one with which we have been especially concerned in recent years. In particular, our large-scale four-year theological action research project into faith learning in British Methodism has proved a fruitful and enlightening piece of work which we are now beginning to write up in full. Based on this experience we are now beginning a new piece of theological action research, with the working title ‘The Edgy Learning Project.’

Our previous work has suggested that the most significant learning around faith and being a Christian often seems to take place away from the formal spaces of sermons, services, Bible study and courses. Rather, it’s the coffee after church, the walk with the dog, the response to a difficult event or incident, or just a chance conversation where this learning and growing takes place.  In our research project looking at grassroots experiences of learning in British Methodism again and again we came across the conversational and informal nature of faith learning.  Inspired by this, our new project explores faith learning in ‘edgy’ places – peripheries or margins of organised church – and seeks to understand how people in these contexts experience being and growing as disciples. These spaces are often neither organised by the institutional church, nor even visible to it.  Current research on learning as disciples tends to prioritise the experiences of long-established members of mainstream congregations.  Turning more intentionally to the ‘edges’ will provide an important corrective to existing accounts of how growth as disciples happens. 

This theological action research project is being carried out by a team at the University of Roehampton, led by Clare Watkins (Principle Investigator) and James Butler (Post-doctoral Researcher). It is, as common with our work, a collaborative project, working closely with our funders, the Susanna Wesley Foundation, and St. Peter’s Saltley Trust, with Ian Jones, the Director of Saltley Trust, taking an active role in the fieldwork. The Church Mission Society (CMS) is an additional partner in the work, providing specialist missiological and pioneer lenses to our research reflection.

The groups with which we will work will be determined through theological action research’s participatory and collaborative principles. We recognise the sites we work with as co-researchers, and they will identify themselves and their own ‘edginess’ in response to our conversations with them, rather than us having a predetermined understanding of the edges, or ‘marginality. As a result,  we are not looking to be representative of all forms of marginality but rather explore in detail particular experiences in specific contexts.  We plan to work with six groups which might consider themselves ‘edgy’ in one or more ways.  Together with members of each group, we will reflect theologically on these experiences and so identify learning for wider Christian practice.

We are conscious that labelling something edgy, peripheral or marginalised is itself problematic. We hope that this project will be able to highlight these problems and suggests ways forward.   These labels can reveal something truthful about the lived experience of people and yet also be part of the problem of labelling and excluding.  This is something we will carefully a navigate as we listen to our co-researchers and respondents. We are 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 spaces where we believe there will be rich insights around these questions.  One such space is with groups addressing issues of poverty and marginalisation.  Approaches such as community organising and Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) have raised awareness of the need to shape spaces that welcome everyone’s gifts and skills, and develop more reciprocal ways of working which encourage flourishing rather than cycles of dependence.  We will seek to work with Christian groups working in these contexts.  Another, related, context is in the kinds of pioneering that CMS, and others, seek to support.  These pioneer and fresh expressions communities often connect with people who would see churches as irrelevant, judgemental and distant from their own experience.   Similarly, diaspora Churches have often experienced being marginalised by mainstream churches and denominations and are navigating questions of faith, mission, and culture.  They too provide a context to explore these themes.

The project will run for two and a half years and be focused on the West Midlands area in keeping with the Saltley Trust’s remit. All six sites will be within that region.  You can stay in touch with the research by signing up to the mailing list, following us on Twitter and keeping an eye out on this blog.  If you are involved in something ‘edgy’ in the West Midlands and are interested in participating, do get in touch with us.

Keeping in touch:

Follow us on Twitter @EdgyLearning

Sign up for occasional email updates  

Further Reading:

Previous Roehampton Project:

Butler, James, “>‘The “Long and Winding Road” of Faith: Learning about the Christian Life and Discipleship from Two Methodist Congregations’, Practical Theology, 13.3 (2020), 277–89

Previous research from the St. Peter’s Saltley Trust around learning and being disciples:

Christians in Practice: Connecting Discipleship and Community Engagement

What Helps Disciples Grow?

TARN Newsletter 1 – December 2021

If you haven’t yet signed up to receive our newsletter then you can find this month’s here. With news of our regular training in theological action research methods, we also highlight an exciting part-time job opportunity and invite you to submit your research and publications for inclusion on this website.

Sign up for future issues here.