Christians in Practice?
'What name would you give to your community activity?' It's a simple question. But the answers we're offered are rich and poetic, and reveal the extraordinary holism of Christian action.
In a recent post, we looked at whether the word ‘volunteering’ does justice to Christian community activity.
The question concerns us because we need to choose language that speaks clearly to those completing our research questionnaire. But it’s also of interest to churches and church projects. Knowing what language to use can help in recruiting and supporting people to community work.
In that previous post, Ian Jones looked at some of the literature. But we’ve also tested the question out directly ourselves, through a handful of small discussion groups. Each one brought together five or six people from churches in diverse settings.
In those groups, we wanted to hear what kinds of words people spontaneously used. So, we first asked participants to list together as many things as possible that they do to help others in the community. Then we asked what words they would use to describe or sum up all that activity.
A group puts great thought and reflection into generating that list. At first there is uncertainty and hesitation on the faces around the room. That soon shakes off, as the ideas begin to flow. It’s not an easy process, and a word that suits one person is often not agreed on by all. As the group warms to its task, it will keep going, looking for a more accurate definition.
When we ask the question ‘what words would you use to describe the community work you do?’ the language used by the group begins with a fairly functional approach (‘work’, ‘service’, ‘engagement and encounter’) but will often move from the activity itself towards the dispositions behind it:
At this point, respondents are looking deeper. They seem to be trying to identify the essence of the work, rather than a simple description. When they reach this stage, they are in fact asking themselves another of the questions our research hopes to explore: what are the characteristics of Christian activity in the community?
So, the group might also explore the sense of the fulfilment that has arrived with the work. They use words like:
As the ideas develop, so does the group’s approach. As the first list above shows, groups tend to start with words, then common phrases. After a few minutes, they begin to move away from recognised descriptions, and reach for more poetic language:
Poetic language is a natural human gift and is a sign that ordinary words are not sufficient to describe the thing at hand. Our groups are telling us that whatever it is that we are describing, it has more dimensions that one commonly used word can cover.
By this point, we have come a long way. The group has worked its way as close to a definition as it can. What do we notice as people explore the essence of the activity they do?
Well, firstly, there are some things that we’re not hearing. We’re not hearing ideas about the unpaid nature of the work. ‘Sacrifice’ may refer to that, of course, but participants have mostly spoken about the changes to their weekly routine or time available, rather than money. We’re also not hearing many ideas about activity (‘God-given tasks’ more emphasizes ‘God-given’ than the ‘tasks’). Finally, we’re not hearing ideas about the other – the person or people who might benefit from the activity. In particular there’s not talk about needy, vulnerable, or different people.
We are hearing ideas about perception, relationship and transformation. Ideas about perception include ‘looking at everyone completely differently’, ‘you’re no longer the centre of attraction’ and ‘God-given tasks’. Examples of speech about relationship are: ‘being family’; ‘joyful relationship’ and ‘caring’, amongst others. Transformation gathers phrases such as ‘a whole package with God’, ‘all under the umbrella of love’ and ‘living life to the full’. It is notable that God is foregrounded and the individuals – whether the ‘doer’ or the ‘beneficiary’ become united in relationship in a way that is often understood as a sign of God’s transformative grace.
It’s a curious phenomenon that groups seem to move fluidly across ideas of disposition, motivation and outcome. In fact, many of the words or phrases they use could apply equally to their disposition, motivation, or to the outcome of the work. Being family for example, could refer to why or how the task is done, to what the participant feels the work achieves, or how it benefits her.
So in our focus groups, it seems we are capturing an account of the way in which the activity is fully integrated into the individual’s identity and community life. As they arrive at the kind of language that seems to suit them, they are providing a holistic definition of activity in which motivation, character and benefit are all mixed together. In as far as this is true, it echoes a key message from What Helps Disciples Grow, our previous research – that Christians take their faith more seriously than we often notice or realise.