Growing Faith Foundation Research: A Taster of Findings

Dr. Graham Bright and Catherine Simpson.

Written by Dr. Graham Bright and Catherine Simpson.
on 4th April 2023

Introduction

CYM is privileged to collaborate with a growing number of partners in promoting the development of ministry with children, young people, families and communities in different contexts. One such partnership is with the The Church of England’s Growing Faith Foundation. The Foundation was inaugurated in 2021 to ensure that children, young people and families are central to the Church’s mission and ministry. Growing faith through the nexus of churches, schools and households is central to the Foundation’s mission and strategy.

In 2022, the Foundation commissioned a number of organisations, including CYM, to develop research regarding the practices and impact of Growing Faith in different contexts[1]. Over the past five months, it has been our privilege to work with ‘Smythvale Primary School’ in researching ways in which their partnership with their local Parish Church, ‘St Bart’s’ has sought to grow faith with children and their families. Smythvale is a small village located equidistantly between two larger market towns in the North-East of England. The village itself is leafy, relatively affluent and set around a large, unspoilt village green near the banks of a river. The school has an overall pupil population of <70, 10% of whom are in receipt of free school meals.

This interim report demonstrates why the Growing Faith Foundation has invested so heavily in research: this is a chance to reflect seriously and rigorously on the faith development of children. The tantalising glimpses of insight hinted at here will be developed into wisdom many more churches and schools can benefit from when the results are released. The research is also an opportunity to reflect on the viability of the Growing Faith approach itself and test it in an ‘ordinary extraordinary’ parish setting. We’re very excited about this project and look forward to seeing what conclusions it comes to eventually.

Lucy Moore, The Growing Faith Foundation

Approach to research

Our approach to this research was to undertake a ‘deep-dive’ singular case study, which sought to explore ways in which faith is grown in the spaces between school, home and church, and, the role that each plays in this work. In addition to interviewing various stakeholders (‘Megan’, the Headteacher, ‘Yvette’, the local vicar and ‘Cara’, the Parish Youth Missioner), our primary focus was to work alongside six young leaders of worship[2] as they met to prepare acts of collective worship alongside Cara, in her role as school chaplain. This happened during a time of heightened activity for the group, as they prepared for Christmas and another upcoming (and high profile) whole school service of celebration in the church. We adopted an ethnographic approach[3] to the first stage of our research in which we observed the children’s interactions in the context of their group over four non-consecutive weeks. We believe that there are some important lessons to draw from different aspects of our research, none more so than here. This phase was followed by two hour-long creative focus groups with the children, which allowed us to listen to their ideas regarding faith, spirituality, church, learning, leadership and the nexus between school, church and home. We also sought to gather data from parents and carers via an online questionnaire. However, this was more challenging with minimal returns. Overall, however, we generated a considerable amount of data which we have begun to analyse and triangulate. Further discussion will follow in project reports and academic papers. However, as a staging post to fuller dissemination, this blog affords us the opportunity to sketch some of our very initial headline findings.

Some Initial Findings

The first thing we want to note is the sense of possibility and potential contained within both the intentions and practices of Growing Faith. At a local level, the potential to leverage collaboration between churches, schools and families in exploring and developing faith is significant. This however can only be truly unlocked where local churches are willing to engage at a meaningful relational level with their school communities. In the case of Smythvale, relationships between church and school have been developed in mutually beneficially and affirming ways over a number of years. Yvette’s passionate commitment to serving the school and to envisioning members of her congregation to become involved in the life of the school and its families through initiatives including ‘Open the Book’ have been essential to growing and deepening connections. Likewise, Megan and the School staff have welcomed this partnership and made significant contributions to its success. This has augmented a clear and felt culture of Christian distinctiveness in the school. Smythvale’s rurality is significant. We observed a concentration of community capital in facilitating collaborative possibilities, action and change. Such capital takes time, energy, willingness and commitment to generate. We are aware that collaborative capital is however sadly not evident in every context; many churches and clergy need to become more serious and intentionally willing to develop vision, create capacity[4] and make initial moves in order that the conditions for Growing Faith might be realised in every parish.

A second major set of ideas relates to the generation of cultures in working with children and families in the context of Growing Faith. There is a phrase that has run through aspects of our observations and analysis: ‘We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong[5].’ Such an idea is central to the ethnographic commitment of untying our assumptions in order that we might see things differently, better, or as they ‘really are’. However, this can sometimes demand a willingness to let go of assumptive worldviews and what we understand, or even ‘know’ the solutions to particular problems to be – solutions that we are often deeply invested in. Fuller discussion of our learning in this regard will be forthcoming. However, for now, we note a few initial points. Growing Faith must be about developing connective culture of openness within the nexus. This openness, at its core, should be founded upon a commitment to enabling children spaces to explore and develop a lived and living faith in ways that are careful not to be prescriptive, or, inductive. The need is to ensure that spaces are created within the curriculum that are sufficiently ‘different’ from ‘classroom learning’ to enable both a sense of embeddedness in schools’ ‘normal activity’, but in ways that are not simply about cognitive learning or performativity. Children have an innate capacity for wonder – we need to ensure that we cultivate this, rather than stifle it through forms of leading that provide, or nudge towards predetermined answers. In this sense, we need to create spaces for children to abductively develop their own lived and living theological frames (Csinos, 2020) via open processes of scaffolding. In Vygotskian terms, adults as ‘more knowledgeable others’ need to foster a deep commitment to travel as fellow journeyers, who are open to the vulnerability of discovery, questioning and learning with children, in growing faith and wonder together, rather than as ‘pre-eminent holders of knowledge’. Such ideas link compellingly to literature on spiritual and faith development (Csinos and Beckwith, 2013; Lamont, 2020; Nye, 2009) and to co-participation in actively growing faith through learning as community (Csinos, 2020, 2022). These approaches express a commitment to risk, uncertainty and the hope of deepening faith and deep-rooted fruitfulness over more ‘certain’ but surface assertions of shiny performativity that remain pervasive in the culture of our society, churches and education system. All of this calls for the making of time, space, relationships and intention in generating cultures that go beyond the comfortability of espoused Christian values and more cognitive forms of learning in order to truly grow faith.

Conclusion

From our viewpoint, Growing Faith is doing many good things. It is proving a catalyst to build relationships and dialogue. We have seen some encouraging things – work to be celebrated; however, our research is beginning to show that in order to unlock the further, untapped potential in Growing Faith meaningful reflection that actively builds towards fruitfulness is essential. We look forward to sharing more of our learning and reflections in the weeks and months ahead.

References:

Csinos, D.M. and Beckwith, I. (2013) Children’s Ministry in the Way of Jesus. Downers Grove: IVP.

Csinos, D.M. (2020) Little Theologians. London: McGill-Queens University Press.

Csinos, D.M. (2022) A Gospel for All Ages. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Lamont, R. (2020) Faith in Children. Oxford: Lion Hudson.

Nye, R. (2009) Children's Spirituality: What it is and Why it Matters. London: Church House Publishing.


[1] We are grateful to The Growing Faith Foundation and in particular Lucy Moore and Yolanda Morley-McKay for their ongoing support for this research.

[2] ‘Arthur’, ‘Eve’, ‘George’, ‘Jayden’, ‘Eden’ and ‘Alice’ are in Years 5 and 6 at the school.

[3] Our approach to ethnography was to disrupt our own thinking and pre-imaginaries by attempting to go beyond surface observations in order to ‘see differently’ in ways that may have been uncomfortable but ultimately ‘truth-revealing’. Cultural anthropologists describe this as the call to ‘see strangeness in the familiar, and the familiar in the strange’.

[4] This means a commitment to changing priorities and a willingness for churches and clergy to lay other things down in order to enable change.

[5] U2 ‘11-O’Clock, Tick-Tock’.

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