Research…really?

Dr. Graham Bright

Written by Dr. Graham Bright
on 25th January 2023

‘Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose’

Zora Neale Hurston

We are meant to be curious, inquisitive. It is how God made us – wanting to understand, to know - God, His works, His world, His purposes, His creation, His presence, His love, His eternal dance, His Church, His people, His kingdom more fully. We are all researchers. As we deepen our learning through (inter-)action, reflection, experimentation and ‘being’ each and every day, we are all engaged, often without realising, in processes of research. The perception of research, and in particular researchers, in the social sciences and humanities (including theology) as ensconced in ivory towers is such an unhelpful stereotype. Research should always be, ‘real world’ and ‘real life’ in its purpose and orientation in order to be useful. This, most certainly should be the emphasis in the field of Practical Theology, the discipline that generates deepening insights from the spaces between theory, practice and reflection in growing our understanding of God, and, His presence and purpose worked out in our realities. Research, then, is about developing essential links between understanding and doing, and doing and understanding.

It is a mystery that God is both in, and, transcends the temporal and cultural. This is why God places the Church in context to mirror, mediate and translate Godself and His eternal love, purposes and intentions for people, and, the whole of creation in, through and across time, space and culture (Ward, 2017). In this view, Practical Theology allows us to develop the practice of theology and to draw on a range of tools and perspectives to develop and grow the work of Christ as praxis (Bennett et al., 2018; Graham et al., 2019; Root, 2014). Research is essential to this endeavour. It represents an important discipline from which we can learn, deliberate, reflect, share and promote wider growth and holistic flourishing (shalom) as an expression of Missio Dei[1]. It holds the potential to enable learning from one context to broaden perspective and deepen possibilities in others. This is never to claim generalizabilities, which deny the nuances of Christ’s embodied work in different contexts, and in the uniqueness of different lives, but it does promote the possibilities of enthusing ‘learning as lived’ in God’s ‘here and now’ kingdom. The multi-faceted nature of ecclesiology and missiology through which we are called to walk with people (as Christ incarnate also walked with the Other) in their suffering, sadness and joy, and through which we are called towards hope that challenges and transcends suffering (Moltmann, 2021; Wright, 2018) represents the foundational underpinnings of living theology (Root, 2014). Practical Theology, then, calls us to draw upon and synthesize work from different disciplines in the generation of living insights that speak critically and reflexively back to the human condition, and, Christ’s living and active, ‘here and now’ redemption of it. These disciplines become interlocutors with which theology itself reveals and speaks truth to culture and context. In this sense, Practical Theology should be a living wisdom that draws on doctrinal insights, lived experiences and a deep commitment to the embodiment of God’s kingdom ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. It is a form of lived, living (alive and growing) practical wisdom that draws on multiple perspectives – the Greek word for this wisdom, found in scripture, is sunesis[2]. But for it to draw on that which is lived and experienced, it must be founded on inquiry and reflection - upon research. Not so much the number crunching, clinical ‘cold’ research of the physical sciences, which are designed to examine a different set of often more (but nonetheless often very useful) reductionist questions. Rather, research in Practical Theology is rightly often more heuristic, observational and ‘subjective’ in its approaches. In this way it enables a depth of understanding which offer insights into the human soul and of God’s redeeming work, both pastorally and prophetically through the incarnational and transcendent: relationships, church, community and society.

All this, perhaps, begins to articulate the purpose of research in Practical Theology, and hopefully induces possibilities and passion in the process. But the very practical nature of research in Practical Theology means that many of our students prayerfully find the Holy Spirit revealing questions of deep significance to their lives, contexts and ministries. It is our joy to join with them as they explore and refine these questions and as they develop internal and external vistas of understanding through reading, probing, observing, listening, reflecting and tentatively concluding. It is our joy to see their research discussed in churches and beyond, to see it influence change in lives and contexts, and, sometimes even see it published!

At CYM, we are committed to developing real world research that grows theology and mission with children, young people, families and communities as praxis. We love this journey with our students – and, if you’re exploring, we’d love to engage in conversations with you about our undergraduate and postgraduate courses, and, the opportunities for research that they offer. CYM is also here to serve the wider church, and, we are passionate about doing so through our growing research work. So, if you belong to a church or organisation looking at developing some research, we’d love to hear from you, to wonder with you, and, explore the terrain together!

‘Supposing is good. But finding out is better’ 

Mark Twain

Reference List

Bennett. E., Graham, E., Pattison, S. and Walton, H. (2018) Invitation to Research in Practical Theology. London: Routledge.

Graham, E., Walton, H. and Ward, F. (2019) Theological Reflection Methods. London: SCM.

Moltmann, J. (2021) Theology of Hope for the 21st Century. London: SCM

Root, A. (2014) Christopraxis. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Ward, P. (2017) Introducing Practical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Wright, N.T. (2018) Surprised by Hope. London: SCM Press.


[1] Lit. The Mission of God, a theological idea reflective of Godself being wholly and intentionally missional in nature.

[2] See, for example, Colossians 1v9 and 2. Timothy 2v7.

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