Saturday, 7 September 2013

I need to choose a dissertation topic...

So, the final year of my theology Masters (with Westminster Theological Centre) has begun and a big chunk of the work this year will be on a dissertation. I have to write 16,000-20,000 words on... well, on pretty much whatever I want, as long as it's got something to do with Christian theology!

I've got a few ideas, which I need to develop into a detailed proposal over the next few weeks. I guess I'm writing this post to help me straighten out my thinking and get me moving towards that goal. So here goes with my ideas...

Firstly, I'm really interested in what people call simple church, organic church, or various other names. Church where the meetings are fairly (or completely) unplanned and people all have the opportunity to share what they feel would be encouraging and inspiring. It's obviously not your standard way of 'doing' church but there are glimpses through Christian history of Jesus' followers meeting together in something like this way. And there are groups across the world now gathering like this, in places like cafes, homes, sports venues, offices; wherever people meet, really.

The problem is, I need a clear focus for the dissertation. Something like 'Current trends in simple church fellowships' would probably be far too vague. We've been told our topic has to be narrowed down in some way, such as looking at how a particular biblical author tackles a certain issue. And nothing is really leaping out at me, in terms of an angle or focus on the simple church movement.

Which all leaves me with option two.

As many of my friends know (thank you for your patience, friends!), I have a thing about sermons. In many Protestant churches, certainly the more evangelical ones, the sermon is the centrepiece of the Sunday service. The minister or whoever's speaking will spend a lot of time preparing their talk, and then all the congregation will listen (or not...) for half an hour or more. That's a lot of cumulative time! But to what end?

Basically, it seems to me that sermons are intended for two main purposes; encouragement and teaching. The former purpose, I can thoroughly go along with. I've been inspired, challenged and spiritually re-invigorated by plenty of talks over the time I've been a follower of Jesus. Some people clearly have a gift of speaking to groups and imparting a fresh vision of the joy and adventure of being involved with God's kingdom and plans.

But, again it seems to me, many sermons – perhaps most – have the goal of teaching people about something or to behave differently in some way. And this points towards the second potential topic for my dissertation. Are sermons the most effective way of teaching people? What other ways might work? Are there examples of churches teaching, training and discipling their members effectively; how are they doing it?

I'm thinking about drawing in some ideas from educational theory, because it seems that most churches pretty much ignore what educational researchers have to say about how people learn. I don't think this should be so; Christian musicians don't ignore music theory; Christian counsellors don't cast aside everything that secular counselling and psychotherapy have to say. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that Christians should embrace without question everything that comes from the secular world. But I really like the idea of investigating how stuff like learning styles, blended learning and peer learning might be of benefit in the church context as we help each other along the path of apprenticeship to Jesus. It just doesn't seem right that most churches rely on a mode of learning long since relegated to a bit-part role in most secular learning contexts.


  1. I think that you can join those options together nicely to form one idea for a dissertation - Challenging the traditional held view of a Church service.

    The idea of the sermon is Biblical - it's a carrying on of the sort of teaching that Jesus did, getting the message across in the way that they did at the time. However, back then, the only way to educate masses of people was in this manner. Roll through the centuries and Bibles wee written in Latin, which only the educated could read and so again, the only way to preach to the majority was in this manner too, in fact the way most people got information was in this way - think about Town Criers who would read aloud town notices for all.. However, today, most people can read and write and modern media has opened a whole new way for people to give and receive information and be educated, so why do Churches still follow an antiquated form of message giving?

    You were a teacher, so you have a grounding in more modern educational methods... so why not use this knowledge, along with your organic church passion to write about the changing face of services and how church could be reimagined for a new generation of Christians?

  2. that sounds interesting; I've fallen asleep through more sermons than I can count, and I don't think I've missed out on much as a result. My experience has been that small groups are a bit better than congregational contexts for learning and really getting into scripture, but nothing beats actually preparing / leading a study yourself; consistently the times when I've got the most out of a passage have been when I've got to go do something with it afterwards (speak, present, lead a small group, whatever) - especially if you aren't given any 'study notes' which invariably discourage (me at least) from fully understanding and exploring the passage.

    Find a way to get me to engage at that level every week in a church meeting of some sort, and it be like being in a spiritual grow-bag... but I don't know how you foster such self-driven scripture study in a one-to-many large congregation context

    whatever you do, keep us posted on how your ideas develop, and (if this is a fair thing to say - I hope so!), enjoy writing it!


  3. Friends, thank you very much for your ideas and encouragement. 'How church could be reimagined for a new generation of Christians' - that sounds awesome but I wonder how I could narrow it down to make a realistic Masters dissertation topic. *Thinks*

    Mike, I share your preference for the small group context, and agree that having to do something with the passage is a strong incentive to study diligently. Which is why I'm so keen on participative meetings; if we're all expected to contribute (not every meeting, but often) then it seems to me that there's far more incentive to engage with God. Whereas if we know that someone will be giving a detailed sermon, sharing the fruit of their study, I'm far more likely not to bother with much study and other engagement with God myself.

  4. So why not do some serious research on how people react to sermons, what works (and what that means) with different audiences. You could develop into some suggestions on how to respond to peoples real reactions and needs.
    I have over 50 years experience of listening to sermons and continued to be surprised that preachers develop their ideas of what the folk need without hearing their voice. This leads to all sorts of issues: e.g. preachers giving University lectures to those for whom it just floats over, preachers trying to convert the converted, preachers name dropping (Socrates, Augustine) to folk who are not interested in such, preachers not giving intellectual content to university congregations, preachers making 3 points where one might be remembered and acted on, preachers with nothing to say about folk's real everyday lives etc etc etc
    Why not start with a survey or other form of empirical research. (PS: I came here from the Ship and may not return so no reply necessary. I just offer you these thoughts).