Although a substantial section of the world population can be broadly labeled “Christian”, in many settings it is important to go beyond this broad label when predicting or trying to understand a range of important social phenomena. We take the view that some important elements of what it means to be Christian can change its meaning across time and place and between individuals. It is important that Christians, as a group, not be treated as a simple caricature, but that the diversity of Christian identities be better understood.
It is important that Christians, as a group, not be treated as a caricature
Within a single country or region, denominational differences can have a major impact on social conflict, social welfare, and social status. Different types of Christians might engage in different worship practices, emphasise different aspects of what it means to be Christian, and express more or less support or hostility toward other social groups. Even within a single congregation of a single denomination there is a range of different subgroups and kinds of Christians that think and express themselves differently. Set against this background of diversity and differences, there are also many things that make different Christian groups or types cohere and work together, share common goals, ideals and aspirations.
A key feature of our approach is a respectful understanding of the diversity of ways that being Christian can inform our self-definitions, identities and social engagements. To achieve this we seek to reach a wide range of people and provide an opportunity for their diverse views to be heard and understood.
What Christian groups and types do we think about?
In order to make sense of the behaviour of various Christian groups or individuals we might make use of information about what groups they belong to, or what kind of Christian they are. How we label the group or the individual might vary depending on what we are trying to explain. We might make use of broad denomination-based labels relevant locally (e.g., Protestant versus Catholic, Presbyterian versus Baptist) or we might use descriptive terms for collections of practices (e.g., Pentecostal) or theological orientations (e.g., Evangelical). It is also common to label different kinds of Christians (e.g., mature, lapsed, ideal, or fanatical Christians, pew-sitters, zealots, spirit-filled, and many more).
While some labels are commonly used, others are less common, and may be meaningful only in local contexts. Even the commonly used labels and terms can change their meaning over time, in different places, and from one person to another.
…our research gives individual Christians the chance to tell us how they understand their Christian social world…
One of our main interests as researchers is to understand how Christians see themselves and others in terms of these more subtle and nuanced ways of understanding what it means to be a Christian. So some our research gives individual Christians the chance to tell us how they understand their Christian social world, how they perceive the groups and types of Christians they see around them, and where they themselves fit in.
To explore this we use techniques from a range of approaches to religious identity, and identity processes more generally. We use sets of belief questions that tap into commonly defined religious identities; we explore attitudes toward a range of contemporary social issues on which Christian groups seek to have a social and political voice; and we adapt group perception methods to look at how different kinds or groups of Christians might be seen to have characteristic or defining features.
Why does it matter?
We think a better understanding of Christian identities matters for several reasons:
- Christian identity is often very central to people and it plays a major role in their understanding of who they are (as with all religious identities). Psychology plays a role in helping us to gain more insight into who we are and so we cannot ignore such an important component of people’s identities.
- Christians sometimes see themselves as in conflict with other Christians or with non-Christians. We think it is important to know the fault-lines of these conflicts so that all the groups can at least understand each other better.
- Christians (individually and collectively) seek to contribute to a wide range of public debates in their societies. We think it is vitally important to understand the range of Christian perspectives on these issues so that Christians as a group are not treated as a simple social caricature during these debates. We also think this is true whichever side of the debate you happen to be on. Positive social change can arise from intense conflict, but if that conflict is based on mutual contempt between groups, then the evidence is that the outcomes will be less positive. We believe that better understanding is one way of allowing room for genuine conflict while avoiding descending into mutual contempt.
How can you help?
To explore the nature of Christian identity for all the above reasons, we need people to help us with our research. We run a variety of studies looking at different combinations of the issues we raise above. Some are more self-focused, some more oriented toward understanding different Christian groups, and some more focused on identity and social action.
- Participate in the available studies whenever you have spare time and interest. Keep this site bookmarked and look out for suitable studies from our active studies list.
- Join our notification list. Occasionally (but not too often…) we will send out a list of current and upcoming studies for this project, as well as summaries of previously run studies. If you sign up for the notification list we can let you know about studies in a more timely way, but we use the contact list for these purposes only. We also offer you the chance to unsubscribe from the list whenever we send out an update.
- Pass on the links to our studies to other interested people. Most of the people who contribute to our research hear about our studies through friends and associates. Our goal is to reach a wide range of people and give them an opportunity to tell us about how they understand their Christian identity and their views about the world. Many people who would find our research interesting and informative never get to hear about it unless someone tells them!
Who are we to do research on Christianity?
Our desire is to have our research reflect, respect and understand what it means for people, to be Christian.
People can be interested in this topic for a number of reasons. The head of the lab and this project (Ken Mavor) has had a long association with Christianity and Christian groups, and has long had an interest in understanding the complexity of human experience that is hidden behind this simple label. The research has explored the very diverse nature of what it means to be Christian, and the importance of Christians to social and political debate in many places.
Students and colleagues working on the project are also drawn to this project through diverse life experiences, family involvements, and engagement with important social issues. Our approach is based on a respectful understanding of the diversity of ways that being Christian can inform our self-definitions, identities and social engagements. Our desire is to have our research reflect, respect and understand what it means for people, to be Christian.