Christian social engagement: A qualitative study of volunteering, theology, and motives in three Australian faith-based organisations

Author: Michael Smith

Smith, Michael, 2020 Christian social engagement: A qualitative study of volunteering, theology, and motives in three Australian faith-based organisations, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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This thesis contributes to sociological research by addressing how motives, theology, and participation activities shape volunteer experiences in Australian FBOs. This is achieved by investigating the following three research questions: 1) How are theological concepts expressed and manifested within social engagement? 2) What motivates volunteers to become involved with Christian faith-based organisations? and 3) What factors promote or constrain collective engagement activities or participation in faith-based organisations? This thesis is a sociological study that uses practical theology in an inter-disciplinary way.

These research questions are examined through an ethnographic study of three Australian faith-based organisations (FBOs). Each FBO in this research differs significantly in terms of the services provided, intended recipients, organisational structure, and religious and theological emphases. The three FBOs studied in this thesis reflect the diversity of Australian FBOs and welfare delivery services.

This thesis advances research on FBOs by examining volunteer experiences and motives in Australian FBOs. It contributes to the wider theological and sociological literature by providing nuance to the effect of religion and theology on motives; examines how religious and theological factors shape FBO’s engagement with refugees, the homeless, and social justice; and examines how volunteers attribute theological significance to the activities of FBOs.

Three original contributions to the study of theology and sociology are offered. First, as theological frames are a tool for theological research within the sociology of religion, they are defined as a framework for the theological interpretation of social life. A conceptual framework and research methodology for constructing theological frames is given. I argue that theological frames can be used to identify theological elements of organisational culture: to better understand organisational structure and relationships; to discern the social theological derivations of social movements; and to extend frame theory to include theological analysis.

Second, ordinary theology mediates social capital through three distinct mechanisms: 1) the ordinary theology of volunteers needs to be agentic, that is, the motivation and expression of their social engagement needs to be explicit within the volunteers’ ordinary theology; 2) the social engagement activities need to nurture relationships that hold theological significance for the volunteers; and 3) the collective engagement activities of FBOs need to be structured and varied.

Third, the concept of a bounded volunteering experience is introduced to describe participation that does not require commitment outside the participation times specified by the FBOs. I suggest that a bounded volunteering experience may be effective for participating in FBOs, but not for engaging in relationship-building with recipients of FBO services.

My research suggests that sustained collective engagement results from the alignment of the individual theologies of the Christian volunteers with the organisational activities of FBOs. This thesis proposes that individual ordinary theologies cohere with individual actions in social engagement. The collective decision making, conflicts, and diversity of engagement expressions found in a group environment, can inhibit the extent to which individual theologies can be embodied in social engagement. A shared theology with established engagement activities engendered positive FBO volunteering experiences.

Keywords: sociology, sociology of religion, theology, religion, faith-based organisations, fbos, homeless, refugees, activism, qualitative, frames, social capital, social engagement

Subject: Theology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2020
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Steve Taylor