Thursday, November 15, 2007

Church Surveys: Willow Creek's Reveal Study, IV

Dimensions of Religiosity
(Post 4 in an 11-part series)

In terms of what can be improved with the Reveal Study, I'm starting with what is ultimately an unfair question--unfair because I certainly don't know the answer, and they may not be a clear answer.

What should be the outcome variable of church surveys? That is, what's the end toward which all means aim to increase?

The Reveal Study uses individual "spiritual behaviors"--such as prayer, tithing, evangelism, and serving as well as "spiritual attitudes"--love for God and love for people. These are reasonable, for many Christians would argue against their importance, but there are other reasonable measures as well.

Sociologists have spent a lot of time trying to figure out which dimensions underly religiousness, and they have come up with a variety of answers. An early, classic statement about this comes from the work of Rodney Stark and Charles Glock who identified 8 dimensions of "religiosity." They are:

1) Experiential--feelings of having communed with God, having received revelation or direct experience with God.

2) Devotional--private devotion, private prayer.

3) Ritualistic--participation in group worship services and other activities

4) Belief--the extent to which the person believes in the theological beliefs of the group

5) Knowledge--the extent to which the person knows the believes and doctrine of the group.

6) Consequential--how people's lives--their attitudes and behaviors, are changed by their religious involvement.

7) Communal--one's social integration into the religious group, how many friends they have who are fellow believers.

8) Particularism--the degree to which the person believes that their faith is the true path to salvation.

The Reveal Study emphasizes the consequential dimension of religion--various attitudes and behaviors that should be changed by religion. (They are not entirely clear on how they constructed their outcome measure, so there may be more than that). They use the experiential dimension as a predictor (or independent variable) which they call a spiritual continuum.

This leaves significant aspects of the Christian walk not covered by the outcome measures employed by Reveal. Even with the consequential dimension, as Jerry pointed out in a comment, there are other expected consequences of Christianity, such as character traits, as described by the fruit of the spirit.

Where does this leave us? The limited range of outcomes in Reveal does not invalidate it findings, but rather examining a broader range of outcomes might produce a richer, and ultimately different, story.

What do you think? What should be the main outcomes measured in church surveys? This is a fascinating question because it's both theological and methodological.


DerekMc said...

Excellent questions Brad. I remember a discussion from my seminary days in a class dealing with spiritual formation. Dr. Gorman asked the class to design a way to evaluate spiritual formation (outcomes) in a ministry setting.
We broke into discussion groups and quickly realized how hard it is to do.
How can one measure formation? We had a hard time coming up with a definition of what a formed believer is. The fruits of the Spirit is a start but how does one measure joy in a quantitative way? Some folks decided that "you know it when you see it" and to go any further was inappropriate or smacked of judgmentalism.

When we define a fruit of the spirit in such a way that it would have a measurable outcome, then we are creating a bounded set where some are in and others are out. This could explain the reluctance that some have with any kind of measurable outcome in a ministry setting. It comes down to where one sets the boundary and how the survey is constructed.
The challenge would be to construct a survey that would be simple and effective. Sounds like a incredible challenge to me.


Jerry said...

Stark and Glock's theory seems helpful to me. Thanks for posting that. To me, it's probably a more theological question--Willow's bias (being the mainstream evangelical church that it is) is toward pietism--individual markers of faith that are largely devotional in nature (though they do also emphasize service). Personally, looking at the early church or Jesus' ministry, I'd add some kind of boundary crossing element--the extent at which people are developing meaningful relationships with others unlike them or involved in promoting social justice. Or beyond tithing, generosity more broadly outside of the church context. Kind of a definitional issue as well--what does "loving others" mean? Is it only individuals devoid of their social context? Most of the impact of Jesus' work was because of social context--not just loving any neighbors, but loving the most difficult or least comfortable ones.

I'm simply not enough a social scientist to really critique methods, but the mixed approach here certainly sounds good. I do wonder what would happen if they flipped independent and dependent variables here--how those behaviors may lead to growth on the "spritual continuum." It seems to me there's an assumption of causation there that I'm not sure is supported. But what do I know?

I do think the overall finding here, that just being involved in church programs doesn't do much, is a very important one, and pretty ground shaking for Willow. When I was growing up, the attitude was "just bring your friends here for evangelism and we'll do the rest." In my youth group, 200 people would "convert" in one night, but the core group wouldn't grow due to all turnover rates. I think these results are saying more or less the same thing.

Sorry for the long post!! Hope it mostly makes sense.

Brad Wright said...

Derek, you explain really well the difficulty of measuring spiritual outcomes... Did Dr. Gorman give you any answers?!

Jerry, thank you for your thoughtful comment! You identify issues that make this an interesting question--deciding what to measure is a theological and cultural issue as well as a methodological one.

I too have thought about Willow's focus on the individual--certainly consistent with many mega-church evangelicals.

As for reverse causation, you anticipate my next post on the matter!