Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Church Surveys: Willow Creek's Reveal Study, IX

Stalled believers?
(Post 9 in an 11-part series)

I want to follow-up on yesterday’s post. A key finding in Reveal is that a good portion (up to 25%) were mature believers who said that they were stalled in their spiritual walk. This has been used as an indictment of the Willow Creek , with its focus on bringing seekers into the church.

As we think more deeply about this finding, however, it may not be problematic for two reasons.

1) Is stalled bad? It’s my distinct impression that spiritual growth is not linear, rather it goes up in fits in starts: sudden increases followed by long plateaus.

This type of growth pattern would seem to fit better with most other areas of life as well, such as getting better at a sport, learning a hobby, growing together as a couple, and advancing in a career. Other than my gaining weight during the holidays, I can think of very little in my life that is truly linear.

In my own experience, the times of feeling stalled—being at a plateau—have in retrospect proven to be fruitful (as well as difficult). Part of the Christian walk, I think, is hanging on during these difficult times.

As such, the finding that some portion of the mature believers in Reveal report themselves as stalled may just reflect the realities of Christian life. My guess is that Mother Theresa, if she had taken the Reveal study, would have frequently placed herself into the “stalled” category (thanks Mat for this point).

I think that most Christians go through extended periods of feeling flat, and not only is the way it is, it might also be the way it should be.

2) Regression to the mean. A powerful but often overlooked statistical principle is that of “regression to the mean.” This principle states that whenever you measure a person or group of people with extreme scores on some scale, you can expect them, on average, to become less extreme—return toward the mean—over time. This is because extreme scores result from both stable and unstable characteristics, and the unstable change over time. To read more click here.

Here are some examples of regression to the mean:
- The college football season is about ready to end (sadly). We can be pretty sure that next season the top twenty teams of this season won’t do as well, and the bottom twenty teams will do better. They will regress to the mean.
- Very tall parents will usually have children who are shorter than they are, and very short parents will usually have children taller than they. (As trivia, the name given to “regression analysis” is based on this finding).
- The top mutual funds this year probably won’t perform as well next year, and the worst mutual funds will probably perform better (though maybe not well).

What does this mean for church surveys such as Reveal? We can almost always expect that a group of Christians who have done really well in the past will probably not do as well in the future, and the group who has done the worst will probably do better.

As such, church surveys will probably routinely find that the most active, mature members are getting worse, and the newest, least experienced members are overall getting better. If so, this may not be a flaw in ministry plans, but rather just a reflection of regression to the mean.

Does this mean that churches should not target special programs for mature, active believers? Of course not. Rather, an overall downward trend among those doing best can always be expected.

Next: Suggestions for future research

To start the series

To read the final summary


Jerry said...

Brad--thanks for your posts on these. I actually paged through a copy of this while home over break. One question I had was whether the consumer driven model they were using has any effect on results. Willow Creek as a whole has favored business models, and this study is based on brand loyalty research. Does that account for some of the difficulties you've pointed out here? In particular, they make some assumptions about people's feeling about a product leading to actions that relates to your discussion of causality.

jpu said...

I wonder if Mother Theresa would be considered a plateau christian since the new biography revealed her long silent relationship with God. This has been a great series Brad, thanks.
God is good

Brad Wright said...

Good question Jerry... hopefully it's addressed in my next post.

You're right about Mother Theresa, John, and how she illustrates some of the difficulties in making things simple enough to put on surveys.

Pastor Jeff said...

You wrote, "an overall downward trend among those doing best can always be expected." To be clear, I think, that you really mean that the downward trend is relative to others. My point is that it could be that everyone is growing, improving, developing, etc. but that some of the ones that were at the top are not growing as rapidly as the whole and they move towards the mean.
For example, if you look at how long it has taken people to run the mile, overall, runners have gotten faster, while the regression towards the mean causes the top runners from the previous year to tend to move towards the mean, but still may have improved from the previous year in a field where everyone has gotten faster.

Brad Wright said...

that could be that Christians are getting more spiritual over time... tough to tell with the data we have now.