Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Church Surveys: Willow Creek's Reveal Study, III

What Reveal Does Well
(Post 3 in an 11-part series)

Let's start with some things that Reveal does well:

First, they are collecting data. There's a lot in the church that can't be done by taking surveys, most important things probably; nonetheless, surveys can offer extremely valuable information for relatively little cost. Frankly, it's beyond me why any church wouldn't routinely survey its members. (I suppose that's why I'm a sociologist and not a pastor ;-).

I have been in countless meetings and discussions that hinged on questions such as "what do people in the church think about this" or "how many people are doing that." These are empirical questions, and they can be answered with some authority with surveys. If we care about them, why not take the time to answer them?

Second, they collected both qualitative and quantitative data. Just because surveys produce numbers we tend to be infatuated with them, but in-person interviews such as they conducted can also be valuable. Combining the two--numbers and words--is powerful for a relatively new area of study such as this one.

Third, they ask some very interesting applied questions. Sociologists and other researchers routinely use great research methods, but the questions we seek to answer can be a little... oh what's the word, dry? At our worst we publish about things that only a few others would care about. Some sociologists are able to break out of this and write about things of more broader relevance (Christian Smith comes to mind), but most of us are just filling up the shelves of university libraries. In contrast, the questions asked by Reveal seem to matter in a more fundamental level--at least for Christians. So I'm pleased to see social science methods being applied here.

Fourth, I think that one of their findings will prove especially valuable for the church--that Christians of different maturity levels need different things from their churches. That is, a church's activities are not one-size-fits-all. At various times in my life, I have attended churches clearly geared for someone other than me, and, gosh, was I bored.

Next: Dimensions of religiosity

To start the series

To read the final summary



Ben said...

I'm with you. My problem is that I would want to be surveying members all the time about everything. Not that I would want to cater to interest groups particularly, but it seems like in church work especially, you have to know what your people are thinking - what to affirm and what to work on; where encouragement is needed, etc. Plus I'm just a curious guy. I want to know what others are thinking. Maybe we just have to work harder at really knowing each other with a little sociological discipline thrown in.

I'm appalled at how much ministry seems to be on auto-pilot - what we were taught in seminary or the latest ministry conference. Hopefully Reveal starts a a new trend.

RE: applied questions. How do you buck the trend? I haven't found a way to make a "contribution" to the field of Biblical studies while at the same time being relevant in my own community. My colleagues and I are slowly resigning ourselves to to writing our dissertations for the academy and then trying to be more relevant afterwards. We had all hoped we could combine the two. Maybe that points out specific problems with the guild of Biblical scholarship. (There's some irony here in terms of Scripture's original purpose.)

I would certainly benefit from more sociological training. Most of the questions I seem to be posing to the text now are sociological questions. Then there's the problem of data when dealing with ancient history . . .

Dave said...


Thanks so much for your coverage of the Reveal material. I agree with your assessments of the study. Our staff went to a Reveal follow-up conference and it is heavy on the numbers. In a setting like the local church I believe the qualitative data is just as important, but I understand Willow's approach. I would love to see the qualitative data used to support the quantitative stuff.

My doctoral dissertation was a qualitative approach so I know the limitations of that methodology. However it does add a human element to a study that's so heavy on the numbers.

We are implementing a "simple church" approach to discipleship at our church and the Reveal material has been a great complement to our work.

Thanks once again for a great series of posts on Reveal.


Dave Baldwin
LifePoint Church
Reisterstown, MD

Brad Wright said...

Hello Dave,

Thanks for the comment.

I agree that there's a lot to be gained from a qualitative approach... it compliments the numbers really well.

Let me know if you publish any of your dissertation material. I'd be interested in reading it.