Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Who said the magic is gone?

Yesterday was our 18th anniversary, and I'm not sure, but I think that it's the get-rid-of-junk anniversary. I spent most the day hauling stuff to the dump and Salvation Army, and it felt great to get rid of stuff. Maybe not romantic, but not much I'd rather be doing on a cold, windy day. (Also took Cathy out for dinner and a movie--the dump closes at 4:00 after all).

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Social learning theory and

There are lots of things that we can get from other people—information about a good restaurant, tickets to the game, a cold. To that list, we can add criminal behavior, at least according to social learning theories of crime.

There are several different versions of social learning theory, each with its own emphases on how we learn which social behaviors from whom. The one that I would like to focus on here has been popularized by Ron Akers and Robert Burgess. They explained the social learning of crime in terms of operant conditioning. As you’ll remember if you took an introductory psychology class, operant conditioning occurs when we change our behavior in response to rewards or punishments that we receive. This is why we punish our pet for making a mess of our carpet, or we ground our child who stayed out too late.

Akers and Burgess identified four types of punishments and rewards that affect us. Positive reinforcement is giving someone something pleasant; negative reinforcement is taking away something bad; positive punishment is giving something unpleasant; and negative punishment is the removal of something pleasant.

To give examples of each of these, as related to crime, the money one gets from burglary would be a positive reinforcement. Installing a burglar alarm to reduce the threat of a break-in would be a negative reinforcement. Fining someone for a crime would be a positive punishment. Taking away someone’s freedom by placing them in prison would be a negative punishment (though the difficulties they encounter in prison would be positive punishments).

As I’ve described it so far, social learning doesn’t go much beyond Pavlov's dogs —we gravitate toward reinforcing behavior and away from punishing behavior. What makes this theory social, however, is that we learn not just from our own experiences but also from others. We observe what other people do, and we see what happens to them as a result of their behavior. If their behavior produces a desired outcome, we’re more likely to adopt that behavior as our own. If it produces an undesired outcome, we steer clear of it. This is called imitation.

Imitation doesn’t happen randomly. It’s not like we walk down the street, pick someone we’ve never met, and start trying to learn from them. (Though, now that I think about it, this might not be a bad approach to life). Instead, we learn from the groups we belong to, especially our family groups and peer groups. This accounts, in part, for why young people are so heavily influenced by their friends.

Recently I came across a fascinating and powerful effort to use the principles of imitation and punishment to reduce drunk driving among young people. The clip_image002website takes high school and college students who have been in drunk driving fatalities, and it allows them to apologize to those who have been harmed. Most of the stories revolve around one friend driving, getting into an accident, and killing another friend who is a passenger. The videotaped apologies shown on are nothing short of anguishing. Here’s one of the featured stories/apologies.

A textbox on the website tells the story of what happened to Ashley:

“Ashley was at home when she got a call from her friend, Jen, who wanted to hang out. Jen came over, and without Ashley’s parents knowledge, they spent about six hours drinking beer and watching TV in Ashley’s room. At 4:00 a.m., Ashley got hungry, and the two decided to go to an all-night supermarket. Ashley drove.

One of her front wheels hit the edge of a driveway and came off, which sent the car spinning into a brick barrier, impacting on the passenger side where Jen was riding.

Jen died at the hospital. Afterwards, Ashley didn’t remember that her friend had even been in the car with her.”

Behind this textbox is a video clip of an attractive young woman who has obviously been crying. As the video clip rolls, she is so choked up that she can barely speak. She is utterly despondent, destroyed by what happens. In between gasps, she gives this apology to Jen’s father.

“Mr. Dunlap, I don’t know how else to tell you, what happened to Jen. She was my best friend. I can’t live with myself for what happened to her. I don’t understand why why it was her and not me. I’m the one that deserves to die. I have to live with every day, and every day I can’t face myself. I can’t get out of bed. Why did Jen die? I loved her so much.”

The video clip goes on, but I stopped because, frankly, it was too painful to watch. The video clips serve as a reference group, almost as if a friend was telling you something terrible that happened to them so that you can learn about. After watching them, I had newfound appreciate for the power of imitation in social learning theory.

Originally pulished on

Sunday, December 28, 2008

1.5 days of Christmas Cheer

In past years, I've thought of myself as anti-Christmas. I would be just as happy without the holiday & see the decoration, gifts, and especially Christmas music as a waste. By the time Christmas rolled around, I was borderline resentful toward it.

This year, however, I tried something different--I completely ignored anything to do with the holidays--just turned it out. No holiday greetings, not Christmas music, no buying gifts, nada. I told family I didn't want any gifts. Then, on the day before Christmas, I bought a few things and went to a neat Christmas eve service. Christmas day was just hanging out with the family, playing with the kids.

So, I have 36 hours of Christmas cheer, at most, but I kind of enjoyed the holiday this year.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Barn windows (pic)

I came across this barn/garage hidden way in the woods. About a month after I snapped this picture, it was torn down. :-(

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Men in the doghouse II

Here's another video about being in the doghouse. Apparently Bono, lead singer of U2, forgot his wife's birthday--oh-oh--and this is his apology. This has to be one of the all-time great get-out-of-the-doghouse moves ever (besides being a great song).

Techniques of neutralization

Okay everyone, time for a test. Raise your right hand if you’ve ever done something that went against your value system, that harmed others, or was otherwise just wrong. Now, raise your left hand if you still think that you’re a pretty good, moral person. My guess is that most of us have both of our hands in the air at this point (in fact, I’m having to type with my nose).

This raises an interesting question. How can we, or anyone who breaks society’s moral codes, still think of ourselves as moral members of society? David Matza and Gresham Sykes developed a theory to explain this, called “techniques of neutralization.”

Here’s how it works. Society has various expectations of how we’re supposed to act. We can call these norms. As part of the socialization process, we internalize these norms, coming to hold them as our own values and beliefs. People who are unable to internalize them are shunned and sometimes even considered psychopaths. When we break the moral code, then, we need someway of justifying it to ourselves so that we see ourselves--and can present ourselves to others--as full-fledged, moral members of society. We need something like a get-out-of-jail free card in the game monopoly, something that will cover our wrong-doing so that we don’t suffer the consequences of being defined as immoral or apart from society in our actions.

Techniques of neutralization do just this by providing simple and powerful rationales for why we violate society’s norms, and we use them to explain to ourselves and others why it was “okay” that we do wrong. Matza and Sykes identified five separate techniques of neutralization:

1) Denial of responsibility. We acknowledge doing the behavior considered wrong, but we claim that we had no choice—that we had to do or we were forced to do so.

2) Denial of injury. We acknowledge doing the wrong action, but we claim that no one was harmed by what we did, so it really shouldn’t be a problem.

3) Blaming the victim. We acknowledge that people were hurt by our actions, but we claim that though we did the action, it was really the victim’s fault—they brought about or otherwise deserved our behavior.

4) Condemn the condemners. We abdicate all responsibility for our behavior, and instead we point to the people condemning us. They are the problem, not us. What they have done wrong excuses our behavior.

5) Appealing to a higher loyalty. We claim that while we violated some social norms, we’re actually adhering to other norms and loyalties, and these higher principles justify our behavior.

It’s pretty straightforward to illustrate these techniques using everyday wrongdoing. Suppose that you cheat on a test. You could deny responsibility. Rather than redefine yourself as a cheater, you might decide that you really had no choice—you just have to graduate this semester.

You can deny the injury. You could also say that you did cheat but it didn’t hurt anyone. If the professor doesn’t use a strict grading curve, then bumping up your test score won’t change anyone else’s score, so what’s the harm?

You could blame the victim. If the professor hadn’t made his/her tests so confusing, you wouldn’t need to cheat, so it really is their fault. You could condemn the condemners. Who is the college faculty and administration to make a big case out of cheating—we all know that they cheat at their jobs.

Finally, you could appeal to a higher loyalty. Maybe you didn’t really want to cheat, but your parents are counting on you to graduate and get a good job, and for that you need a good grade point average. As such, you did it for them.

What’s truly remarkable about these techniques of neutralization is that they are used with even the most heinous of crimes.


Josef Fritzl held his daughter as a sex slave in a basement dungeon for over twenty years. He fathered seven children by her, ranging in age from five to nineteen at the time of Fritzl’s arrest, and none of them had ever seen sunlight! Fritzl was only discovered when one of the older children feel gravely ill, and they sought medical help.

What was Fritzl’s response to this hideous crime? He denied the injury, explaining that he could have let the older child die, but instead he risked discovery to get her help. Certainly he should get some credit for that, no?

clip_image003Let’s take an even worse case. Adolf Eichmann was an SS officer in Nazi Germany. He was placed in charge of the logistics of Hitler’s final solution--the mass extermination of Jews--so Eichmann was responsible for the murder of millions of people. If ever someone should just fess up to being a monster, it should be Eichmann, but that’s not what happened. When he was brought to trial, he simply denied responsibility and said that he was just obeying orders.

"Why me," he asked. “Why not the local policemen, thousands of them? They would have been shot if they had refused to round up the Jews for the death camps. Why not hang them for not wanting to be shot? Why me? Everybody killed the Jews."

These are pretty extreme examples of people using techniques of neutralization to justify their actions. Can you think of any others?

Originally published on

Monday, December 22, 2008

Men in the doghouse I

Marriage means many things for men, including being in the doghouse for what you've done, what you've not done, and what you didn't know even existed. This is a common denominator among all married men that I've ever met, and so it's no surprised that advertisers use it to sell their wares.

Here's a funny video demonstrating how the doghouse works. I really like the guy's complete cluelessness (I can relate) as well as the woman's look to get him into the doghouse (where do women learn it?).

Thanks Paolo!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

In praise of muscle memory

Some friends invited us to a 3-day ski vacation up in Northern Vermont, so off we went. I had not downhill skied for 25 years (though did lots of it back in the day), so I was a little apprehensive about hitting the slopes. I had this image of being wheeled to-and-from class all semester in traction.

No worries, for it took my body about .5 seconds to remember what to do, and I skied the whole time without falling. This is not to say that I just happen to be great at these kinds of things, for I also did some cross-country skiing, which I have not done much of, and I fell plenty.

A couple of funny things:
- I cleaned out my father's house this last summer, (in writing that, I realize it sounds metaphorical--maybe something to do with personal growth, but here I mean it literally), and I threw away my old skiis and boots. I figured that if I hadn't used them in 25 years, I wasn't ever going to. Needless to say, I was renting equipment within the year.

- As usual on these things, we prayed for safety on the trip. So we skied for three days with nothing worse that a bruise. Then we drove home 6 hours through snow and on icy roads. One stretch of road had a dozen cars overturned or off the road--like something out of a Mad Max movie. (It's supposed to be worse today, so we just drove on). We made it safely. We got home to a driveway under 6 inches of snow, so I bounce and start shoveling--after sitting for so long--and I think I pulled something in my back. Ugh... Next time I pray for not just getting home, but getting home and into the house! ;-)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Friday, December 19, 2008

Do churches grow in bad times?

Here's an interesting article in the New York Times about the effects of economic difficulty on religious participation. It appears, perhaps not surprisingly, that church attendance goes up when times get tough.

The article has various pastors talking about business being booming, and it also reports on a study by David Beckworth. He found that evangelical churches grew faster during recessions than during other years. Mainline churches declined, though at a slower rate.

Beckworth's explanation: "though expanding demographically since becoming the nation’s largest religious group in the 1990s, evangelicals as a whole still tend to be less affluent than members of mainline churches, and therefore depend on their church communities more during tough times, for material as well as spiritual support. In good times, he said, they are more likely to work on Sundays, which may explain a slower rate of growth among evangelical churches in nonrecession years."

Thursday, December 18, 2008


I just finished reading a book about Sherman's March to the Sea, and I loved the language that the soldiers used in their letters and narratives. One term, in particular, seemed like it could come in handy: popinjay.

General #1 said that there had never been more of a popinjay than General #2 as one, so, of course, I had to go look it up.

1. a person given to vain, pretentious displays and empty chatter; coxcomb; fop.
2. British Dialect. a woodpecker, esp. the green woodpecker.
3. Archaic. the figure of a parrot usually fixed on a pole and used as a target in archery and gun shooting.
4. Archaic. a parrot.

Now that I know what one is, I'll have to make sure that I don't become one.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Andy Rowell's take on Follow Me

Here is Andy Rowell's take on Follow Me, a book I reviewed extensively in fall.

For those interested in the topics raised by Follow Me, Andy has a list of church consultants and evaluation plans that would prove quite useful.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Merton's Strain Theory, Crime, and My Pants

When it comes to explaining crime and deviance, there are a couple theories that sociologists always teach, and one of them is Merton’s strain theory. Robert Merton (1910-2003) was probably the foremost American sociologist. His strain theory starts with the general assumption that societies provide both culturally-valued goals and culturally-valued means. The goals are based on shared assumptions in a society about what people should strive i.e., what constitutes success. Here in the U.S. it’s the American Dream—good paying job, nice house, couple of kids, and new cars. The means are how you’re supposed to obtain the goals. Here in the U.S. the narrative for success emphasizes hard work and education. Basically, the story is that if you work hard, go to school, then you can become anything that you want.


Things get interesting, according to Merton, when there is an imbalance between the goals and the means. Specifically, when society doesn’t provide the means to everyone to accomplish the goals it sets out for them. This means that there are some people in society who are aiming for something that they probably can’t obtain. The result of this, according to Merton, is something called strain, an unpleasant emotional condition. Frankly, I’m not exactly sure what goes on in the body with strain, but it seems to be a mixture of angst, stress, and feeling pissed off.

Once someone feels this strain, there are a handful of ways they can deal with it and some responses to strain can result in criminal behavior. In Merton’s terms, one can react to strain by conforming. This means that the person accepts both the goals and the means of society and just plods along doing what they’re supposed to get ahead. Another response is ritualism. Here the person gives up on the goals of society, accepting that he/she will never obtain them, but continues on with the means.

Say a person gives up on the American Dream, but they continue to show up for work every day just the same. Retreatism involves rejecting both the goals and the means. For example, one might just drop out of society, giving up on everything. Rebellion also involves rejecting goals and means, but rebellion, as opposed to retreatism, which entails finding new goals and new means to obtain them. Finally, innovation is accepting society’s goals but coming up with new means of obtaining them, means that society doesn’t approve of. This, commonly, leads to deviance and crime.

To illustrate each of these responses to strain, which Merton termed “modes of adaptation” (BTW, I think that we sociologists get paid more when we come up with fancy terms), let’s consider a simple act of student deviance: cheating on an exam. College students are supposed to get good grades and graduate—this is their culturally-valued goals. They are supposed to do this by studying hard and learning lots—other culturally valued goals. Merton’s vision of conformity, then, happens when students do just this, when they study hard, get good grades, and graduate.

What happens, though, when students aren’t able to accomplish the goals set out for them? Well, they could just keep on going to class and studying, even though they do badly and have little hope of being an academic success. This is ritualism. They could also just give up on everything and stay in their dorm rooms playing video games and partying. This would be retreatism. They could redefine the goals and means of college—that it’s about making a social change rather than learning, and so they might get into the protest scene. This would be rebellion. Finally, they could hold onto visions of academic success but achieve it with disapproved means such as cheating at tests or plagiarizing papers. This would be innovation.

clip_image004Okay, so far I’ve given you a fairly standard presentation of strain theory, but I wonder if we can broaden its application to a wider array of goals and means, including cultural tastes and fashions. What got me thinking about this, and what is the impetus of so much in my life, is Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. You see, I love to eat ice cream, especially on hot summer days (though winter days work just fine as well). As a result, I gained weight but I didn’t notice because I wore shorts all summer. Now that it’s autumn, though I have discovered that none off my long pants fit me anymore. What should I do? As a sociologist, I ask WWMD (What would Merton do)? And so I turn to strain theory for alternatives.

The culturally-valued goal here is looking slim, and the culturally-valued means are eating well and exercising regularly. Conformity, then, would entail a healthy, fit life style in which I’m looking good and my pants will fit me. Ritualism would be continuing to say that I’m on a diet but not really changing. Retreatism would be just giving up and living in sweat pants or maybe buying bigger pants. Innovation would be to get some sort of surgery or maybe wear a girdle. Rebellion would be to cast down the tyranny of fashion expectations and just wear shorts all year around (which is a bit of a challenge in New England).

What will I do? Oh, the strain of it all.

Originally published on

Monday, December 15, 2008

National Study of Campus Ministries

Here's an interesting study of campus ministers, both in denominations and non-denominational ministries such as Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.

The study is mostly descriptive, who are the chaplains and how do they see their work. A couple of findings struck me:

- Time and money. The chaplains work long hours for only modest pay--no surprise there, I suppose.

- Satisfied. They really like their jobs. 84% are satisfied or very satisfied. Only 13% plan on leaving in the next five years.

- Growing. Most find student participation increasing (67%) over the last three years. Only 24% said it remained the same and 10% said it was decreasing.

Thanks Carson for the link!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

One more funny graph...

Come to think of it, why are area charts always round?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Waterfall picture (pic)

From a picnic we took as a family. It's located on the other side of the state.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Graph illustrations for teaching social methods

Part of teaching is always being on the lookout for new material to illustrate an idea. I'm teaching social research methods next semester, and I've found the ideal website for illustrating how to construct and interpret graphical data:

Here are some funny ones:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Put down the baby Jesus and come out with your hands up

Here's an item from the overlap of criminology and religion... Apparently some churches and families who put out a public manger scene are tired have having the baby Jesus stolen, so they have installed it with a GPS unit to track the offender. Apparently these statues can be rather expensive, so the churches see this as cost effective (and some security companies donate their services).

Maybe for churches that can't afford satellite technology, there could be a baby Jesus that explodes in green ink if taken (like banks do to deter robbery).

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The value of teasing

The New York Times had an interesting article about the benefits of teasing. Here's the link, and it's thesis statement is that:

"Teasing is a mode of play, no doubt with a sharp edge, in which we provoke to negotiate life’s ambiguities and conflicts. And it is essential to making us fully human."

Now, there are few things that come naturally to me, but teasing others is one of them. At various times I've tried to stop, thinking it was worthless, but I just can't. All this time I thought that I was just having fun, but now I realize that I'm actually becoming and making others more fully human.

Sweet! Now I can justify buying the remote control whoopee cushion I've had my eyes on. It's part of my gift to humanity!

Monday, December 08, 2008

So much for the wisdom of sociologists

A tenet of pop social psychology is based in the 2004 book the Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowieck. Basically it holds that if you have the right group of people solving some puzzle, they will do better than just a single person.

Well, it's a fun idea to think about, but it's hard to see how it works. (In statistical terms, increased sample size means more efficient estimates, but not less biased.)

One can simply reflect on past presidential elections to know that sometimes even the general population gets things wrong.

This last election, we had a betting pool here in the department picking the number of electoral votes that Obama would win. There were about a dozen of us in the pool, and every single one of us were too low. Obama won 365 votes, and the highest guess was in the 350s.

Maybe the wisdom of crowds doesn't apply to sociologists?

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Red and yellow leaves (pic)

Here's a picture of our neighbor's yard at the end of fall... I took it from atop a latter (and he ended up raking later that afternoon). I was drawn to the strong yellows and reds.

BTW, I'll give this picture to the first rock band that asks for it. ;-)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Brad Wright, photographer to rock stars

The internet certainly makes for odd connections.

I received an e-mail this week from a member of a rock band in Slovakia. He wanted to use one of my photographs for the band's music. (I was going to write album cover, but then realized that those don't really exist anymore.)

Hm-m-m-m, does this go on my vita?

Here's the picture:

Monday, December 01, 2008

Yet another reason to want to be a kid

Floyd is on a local swim club, which means that he has 1.5 hour swim practices two nights a week. There are about 15 or 20 kids his age in the club, and when they finish swimming it's getting late, about 7:30. So, some of the kids just put on their pajamas, and head home ready for bed.

I've got to tell you, this is a very appealing idea--going straight from work to being ready to sleep. Given the role constraints of being a middle-aged adult, I don't think that I could pull it off, but part of me would very much like to change straight to my pajamas after work, head home, and plop down on the couch.

Yet another good thing for kids.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A love-your-neighbor type of Christian?

Here's a hilarious story from The Onion, and it illustrates what happens when Christians forsake more fundamental issues of faith as part of fighting the culture war. Here is the opening of it:


Everybody has this image of "crazy Christians" based on what they hear in the media, but it's just not true. Most Christians are normal, decent folks. We don't all blindly follow a bunch of outdated biblical tenets or go all fanatical about every bit of dogma. What I'm trying to say is, don't let the actions of a vocal few color your perceptions about what the majority of us are like.

Like me. I may be a Christian, but it's not like I'm one of those wacko "love your neighbor as yourself " types.

God forbid!

I'm here to tell you there are lots of Christians who aren't anything like the preconceived notions you may have. We're not all into "turning the other cheek." We don't spend our days committing random acts of kindness for no credit. And although we believe that the moral precepts in the Book of Leviticus are the infallible word of God, it doesn't mean we're all obsessed with extremist notions like "righteousness" and "justice."


For the rest of the article

Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama as Hitler & Stalin

I recently came across a web posting that hyperventilated about Obama's proposed National Security Force. This posting likened it to something out of Nazi Germany, which I thought might be a bit of a stretch.

I mentioned this to my friend David, and he sent me a link about a congressman warning of this proposal being both Nazi and Marxist. Now, I'm not a political expert, but it seems hard to be both fascist and socialist.

My guess? Worst case scenario is senior citizens in yellow windbreakers with flashlights.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The story of stuff

Like most Americans, we have an obscene amount of stuff in our lives. It's been 6 years since we last moved, and even then we had so many boxes of things.

Here's an interesting video that looks into the origins of stuff. There is nothing radically new here, but it does get you thinking.

Thanks Kelly!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Floyd at a fireworks show (pic)

The town of Mansfield has an annual fireworks show at the end of summer, and this year I took Floyd and his friend to it. Here's a picture of them watching the show. BTW, it really was a full-moon night--I didn't photoshop it in.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Top ten irritating phrases

Here's a list out from researchers at Oxford of the top 10 irritating phrases. Now, I don't know why it had to come from one of the premier universities in the universe... maybe they are easily irritated? Accurate in their irritation?

Anyway, there are amusing.


The top ten most irritating phrases:

1 - At the end of the day

2 - Fairly unique

3 - I personally

4 - At this moment in time

5 - With all due respect

6 - Absolutely

7 - It's a nightmare

8 - Shouldn't of

9 - 24/7

10 - It's not rocket science

Elsewhere in this article, they mention the incorrect use of literally. That's one that bugs me, when people use "literally" when they mean something as figuratively but with greater emphasis. E.g., someone saying "I am literally starving to death" when they have missed lunch.

There's also mention of one of my sister's pet peeves: panini sandwich. (She speaks Italian).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Blog turns 2

I wasn't paying attention (imagine that), but David pointed out that I'm entering my third year of blogging. Wow, I took it on as a bit of a lark, and I'm surprised that it's still going. Either I'm waiting to finally have something to say or I've said what little I had to say but I enjoy blogging either way.

No specific plans for the future, but I am enjoying doing it.

BTW, I Googled my name, and I came up with this entry. Google, for whatever reason, has a submenu for this blog. It's probably just because I have it on their blogspot, but I think it's pretty cool looking.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Why did I move to New England?

From a travel website for California--why you don't need to go to New England for beautiful fall colors.

"You don't have to go to New England to see the leaves change color. Many state parks in Northern and Southern California display the colors of fall. Cooler weather, fewer visitors, and the changing colors of the landscape make a fall visit to a state park an excellent getaway, whether for a weekend or just a day.

Poison oak is changing color as the vine changes from green to red leaves and can look beautiful climbing up a tree trunk.

Here's a sampling of some sites to visit. (It's always a good idea to call ahead to check on conditions in the park.)"

Hm-m-m-m, a hillside of blazing maple trees or a poison ivy vine. Tough call about what looks the best.

Thanks David!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Conclusion

(Part 13 in a series)

The book Follow Me: What’s Next for You? is the sequel to Willow Creek’s surprise best-seller of last year—Reveal.  Follow Me incorporates additional data collected from 200 churches, as opposed to seven churches in the original Reveal.  In many ways, Follow Me is similar to the original Reveal, but it does place a greater emphasis on explaining the movement from one stage of spiritual growth to the next.  It also invokes the concept of a “gap”, which it defines as the difference between what church-goers want in a church and how satisfied they are with it at their church.

As with Reveal, Follow Me should be commended for asking important questions.  All church leaders should want to know how Christians grow spiritually, and Follow Me focuses us on that issue.  It also demonstrates the relative ease of collecting data, for in a relatively short period of time this study collected data from 80,000 people. 

As with Reveal, Follow Me uses a cross-sectional study design, meaning that it measures respondents’ attitudes, beliefs, and identities at a single point in time.  This type of data is a reasonable starting point for a survey study, but they don’t lend themselves to studying processes over time, such as spiritual growth.  Follow Me asks what changes people over time, but its methods are well suited for measuring change over time.  As such, the analyses are open to a variety of causal interpretations and aren’t as convincing as other, more powerful research designs would be.

 The inherent causal ambiguity of cross-sectional designs is apparent when one compares the causal assumptions of Follow Me versus Reveal.  Reveal concluded that progress on the spiritual continuum, i.e., identifying Christ as more central in one’s life, predicts increased spiritual attitudes and behaviors, e.g., reading the Bible, loving others, loving God.  Follow Me takes the same concepts and flips around the causal order.  It speaks of spiritual attitudes and behaviors as predicting movement on the spiritual continuum.  

Follow Me presents the idea of a gap between what church members want and what they think they get from their churches.  This concept is probably more complex in practice than it is presented in Follow Me, for example, sometimes churches might want to create a gap and other times they might want to fill a gap.  Still, it represents a useful approach for Churches to plan their activities, and regardless of how any given church chooses to respond to such gaps among their members, the churches should certain be aware of them. 

In the conclusion of Follow Me, the Reveal team tells of their future plans for research, research including longitudinal studies and comparisons across types of churches.  I assume that they will continue to ask practical, important questions about spiritual growth, and these more powerful research designs will allow them to address these questions with a greater certainty and, presumably, accuracy. 

Future plans sound exciting.  In doing so, pick practical, actionable questions but use the most power methods available.  Good things are in store for the Reveal ministry of Willow Creek, and I’d like to conclude this review as I did my review of the original Reveal:

“I hope that this series has been helpful to the authors and readers of Reveal. In academics, critical attention is a form of flattery indicating that the discussed work —it indicates that one thinks a work is worth consideration. I believe that Reveal will be looked back upon as an important step in the American Christian Church discovering the value of empirical data.”

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Do breakthrough findings exist?

(Part 12 in a series)

 The language used in Reveal and Follow Me to describe their findings is very dramatic—“brutal truth”, “provocative discoveries”, “surprising findings”, “breakthrough discoveries”—and these statements are from the covers alone.

It’s worthwhile, then, to step back and think about the endeavor undertaken by Reveal and Follow Me.  These two books explicitly seek to find what causes Christians to grow spiritually and what the church can do to foster it.  This is a noble goal, but they are certainly not unique in pursuing it.

A variety of other researchers have addressed the same basic questions.  Within the Christian church, The Barna Group and Lifeway Research produce a steady stream of research aimed at improving church life.  There have also been many sociological studies of American congregations.  Andy Rowell summarizes this literature as follows:

“There is a rich literature on sociological study of congregations (Mark Chaves, Nancy Ammerman, Stephen Warner, Scott Thumma, Rodney Stark) available but "secrets" and "solutions" are rarely found there--generally their conclusions explode easy answers. There is no substitute for a wise leadership team who continues to experiment and pray and consult with the congregation on how to see the formation of better and more disciples.”

We can take this thinking one step further when we realize that some of the greatest minds in the past 2,000 years have struggled with these questions.  St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and a bunch of other writers I would know better if I went to seminary have written extensively about spiritual growth.

In short, given the considerable amount of research already done, is it reasonable to expect any one study to make “breakthrough” discoveries?  I would be surprised then, and rather skeptical, if someone claimed to find something authentically new that no one in 20 centuries had come across.  Frankly, I don’t know anymore “breakthrough” or “revolutionary” discoveries exist about spiritual growth.   

The situation is analogous to the literature study of Shakespeare.  For several centuries now people have been studying Shakespeare’s plays, and that means that it’s unlikely that anything truly new (and accurate) can be said about them.  A graduate student entering into the study of Shakespeare probably won’t be making any groundbreaking discoveries.

I am not saying we shouldn’t study the processes of spiritual growth, but rather I suspect that the value of empirical studies in this area will be that of incremental, cumulative gain in knowledge and not the one, big, brand-new finding.  Maybe empirical studies of spiritual growth should test time-honored assumptions about what does and doesn’t produce this growth.  Reveal did this when they tested the effect of church services, and while I’m not sure that I agree with their conclusion, I applaud their addressing this issue.

Next: Summary

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The look and sounds of fall

Here's a picture from my office window taken recently. The camera on my computer isn't great, but if you look closely you'll see several hundred geese floating around. They are on their way south, and this pond is a popular rest stop. They can be so loud as to disrupt meetings, especially with people not used to them. I like it a lot, certainly not something I saw a lot of in the suburbs of Fresno, CA.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Gravestones and phlox (pic)

Well, another picture of a graveyard. This one in spring. I goofed around with the colors, making the whole picture "colorized" except for the creeping phlox that was in bloom (and caught my eye).

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Is academic research of value to the church?

(Part 11 in a series)

Tucked away in an appendix is a brief statement that summarizes the general approach to research taken by the Reveal team in both Reveal and Follow Me.  They write:

“This is ‘applied’ research rather than ‘pure’ research, meaning that its intent is to provide actionable insights for church leaders, not to create social science findings for academic journals” (p. 148).

I would say that they have it half right.

Let’s start with academic journals.  Most academic researchers, who are usually college professors as well, publish their work in academic journals.  These journals are usually published quarterly, and you find them pretty much only in university libraries—never a popular bookstore such as Barnes and Noble or Borders.  The best known journals for the sociology of religion are the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Sociology of Religion, and Review of Religious Research.  Never heard of these?  You’re not alone, and that’s why I’m glad that the Reveal Team isn’t aiming to put their findings into these journals. 

Most academic journal articles have little benefit for the church which is why pastors rarely, if ever, read them.  The key question here, however, is why, and I would propose that academic journal articles pick (sometimes obscure) theoretical and empirical issues that have little to do with the day-to-day workings of the church.  What makes academic research on religion mostly irrelevant for church leaders?  It’s the topics chosen by researchers.  On this count, the Reveal team gets high marks for picking topics that really matter for the church.  What could be more fundamental than learning how people grow spiritually and how to promote this growth.

 Here’s where I think that the Reveal Team has it wrong.  In answering often irrelevant questions, academics use overall very strong research methods.  We academics are constantly harping with each other over how best to do research, and this has produced a reasonably powerful approach to research that is forthcoming about the strengths and weaknesses of any given method.  A sure way to get an academic research article shot down during the review process is to claim more understanding than your methods can actually provide.

 This is where I think the Reveal Team would do well to emulate academic research.  Not in the research questions that we choose but rather in the methods that we use.  For example, do you want to ask questions about how people change over time?  Then use methods that follow them over time. 

In contrast to academic research, Follow Me points to what it calls “actionable insights” as its goals for research—empirical information that church leaders can use to grow and prosper their ministry.  Again, I applaud the Reveal Team for looking to be relevant, but the best “actionable insights” would be those rooted in the best research methods.  A simple correlation drawn from a cross-sectional study is sufficiently ambiguous that it may be of relatively little value for the church.  Put differently, I can imagine few empirical findings that would truly benefit the church that don’t also have a clear, defensible causal assumption, and the best way to demonstrate causality is to carefully use the most powerful research methods available.  No causal understanding?  No actionable insight.

 To be fair to the good folks at Reveal, they are planning to do so, and cross-sectional research is a reasonable place to start such a study—one just has to temper one’s conclusions.  Also, what they are doing probably represents the state-of-the-art in church surveys (as done by the churches themselves).  It doesn’t take much exposure to Willow Creek Church to know that they do lots of things very, very well.  Their leadership conference, for example, has amazing, inspirational speakers.  Their main building in South Barrington is beautifully and thoughtfully designed.  Willow Creek has a passion for excellence, and it’s a good bet that this passion will manifest itself in the work of its Reveal ministry.  I expect that within a decade, if Reveal keeps on going, they will be producing true actionable insights by asking the relevant questions and answering them with the most powerful research methods.

Next: Breakthroughs?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Review of Reveal's Follow Me: The gap between importance and satisfaction

(Part 10 in a series)

Perhaps the most intriguing new idea in Follow Me is the what it terms The Gap. No, this isn’t where you go to work after college if you graduate with a sociology degree. Rather, it’s the difference between what church members think is important for a church to do and how satisfied they are with how their church is doing with it. For example, on page 38, Follow Me reports that 87% of its respondents said it was very important for churches to help them to understand the Bible in depth but only 62% were very satisfied with how their church did this. The difference, 25%, represents a gap.

The assumption here is that this type of gap between what people want and what they are getting represents unmet spiritual need, and churches can help their members grow spiritually if they can meet these needs. This makes sense, and I like the idea of churches being aware of what their members want and how their members access their provision of these wants.

This concept of a gap raises some interesting issues. Sometimes, a church can do well filling these gaps. Other times, however, they might need to create gaps where none exist. For example, say a church had 10% who thought serving the poor was very important and 10% who were very satisfied with their churches performance in this area. There would be no gap here, but the church might still want to devote resources to this issue. Perhaps the first step in doing so is to create a gap, i.e., to convince its members of the importance of an issue. With this example, maybe the hypothetical church should launch a teaching series aimed at having its members think of this issue as more important. This would initially have the effect of creating a gap between importance and satisfaction, but it would pave the way for church members to appreciate and participate in the church’s efforts in this area.

In short, sometimes a church best respondents to an existing gap, as per the logic of Follow Me, and other times it needs to create a gap. Either way, it’s worth knowing both importance and satisfaction measures on various church issues, and Follow Me has done the church a service by demonstrating this.

One caveat, however, in thinking about a gap, and that is that the people who think something is important may not be (and probably are not) those who are also satisfied. For example, say 50% of a church thinks that an issue is important, and 50% are satisfied with what the church is doing. Suppose, also, that the church isn’t doing anything with this particular issue. It might be the case, then, that the 50% who think it’s important are all dissatisfied with the church on this issue, and the 50% who are satisfied don’t think anything should be done and they’re just as glad that nothing is being done. Here’s a case where there is no measured gap, but there is substantial unmet need (or “white space”, as Follow Me calls it).

As such, we should perhaps measure the gap at the individual rather than church level. I.e., we should know how many people both view an issue as important and are satisfied with it as well as how many view something as important and are not satisfied.

There’s one other twist with this concept, for Follow Me uses it in two different ways. In its initial treatment, on page 38, the gap is what I described above—the difference between reported importance and satisfaction with an aspect of the church. Later in the book, however, the concept of a spiritual gap is used differently. It’s the difference between ideal and actual—how many people in a church are actually doing something versus complete participation in it. In a way, this latter conceptualization of the gap might be more powerful, for it has the church 1) defining what it expects of its people and 2) working to get every single person there.

Next: Academic research and the church

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Voting behavior of youth

Here's an interesting article about a study done with the Baylor data. The authors conclude that the color of one's church strongly influences one's voting behavior, especially if the candidates are of different races/ ethnic groups. The data come from a survey conducted during the primary season, and it's interesting to see the advantage that Obama had over Clinton with church-goers.

Here's an excerpt from it:

"One of the most powerful predictors of voting behavior is the color of the church they (voters) came out of,” said Dougherty, who specializes in the study of religion, race and ethnicity. “It’s really a startling thing.”

Baylor survey findings

Religious attitudes of presidential candidate supporters






Are “very religious”32%21%28%35%50%
Attend church weekly30%19%24%41%42%
“Evangelical” describes him/her “very well” 14%5%5%21%16%
Read Bible weekly23%13%25%25%35%
Pray daily49%44%44%59%68%
Believe Bible is literal22%14%17%25%27%
Self-reported atheist4%5%6%3%0%
Is “very certain” he/she is going to heaven30%19%27%24%40%
Note: (n=number of respondents who favored a particular candidate)






“Most evil in the world is caused by the devil”43%33%39%56%61%
“My religious views are often ridiculed by media”30%13%21%33%47%
“Science and religion are incompatible”17%19%20%13%13%
“Gov’t should enforce strict separation of church, state”51%61%57%43%35%
“Success of the U.S. is part of God’s plan”31%23%31%39%57%
Note: (n=number of respondents who favored a particular candidate)

Sociologists and ethnographers have long decried 11 a.m. Sunday as “the most segregated hour of the week” in America, he said. But the Baylor study seems to put teeth into those words, quantifying what the potential impact of such social segregation might be."

Thanks Jim for the link!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Do church services matter? Apparently yes.

(Part 9 in a series)

The most provocative finding of the original Reveal study was that church activities don’t matter in spiritual growth, and, by extension, the Willow Creek model didn’t seem to work as well as advertised. This was the first of six key discoveries by Reveal. “Involvement in church activities does not predict or drive long-term spiritual growth” (p. 33). Reveal tempered this conclusion by suggesting that church activities might have more importance in the early stages of spiritual growth than in the later stages (p. 41). This was confirmation for critics of Willow Creek and consternation for its supporters.

Follow Me tells a different story about church activities as a whole, for it concludes that they matter at every stage of spiritual growth. In fact, it appoints church activities as one of the four main catalysts for spiritual growth. “The church is the most significant organized influence on spiritual growth, so the activities of the church naturally emerge as important catalytic factors” (p. 36). Like Reveal, it suggests that weekend services matter most for those earlier in their walk with Christ. However, small groups, adult education, and additional teaching and worship services significantly matter later in the spiritual continuum (p. 37).

Given the big news that Reveal’s original conclusion made, I wonder if it would have been as widely attended to if it had come to the conclusion of Follow Me.

Also, I’m not sure that Follow Me has correctly interpreted their own data. Consider the chart on page 58. It shows a blue line representing frequency of participation in weekend services as it varies by the four stages of the spiritual continuum. This chart doesn’t give numbers, but eyeballing the data, it appears that about 65% of stage 1 respondents routinely attended weekend services, 85% of stage 2 respondents, 90% of stage 3 respondents, and 95% of stage 4 respondents. So, there’s an increase of 20 percentile points for the first transition, and five for each of the following. This appears to support Follow Me’s conclusion that weekend services matter the most for the first transition.

However, it’s worth pointing out that the numbers here can’t go above 100%, and so perhaps the most useful measure is not percentile points but rather percentage changed. Here’s what I mean. If 35% of stage 1 respondents do not attend services weekly, and only 15% of stage 2 respondents do not, this is a reduction of 57% (i.e., 20/35). Using this more-appropriate measure, weekend service attendance appears to change considerably from stage 3 to stage 4, where it drops from 10% not frequently attending to 5%--a change on the same order as stage 1 to stage 2. Obviously the stage 3 group can not make a 20 percentile point gain, for that take them to 110% (and this isn’t the movie Spinal Tap).

In short, if we accept the causal logic of Follow Me, its own data suggests that weekend service attendance provide substantial movements across stages of the spiritual continuum—much different than the “brutal” and “shocking” discoveries of Reveal. In a way this is anti-climatic, almost as if Follow Me is saying “never mind” about Reveal’s best-known finding.

Next: The gap

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Is the spiritual continuum a useful concept?

(Part 8 in a series)

In my review of Reveal, I wrote at length about the spiritual continuum, and, overall, I suggested that it rated low in both usefulness and accuracy. I won’t repeat my prior writing about it, but I would like to make two points.

In two places, Follow Me states that spiritual growth in not linear, but in reading its explanation of linearity, I’m not sure that Follow Me has it quite right. Page 77 presents a graphical representation of Follow Me’s idea of non-linearity. It shows silhouetted male and female figures walking down the spiritual continuum. Sometimes their beliefs and attitudes propel them forward, sometimes church activities, sometimes spiritual practices, and sometimes spiritual activities with others. In both cases the figures move forward from stage 1 to 2 to 3 to 4. This is still linear growth. I think that Follow Me means is multimodal catalysts—that different inputs matter most at different times in a Christian’s walk. Fair enough.

If in fact there is a multi-stage process in spiritual growth, it’s possible that Christians go back and forth between stages as part of their journey. Sometimes we move forward, but sometimes we return to basic issues and concerns of the faith. Spiritual maturation could be one of two steps forward, one step back.

The other point has to do with the measurement of the spiritual continuum. As I mentioned previously, I took the Follow Me survey as a member of one of its churches. In doing so, I had the chance to study the survey instrument that they used, and as far as I can tell, they create the four-stage spiritual continuum measure from a single question with seven possible answers. I’m not sure how these get translated into a four-stage process, for it certainly isn’t obvious looking at the question itself.

As a courtesy to the Reveal team, I’m not reprinting the question (though I believe that one can reprint excerpts from even copyrighted material as part of a review). I will, however, strongly encourage them to be more explicit about how they create some of their key measures. Survey research works best with full disclosure—informing readers about how you do things and why. This gives readers a chance to more fully understand the analyses.

This isn’t just a Reveal thing, for I’ve noticed that other Christian researchers, such as the Barna Group, are also rather guarded about how they conduct their research. As a result, it’s difficult to gauge the quality of this work.

Next: Do Church services matter?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A photography favor

Could I ask a favor? I'm donating some of my photographs to an art auction for charity, and I have no idea which ones people might like. If you have the time, could you look over my photo collection, and tell me which ones you like best? That would help me to get a sense of which to give.

When I look at them, I only see what's wrong or what I could have done better--I think that I'm too close to them to have a sense of which would sell best.

Thank you!

Birds on a post (pic)

I don't get down to the shore very often, though it's only 40 minutes away. Here is a bird pic from a previous visit. I'm not big into bird photography, but I do like the shapes here.

Friday, November 07, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Which comes first? Spiritual growth or spiritual behaviors and attitudes?

(Part 7 in a series)

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me with Follow Me is its flipping around of the causal story of Reveal. The first discovery reported by Reveal was that progress on a spiritual continuum was a powerful predictor of long-term spiritual growth (pp. 33-37). In other words, the more that people identify Christ as central in their lives, the more likely they to have spiritual behaviors and attitudes reflective of spiritual growth. These include tithing, evangelism, serving, love for God, and love for people.

Spiritual continuum → change in spiritual attitudes and behaviors

In Follow Me, however, the story goes the other way. In presenting possible catalysts for progression along the spiritual continuum, Follow Me lists the first catalyst as spiritual behaviors and attitudes (p. 27, 31-35).

Spiritual attitudes and behaviors → change in spiritual continuum

Taken together, the message of Reveal and Follow Me is that if you want Christians to read the Bible more, you should move them along the spiritual continuum (that is, increase the centrality of Christ in their lives). In order to move them along the spiritual continuum, you should have them read the Bible more. While Follow Me explicitly acknowledges that evangelism can be both a cause and an effect of growing faith (p. 46), the same could be said about every factor examined in the book.

The net result is circular logic that I’m not sure is helpful or practical for church leaders. For example, one of the two “breakthrough” discoveries of Follow Me is that reading the Bible is a powerful catalyst for spiritual growth. Neither the data nor the conceptual models employed by Reveal and Follow Me tell us whether this is true. It could be that spiritual growth results in an increased appetite for reading the Bible, or it could be both, i.e., bidirectional causality.

My guess is that the most helpful model will prove to be one that doesn’t separate spiritual identity, behavior, and attitudes, but rather one that combines them as the desired outcomes. They become different facets of one, underlying concept, and the question then becomes:

? → spiritual growth and spiritual continuum.

Next: Is the spiritual continuum useful?