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?


Jeff L said...

Interesting...hadn't thought about why churches aren't involved with or use research on religion. Wouldn't the reason that most scholarly articles aren't helpful to churches be that most scholars aren't interested in furthering the church or its goals but rather are interested in studying religion from more of a naturalistic standpoint?

Andy Rowell said...

I look forward to diving into all of these posts about Reveal when I am finished reading the book.

Here is one post I wrote today which gives a good example of academic sociological research.

Weekly U.S.A. Church Attendance: The Sociologists Weigh In

On Friday in class, Duke sociology professor Mark Chaves named the exact three journals you mentioned as the top three in sociology of research.

For more general research in sociology he noted:
- American Sociological Review
- American Journal of Sociology
- Social Forces
- American Review of Sociology

Andy Rowell
Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) Student
Duke Divinity School
Durham, North Carolina
Blog: Church Leadership Conversations

Brad Wright said...

That's probably right, Jeff. Most the stuff in academic journals is not that helpful to the practitioner.

Andy, Thanks for the link to your post about church attendance. Mark Chaves is certainly the expert on that!