January 14, 2008
One sociologist says Willow Creek’s research may not be as revealing as we think.
The research conducted by Willow Creek and published last year in the book REVEAL: Where are you? has generated a great deal of conversation on this blog. Some have heralded the findings as conclusive evidence that Willow's popular philosophy of ministry is fatally flawed. Others have applauded Willow for the courage to be transparent about its shortcomings and seek more effective methods of making disciples. While the discussion has been stimulating, most of us lack the credentials to offer anything more than a layman's opinion about REVEAL. But not Bradley Wright. He is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, and has written an 11 part analysis of Willow's study on his blog. Wright has summarized his take on REVEAL below.
When I go to my physician for a check-up, he starts with a series of simple tests - shining a light in my eyes, looking at my throat, listening to my breathing, and so forth. If the results of these don't seem right, he then orders more sophisticated tests, such as blood work, a biopsy, or x-rays. I would hope that he wouldn't cart me off for surgery or chemotherapy based solely on the initial, simple tests.
This illustrates how we might think about the REVEAL study conducted by Willow Creek Community Church. As described in the book REVEAL: Where are you?, this study collected data from about five thousand respondents in seven different churches. Its results have caused quite a stir. Critics point to them as evidence against the Willow Creek model of ministry. In the foreward to the book, Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek, describes the findings as almost "unbearably painful." The findings of REVEAL, he writes, "revolutionized the way I look at the role of the local church." Coming from as successful a pastor as Bill Hybels, this is a powerful statement.
Is such a strong reaction warranted? I would say probably not, and here's why...
The type of survey used by REVEAL has its uses, but it's not well suited for evaluating the effectiveness of a complex institution like a church. It's not that REVEAL's findings are wrong, rather they are highly inconclusive. In fact, if I had to make a judgment, I would interpret the findings as generally supportive of what Willow Creek is already doing.
Technically, REVEAL used a cross-sectional survey with no comparison group and no randomization. This means they surveyed people once during a given period of time - it's like taking a snapshot of a group of people. It's the tongue depressor of survey methodology - a good place to start, but not a very powerful tool. While this type of survey does a good job in describing peoples' characteristics, it doesn't explain them. It describes "what" but doesn't explain "why." Findings from this type of survey are open to multiple interpretations, and the data themselves can't distinguish the correct one. To illustrate, let's consider some of REVEAL's findings.
Involvement in church activities does not predict spiritual growth.
REVEAL finds little correlation between involvement in church activities and what they term "spiritual growth" - behaviors such as tithing, evangelizing, serving others, reading the Bible, and praying. The authors conclude that being involved in church activities does not promote spiritual growth. Another interpretation would be that individuals new to the faith are as equally attracted to church activities as those who are more mature. Perhaps part of spiritual maturity is not volunteering for as many activities in order to concentrate on a few.
Self-reported relationship with God predicts spiritual growth.
REVEAL creates a four-stage progression measuring a person's self-reported relationship with God. They call it the "spiritual continuum," and it includes:
1. Exploring Christianity
2. Growing in Christ
3. Close to Christ
The study finds that progress on this continuum predicts spiritual growth. So, for example, individuals who say they are Christ-centered read the Bible more than those who say they are exploring Christianity. Again, it's hard to know what to make of this finding. Perhaps the causation runs in the reverse direction. Loving God and others (i.e., spiritual growth) may make us feel closer to God (i.e., spiritual continuum). Do we read the Bible because we feel close to God, or do we feel close to God because we read the Bible?
A more sensible approach might be to use both "spiritual continuum" and "spiritual growth" as outcome measures (rather than having one predict the other). That is, churches want people to love God, love others, and have a strong relationship with Christ. The question, then, becomes what increases all of these?
Up to 25% of respondents were spiritually stalled.
In my experience, spiritual growth is not linear. I'm doing well if I go two steps forward for every step back (and often it's the other way around). Feeling "stalled" might just be an inherent part of maturing spiritually - consider recent reports of Mother Theresa's periodic crises of faith. If so, it may not be alarming that a minority of respondents reported this feeling.
In addition, individual feelings of being stalled may reflect a healthy church culture. If a church constantly urges its members to move forward, then some of them, unable to do so at that time, will be frustrated and feel stalled. Perhaps the only churches that have no stalled members are those that have no expectation of growth.
Up to 25% of respondents were dissatisfied with the church.
Is this a high or low number? Many institutions would love to have more than three-quarters of their members satisfied. In addition, churches are voluntary organizations and dissatisfied people can leave at any time. The question then becomes: Why do some stay? Maybe a successful church is one that can hold on to its members during periods of dissatisfaction. The only way to get 100% satisfaction levels may be to drive off those individuals who aren't perfectly happy.
I believe that American churches have a lot to gain by collecting data, and REVEAL represents the current state-of-the-art in church surveys. My guess is that REVEAL will be remembered best for popularizing church surveys more so than for its findings. I look forward to future research by the REVEAL team, but in the meantime I would caution against making too many changes to Willow Creek, or any other church, based solely on the current study.
Read Bradley Wright's complete 11 part analysis of REVEAL at his blog.
After posting Bradley Wright's article we received the following comment from Cathy Parkinson, day-to-day director of REVEAL and co-other of the book:
The timing of this post couldn't be better. We too enjoyed Professor Wright's series of posts (see Ten REVEALing Posts from 2007 on the REVEAL blog) and are in the process of soliciting questions from anyone who wants to understand more about the methodology behind the REVEAL data. In just over a week, we'll be recording a podcast where our two key researchers will explain our process and respond to these questions. We've invited Bradley Wright to join us in the studio to talk through these issues and chances are he will. We are just over half-way through conducting the REVEAL survey in 500 churches and continue to have a strong sense that God's hand is on this work. I address some of Professor Wright's concerns directly in a post on our REVEAL blog. In case you want to check that out.