Thursday, January 17, 2008

Assessing the Church

A few months ago, Willow Creek conducted a series of surveys to assess how churches were promoting spiritual growth in the congregation. If you would like to read about the results, you can visit the REVEAL blog. Since my research area is essentially focused on how people grow in their faith and since I work with a small business that does church consulting, I consider myself to have some authority on this topic. Although I have thought about the study quite a bit, I really want to focus this discussion on the place of assessment in the church.

There are four main issues related to church assessment: (1) what do we measure? (2) how do we measure? (3) what do we learn? (4) what do we miss?

1) What do we measure? Or, in other words, how do you measure someone's spirituality? Now there will be some who argue that spirituality is a completely personal affair and therefore it is impossible to measure it objectively. But I find this unpersuasive, as spirituality inherently stretches beyond the mystical, and is full of theological beliefs that we either hold to or deny, religious behaviors we either engage in or don't, and phenomenon we either experience or don't. To say that our spirituality is devoid of anything religious is to say something objective about our spirituality.

Next, on this same point, we need to consider what are the important variables inherent to faith. Sometimes we make these decisions based upon theological reasoning. For instance, it makes sense not to study how food preferences are related to religious behavior. And the flipside could be that it makes sense to study how prayer is related to a sense of closeness to God. These are our a priori theological beliefs that can inform us. But additionally, we can simply use trial and error, in a scientific manner, to figure out what variables are important to study. For example, one study may look at 10 different variables related to church attendance and find that only one is significantly related to it. We would therefore decide to further study that variable, since it seems to be important (if our theological beliefs state that church attendance is a good thing).

2) The question of how we measure spirituality is also an important one. Are we to assume that those who rate themselves as a 10 (out of 10) on closeness to God are really closer to God? Should we even use paper and pencil (or nowadays, computers) to assess someone's spirituality? Should we rely on spiritual exemplars to study what factors are important to spirituality? It is easy to generate more and more questions. But the truth is that we need to start somewhere. Face-to-face interviews are time consuming. Using spiritual exemplars risks finding people who have their outsides clean. And of course paper and pencil measures have plenty of problems. The real place to start is by engaging a variety of different methods. We should not limit ourselves to one way of approaching the problem.

3) What do we learn from assessment? Assessment can tell us whatever we want to know. It can tell us if people like the preacher's sermons. It can tell us how people use their faith to deal with problems. The real task is learning to ask the right questions. What is most essential to the life of the church? This means that we must really dig in to the Word, explore our theology, and dialog with people from other denominational and faith backgrounds. Again, the point is to begin the discussion. Willow Creek seems to have been scared prematurely by their findings. If we learn anything from the REVEAL study, it's that we should not shift paradigm's too quickly but we should also not be afraid to admit we have been doing things wrong.

4) What do we miss? By this I meant that we should always be aware that we have blindspots. Assessment is never going to be comprehensive so we should always be willing to take a step back and look at the full picture, as best as we can. No one in the congregation may realize that using multimedia in sermons is affecting them and assessment is unlikely to evaluate this issue, but that doesn't mean it's not an issue, for instance.

REVEAL is the first large scale step towards something that I have become a huge believer in since being in grad school - using assessment to improve our churches. While there are some limitations and problems in REVEAL, it does add a great deal of knowledge and has opened up the Christian culture to the use of assessment. I hope that this trend continues, hopefully without being abused, and allows the church to repent and grow where it needs to.