Fourteen theories of church growth from seven research teams
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Willow Creek's Reveal team begins suggesting principles of top churches

Willow Creek's Reveal research has begun to produce some helpful new findings.  The article "The Open Secrets About Deep Spiritual Growth" by Cally Parkinson, coauthor of Reveal and Follow Me, represents a new direction in the Reveal research.  The article appears May/June issue of Rev! magazine (pp. 48-52)--not available online.

I have been somewhat critical of Willow Creek's Reveal project in the past (See my Willow Creek REVEAL's second book Follow Me tells us very little) because I like Willow Creek and I thought the research and interpretation of the data was being done poorly.  These mistakes were compounded by communication errors: exaggerated claims, multiple spokespeople, and defensiveness. 

But this latest article is in much more solid territory--suggesting that a certain group of churches are better than others with regard to certain criteria and then trying to discern what makes those churches great.  This is the way most studies are done: "Here are what we think are great examples--what do they have in common?"  for example, Jim Collins's Good to Great book or the books I cite in my post Fourteen theories of church growth from seven research teams

Parkinson's article focuses on what the Reveal staff perceive to be some of the common traits among the churches who score in the top 5% in "spiritual vitality score" of the 675 churches they have surveyed.  They do not tell us exactly how they calculate the "spiritual vitality score" but they tell us the factors that this score takes into account. 

(1) faith in action (evangelism, serving), (2) personal spiritual practices (prayer, Bible reading), and (3) the church's role (activities, congregant needs). (p. 51). 

That seems ok with me but if we knew more about these factors and how they are weighed, we might want to quibble with what factors they are emphasizing, how the questions were worded, etc.  We might also wonder whether the "principles" below are actually the factors that make up the "spiritual vitality score" but since we don't know that, we have to move on.  

Parkinson lists four principles that the these top-5%-spiritual-vitality-score churches have in common.

  1. Principle #1: Get People Moving . . . "All top five percent churches offer and heavily promote either membership or newcomer classes, many modeled after the Purpose-Driven-Life [I think they mean Purpose-Driven Church] four-step process" (p. 49).
  2. Principle #2: Embed the Scriptures in Everything . . . "Our top five percent of churches report Bible engagement levels that are 50 percent higher than the database average, inspired by church cultures that embed the Bible in everything--from weekend preaching to personal interactions around the church water cooler . . . Viritually all the top five percent of churches offer either Bible classes during the week or equip their small group leaders to provide Bible-based instruction" (p. 50).
  3. Principle #3: Create Ownership . . . "Evidence of ownership is the extraordinary amount of time congregants dedicate to these churches, as well as the low numbers of stalled and dissatified people in the church congregations" (p. 50). 
  4. Principle #4: Pastor the Local Community . . . "From bussing hundreds of disadvantaged kids to Sunday services, to cooking hot dogs on city streets to break up drug deals, to refurbishing a bankrupt hospital in a needy neighborhood--these churches are the hands and feet of Christ in their communities" (p. 51). 

This also sounds ok to me--given the lack of information.  The Reveal researchers have suggested four factors that seem to correlate with a high "spiritual vitality score."  But as I have shown in my post, Fourteen theories of church growth from seven research teams different researchers can come to very different conclusions about what seems to be the most significant factor in producing certain outcomes even if they are agreed on the outcome--in that case "attendance growth."  The more information Reveal's staff releases about how they come to their conclusions, the happier I am.  Quantitative research in the social sciences is just too difficult to do--we need input from others--often called peer review.

You will be happy to learn that the article names 15 churches that are in the top 5%--giving their name, location, website, senior pastor's name, denomination, suburban/rural/urban designation and weekend adult attendance.  This is wonderful and I will explain why below. 

Still, though 5% X 675 = 34  Thus, the Reveal researchers have only made public 15 of the 34 churches that made it into their top 5%.  There are 19 churches that made it into their top 5% that we don't know about.  But it is still great they told us this much. 

Because they have listed 15 churches that constitute some of the top 5% of the churches they have researched, outside researchers can now begin to make their own conclusions about what these 15 churches have in common that the Reveal researchers perhaps did not notice.  For example, in looking at the results, I am wondering if congregations with enthusiastic worship environments may have contributed to rather enthusiastic survey results.  (For a technical description of enthusiastic church traditions, see chapter 5 Worship, especially p. 147 (Google Books link) of Mark Chaves, Congregations in America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004). If you attend a church that is upbeat all of the time, perhaps you too would tend to respond in an upbeat way about your church on a survey.  But maybe I'm wrong about that.  But the great thing about listing the 15 churches is that I can at least brainstorm what other factors might be causing a high "spiritual vitality score" besides the ones that the Reveal researchers noticed. 

As I always say, I am all for evaluation and surveys, we just need to know it is tricky stuff.  Furthermore, I don't have a dog in this fight--I love churches.  Small and large, seeker-sensitive, emerging, traditional, rural, urban and suburban churches--I am for them.  I'll let Lesslie Newbigin say that in his own way.

The Church is a sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s reign for that ‘place,’ that segment of the total fabric of humanity, for which it is responsible--a sign, instrument and foretaste for that place with its particular culture.[1]


[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (1953) in Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: A Reader (ed. Paul Weston; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2006), 138.

For more on sociology, see my category Sociology.

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