WHO IS BRADLEY WRIGHT?
An associate professor at the University of Connecticut where I study the sociology of Christianity. I am Christian, a husband and father, and someone who adores goofing around. Hobbies include photography, hang gliding, landscaping, and eating ice cream (listed in roughly ascending order of competence).
I would summarize this series on Willow Creek’s Reveal study with four points.
1) Well done. Collecting survey data is a powerful but virtually unused tool in the world of Christian churches. By conducting Reveal, Willow Creek has modeled to other churches the usefulness of church surveys, and given Willow’s influence in American Christendom, I would hope that this message takes hold.
2) Weaknesses. As with any survey, Reveal has its weaknesses. The cross-sectional design of its sample (i.e., a one-time snapshot) limits the conclusions that can be drawn from the data. Also, the authors use of “maximizing predictability,” a technique apparently popular in brand marketing studies, doesn’t fit well with studies of human behavior. Reveal constitutes a good pilot study that should prepare the way for more definitive studies in the future.
3) Overinterpretation of the data. The conclusion draw by the study’s authors, and loudly echoed by critics of Willow Creek, is that the Willow model is flawed. The data presented here are sufficiently ambiguous to make such strong claims. Given the weaknesses of the study design and analytic strategy, it’s possible that the results indicate strong support for the Willow Creek model.
4) Future studies. Simply repeating the Reveal study with hundreds more churches potentially adds very little knowledge. Much better would be a smaller, longitudinal study of, say, a thousand respondents. If many churches are studied, measure characteristics of the churches as a whole as well as of individuals.
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.
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