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From the Archives: “How to Ask Good Questions”

An important part of any study is having a clear research question. The language of “research question” may seem intimidating for a little investigation about your congregation, but to be able to figure out what is going on in your community, you need to be precise about what you’re actually trying to uncover. But to think about what the research question is, first start with what the problem is.

To begin thinking through your topic to a research question, Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb and Joseph Williams, the authors of The Craft of Research, suggest the following technique:

Finish the statement: “I am studying ____________ because I am trying to find out who/what/where/when/why/how ____________, in order to help my audience understand how _________________________.”

An Example

Often with research on the social world, there are a lot of competing issues and problems intertwined. One major place to look for topics and specific questions is through particular conflicts in your congregation. To understand research topics and questions in terms of congregational conflict let’s start by looking at a problem outlined in Penny Edgell Becker’s book Congregations in Conflict:

More generally, there was widespread dissatisfaction with the pastor’s interpersonal style, which was described as “cold” and “formal.” Some added “uncaring” to the list, while others were more apt to use phrases like, “he’s reserved” or “he’s a very private person.” One person, who supported the pastor throughout, nevertheless conceded that he, ‘makes people feel formal. He is not [pause] relaxed. I mean, I could never go to him for Christian advice or counseling.’ Others reported that ‘it’s hard to talk to him’ or said that he is ‘aloof, not personable.’ The pastor told a very different version of what was going on. He said that the congregation is inward-looking and complacent. Instead of worrying about children’s sermons, he felt they should spend more time talking about issues of peace and justice, especially those close to home, like racial equality in the village or poverty on Chicago’s West Side. He said that he had repeatedly tried to spark more interest in these kinds of issues, but it was frustrating, ‘like beating my head against a brick wall.’ (p. 77-78)

From this brief outline of some of the congregational conflicts plaguing this church, a few things are clear. First, there are obvious communication problems between the laity and the pastor. The pastor’s interpersonal style is misunderstood as being uncaring, while the pastor thinks that the congregation is focused on unimportant matters. There is, at some level, a misunderstanding of what “church” is. The congregants appear to need pastoral care and support, but feel the pastor is unable to provide that. The pastor sees church as a place to advocate for peace and justice issues. Both issues — pastoral care and congregational outreach — are valid understanding of a role of a congregation, but unpacking these understandings may allow this congregation to gain understanding and common ground, creating space for healing.

In our case, we might say the following: “I am studying the what the members of the church community understand the purpose of church to be, because I am trying to figure out where the disagreements within the congregation are coming from, in order to help my audience [the congregation] understand how to overcome those problems.”

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org