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Questioning Common Knowledge: Using Research to Strategize

Rachel Held Evans wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post this week about millennials and the church. She argues that millennials don’t really want auditoriums, big screens, contemporary music, and big marketing campaigns. Millennials actually want an authentic worship experience, one that doesn’t appear to be manipulated to be made something that it’s not.

Evans looks at this issue not only from her own and some of her peers’  experiences, but linked to research conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the Barna Group, and the Cornerstone Knowledge Network. And while that’s a clear tactic to give her argument legitimacy, what if congregations looked at existing research in religious trends before making organizational or stylistic changes?

Perhaps your congregation is attempting to reach out to more young adults and young families, and the “common knowledge” is that you should add a contemporary worship service, perhaps in the fellowship hall and not the sanctuary because the sanctuary may intimidate the unchurched. But do those stories hold water? Does your intended audience actually feel the way you assume they feel?

Before you make decisions that can affect the life of your congregation, look into the topics in depth. But research on these issues can be hard to find. You could start with a simple Google search, asking questions like “what do young adults want in a worship service?” Look for articles or posts that base the findings on some sort of research, preferably where the researchers did a national, random sample of individuals. Attempt to find a few examples, and understand the findings and the implications for your faith community.

Another way to answer these questions would be to do your own research. You may want to interview people in your congregation who fit your target demographic, asking what they like about the congregation, and what would make them invite others to the community. You could also draft a short survey, inviting people you may know in the community who aren’t in your congregation about what they are looking for in a religious community.

In this case, Evans would argue that she was looking more for authenticity and tradition than a new worship space with flashy lights and a coffee shop. What other “common knowledge” ideas about new ministries do you have that may not be accurate?

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