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Steps in Document Content Analysis

(Taken and adapted from Handbook for Congregational Studies)

1. Determine which types of documents would be the most valuable for your research question. Would an analysis of sermon transcripts help understand the church or synagogue’s character and identity? Do the financial records adequately describe the congregation’s resources? Can an examination of church photo albums help in uncovering its present dysfunctional relationships?

2. Identify which items can be taken as indicators of the themes and questions you are exploring. Does the way the senior minister is addressed in worship service recordings indicate how she is perceived by the church? Would counting the number of times a lay leader speaks, or is present in front of the congregation define his power in the group? Can you compare records of membership, contributions, and participation in missions to determine the congregation’s level of commitment? Do you need to look or listen for the exact words such as “love” and “family” or will you count when a statement refers to these ideas without using the words explicitly?

3. Decide how you will select the specific documents to be analyzed . Will you look at every record, pamphlet, or newsletter issue? Should you randomly select a number of documents from each month or each year? Would it be best to examine only the committee notes from the groups most involved in the issue at hand? Think about what group of documents will give you a fair picture of the congregation, and be careful not to select in such a way as to skew your results (for instance, analyzing orders of worship only for first Sundays in a church that has communion each first Sunday).

4. Construct a set form, questionnaire, or codebook to record the items you are tracking. If you are looking for items that indicate a congregation’s theology, for instance, you might want to start with a list of the major themes you recall. Then as you read or listen, you can add to your list. Each time you encounter a reference to a given theme, note what was said,what kind of reference it was (Bible verse, story, testimony, etc.), when it occurred (date), in what context (Sunday morning, special occasion, etc.), and other information you think might be relevant. Your form may have a line for each occurrence, with columns for theme, date, type of reference, and the like.

5. Once the form is constructed, do a “test run” of your instrument on a document or tape to see how it works. Does the form allow enough room for your written comments? Have you overlooked putting other key words or ideas on the form? Do you need to be more specific in what you are looking for? For instance, when examining how often a hymn appeared in old worship bulletins , would a simple yes/no checklist of the top 40 favorite hymns identified by the congregation be adequate, or would you want to list every title?

6. After you, or members of the study team, have examined a document, you may want to ask another person to perform the same task and then compare the results for greater accuracy. Have you interpreted certain statements or figures as another person would? Are your criteria for coding and assigning a particular item to one category clear and well-defined so others can duplicate your work? If there are differences, you may need to discuss and revise the criteria of your content analysis.

7. Finally, construct a table of results to summarize your findings. The goal will be to quantify, to count or give a number value, to the occurrences of various events, ideas, or themes related to your research interest. How many references to God’s justice have you counted, for instance, and has that number increased or decreased over time? How many announcements of events for children are contained in the newsletters you analyzed, and did that number change over time? Hints for strategies of analysis are found later in this chapter.


For more suggestions, check out the resources in the Studying Congregations handbook.