Take a look at these suggestions for what to observe in your congregation or research setting.

1. Demographics :

  • What is the social composition of those you are observing: their age, sex, race, ethnicity, apparent family composition, and social class?
  • How do ordinary members compare demographically to the clergy? to others within the congregation’s local community?
  • Are there significant minority groups within a larger membership majority? Are there well-defined subgroups spatially isolated from the whole such as parents with babies, teens, or older adults?
  • What is the dress of the participants? Is the membership formally or informally attired? How do they compare to the leadership? Are there special costumes for the clergy? Is there a prescribed “uniform” or articles of clothing for the laity?
  • What can be deduced about their social, moral, and economic commitments based on their attire, the type of vehicles driven, the bumper stickers, and the bike, gun, or ski racks?

2. Physical Setting :

  • What do the church grounds look like? Is the landscaping similar or different than the surrounding community? Is the church visible to passersby? Is there a sign, evident and readable from the road? What is the parking area like? Is it paved, well-kept, lighted, patrolled, and/or marked with special handicapped and visitor parking spaces?
  • Describe the exterior of the building(s). What is the church architecture like? How does it compare to neighboring buildings? Does the building connote anything about what takes place inside? Is the primary entryway clearly marked and evident to visitors? What does the entryway, and greeting foyer imply about the welcoming attitude of the church?
  • Describe the interior of the building(s), the physical space. Is it plain or ornate, well-lit or dark, small or large, traditional or contemporary? Is the building “user-friendly” with ushers, informational signs, handicapped access, and visitors’ stations?
  • What is the arrangement of seating and standing space? Describe the seating, is it theater seats, bequeathed pews, folding chairs? How is the “sacred space” arranged, decorated, and defined off from the other parts of the sanctuary?
  • What are the props and equipment being used or displayed? Describe the altar, chairs, tables, railed areas, pulpit, musical instruments, choir lofts, audio and video devices, and sound system. What explicitly religious icons, symbols, or artifacts are evident, such as bibles, candles, statuaries, scrolls, wall hangings, stained glass windows, murals, baptistry, shrines, hymnals, or prayer books?

3. Description of the Event :

  • What happens in the course of the worship event? What is the format, length in time, number and order of distinct segments such as informal gathering time, announcements, testimonials, prayers, sermons, ritual celebrations, music, and singing? Describe what takes place during these activities, both the roles of the leadership and those of the congregation. Is there considerable bodily movement? Are these activities formal or informal, highly ritualized or seemingly spontaneous?
  • Who participates in each segment of the service: many persons or a few; only leaders or also lay persons; only one demographic group of the membership or a diversity? Does the congregation participate in unison, in groups or individually? What are the interactions like? Are they formal or informal; explained or do they require insider knowledge?
  • How is the event led: by the senior clergy person, by a worship leader, by a written source like a bulletin or prayer book, by unspoken traditions and habits? What programs or worship guides are announced or published?
  • What other events take place at the church throughout the week? Who presides over these? Who attends and participates? What do these say about the concerns of the congregation?

4. Interactional Patterns :

  • Who interacts with whom? Prior to the service what are the gathering places? Is there a subtle segregation by sex, class, race or cliques in these gatherings? Are all equally incorporated into the interactional patterns? Who is left out? Are the membership interactions stiff and formal or casual and informal?
  • Are the congregational members highly focused and engaged in what is taking place or are they minimally involved and easily distracted? Do they follow along in the sacred texts and hymnals and participate in the ritual motions? Are they actively recording sermon and announcement notes or doodling on the bulletin? Are there any members who are asleep, flirting, or disciplining children? During the service do disruptive interactions take place? How are these kept to a minimum? Are there pockets of rebellious or unruly participants and how are they treated?
  • From the interactions within the service can you tell anything about the governing structures or power hierarchy of the church? Who seems to be in charge? Who seems to be respected and honored? Who are those without power? Does congregational authority seem highly concentrated or diffused?
  • What is the nature of interactions following the event? Does the membership have access to the leadership, formally or informally? Is the tone or mood of the membership light, serious, fired up, sleepy, relaxed, or hurried as they leave? Are there other events following the service to encourage lingering or increased participation, such as meetings, lunches, trips, and recreational activities?

5. Verbal and Written Content :

  • Listen carefully to what is being said by the membership in the pews, halls, classrooms, and parking lots. Record jokes and gossip, complaints and grumbling that are shared with you. Do not eavesdrop, however. You have no right to information you overheard, if the speaker did not know you were a researcher or that you were listening. Are there common greetings, “buzz words,” or concerns voiced. Is there a difference between what is said officially and what is heard informally?
  • Read carefully everything that is passed out or is available on racks, tables, or in the pews. What groups or causes are sponsored or supported by the church? What does this literature report about the concerns of the church?
  • Notice the words of the hymns, do members seem to be paying attention to these words? Record the prayers, but also listen for the emotional content. What is being said and why? Are these hymns and prayers addressed to a deity or to each other? Do they evoke a distant or close, warm or cold, formal or familiar relationship with the sacred, or with each other?
  • Carefully pay attention to the words of the preacher and other lay leaders. What is the style, tone, and language of speaking?
  • Has this message changed recently with new pastor, a new contextual situation, or a new ministry direction? Is there a call by the leadership or others to change direction? What future hopes and visions are members offered?

6. Meaning :

  • Rather than just focusing specifically on what is said, pay attention to the meaning conveyed in the message, especially around who they are as a social, moral, and spiritual community. How is their involvement with the world described? Are members instructed to care primarily for their own, for local needs, or for global issues? Are ethical codes and behavioral norms rigid and absolute or flexible and relative? What is the character and content of the theology being espoused?
  • What is the overall message: one of challenge, comfort, criticism, exposition, invigoration? What is the character of the service? How does it seem to relate to the lives of the membership? What does salvation mean to these persons? What implications can you draw about the faith of the members and its role and importance in their everyday lives?