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Why We Do Research on Churches

I rarely respond to a book review. But, recently I found one that was so well written, and expressed such an important concern, that I decided to respond.

You can read the book review here. To me, it gets at an essential question: Why do we do research?

Because I believe in missiology (after all, that is my Ph.D.), I believe in research. It is not the only thing, but it is an important and often helpful thing.

Missiology is “the conscious, intentional, ongoing reflection on the doing of mission. It includes theory(ies) of mission, the study and teaching of mission, as well as the research, writing, and publication of works regarding mission” (Neely 2000, 633). So, we often do research on how churches are living out the mission.

Here is the response I left about why I think research matters:

Thanks so much for your gracious review, JJ.

I think you did an excellent job reflecting on the book, examining its contents, and sharing your concern. If you will permit me, let me address your primary concern mentioned at the end. It is an issue we consider regularly at LifeWay Research.

We share your desire for clear biblical exegesis on the church. However, we have determined that it is better to not force “proof texts” into a research-based book that is intended to look at what God is doing in His church through research and analysis. We think such an approach leads to eisegesis (i.e. “the data says this and look, here is where the Bible agrees”). We tried to do the same thing with our books such as Lost and Found (by Ed, which Kevin DeYoung reviewed here) and Simple Church (by Thom).

Thus, as you mentioned, we looked to how God was working in churches through data, shared examples of how God was working through the churches we studied, and reflected on scriptural texts when hermeneutically responsible.

So, when you write, “Unfortunately, the book frequently turns our attention to the data and stories from transformational churches rather than taking deep looks into pages of Scripture,” we think you have correctly understood what we did, but perhaps we will not agree on the approach.

We are glad to learn from the data, provoke each other to love and good deeds by sharing how God is at work in churches, and point to the scriptures consistently and appropriately. But, we do not want to force Scripture into a research framework. And, this is a research book on churches, and we reported the results.

For some (though I do not sense that from you), that will make the book of no use. They see the exegesis of scripture as the only way to learn about the church. We see it as first and primary (and have written extensively on the subject), but we also think we can learn from what God is doing through churches that are applying and living those scriptures– hence the focus of our data and examples.

If you would like more of a foundational look at the scriptures and ecclesiology (as opposed to research observations), I would consider Thom’s Vibrant Church (co-authored with Danny Akin). It’s a great book used as a doctrine study in thousands of churches (and you may have picked it up at Together for the Gospel). Or, I write about biblical ecclesiology in two or three of my non-research based books, do so often on my blog, and will in my forthcoming ecclesiology textbook (though that will be a while!).

Thanks again for your review and the chance to interact a bit with it.

God bless,

Ed Stetzer

Be sure to read JJ’s review and then his response to my comment here. I think we would agree on most things.

That being said, what do you think? How is research valuable? How is it overused or abused?

My impression is that it is a great mistake when we do church research without a biblical foundation. However, I believe that research is valuable to see how God is working in churches, to understand people we are seeking to reach, and to discern trends and directions in culture.

What do you think? Feel free to weigh in.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.