I have had the opportunity to work with a couple of churches that were trying to clarify who they were and what they should do. In both cases, the first thing the pastor said was, “We have done a survey.” This action is not unusual in churches in their situation, but I have found that a written survey is not always the best step to take initially. Here’s why.
First, a survey produces information, but this is often information in a vacuum. Without some preparation and understanding of the context, how does one know what questions to ask? Trained researchers start with a hypothesis, then they determine what questions they will ask.
Second, communication comes first. The first step in dealing with congregational issues should always be verbal communication, usually with a small group or groups that are representative of the congregation. In this interpersonal communication, issues may be identified, needs expressed, and the right questions can begin to be formulated.
Third, writing a survey is not an easy thing to do. Ask any researcher how long it takes to come up with a good instrument. It rarely happens on the first try. Language is tricky and means different things to different people. I may use a word a way that communicates something entirely different to you.
Fourth, a written survey is a conflict avoidance technique. Usually, the most meaningful way to identify the “elephant in the room” (the real issue) is through dialogue. The results of a survey can be used to cut off rather than encourage discussion. Most congregations don’t need a better tool, they need a better conversation.
Fifth, if the church needs hard and fast data, it is often already available. This can be found in church minutes, Sunday school attendance records, and budget figures.
Sixth, a survey can be helpful in some cases, but not as the first step. After the foundation work has been done, the church may turn to a survey to clarify issues and gauge attitudes.
People will often say, “We love who we are as a church.” My question is, “Do you really know who you are as a church?” This type of knowledge will not come from a survey but from conversation. As we talk with each other, we discover our misconceptions and gain new understanding. A survey form, no matter how well done, cannot take the place of honest Christian dialogue.