Applying Research

Research does not make anyone do anything, however strong may be the recommendations which arise from it. Indeed, much good research sits on shelves and is not used effectively by decision-makers. Enormous quantities of data are collected which are never effectively used. Sometimes, the result is that people look somewhat askance at research and suggest that it has little use, despite the excellent work the researcher has done. Some of the issues are discussed in a paper by Dr Herbert Swanson, director of the Office of History of the Church in Christ in Thailand, who has spent his life seeking to use historical and sociological research in helping local congregations.

For this reason, it is wise to think through the processes of applying the research at the same time as developing the research method. Indeed, it is really part of the same one process. It is often appropriate to involve the decision-makers in the very processes of thinking through the areas of research to be conducted, the development of the hypotheses and the gathering of information. As those processes are owned, the results are more likely to be owned and to be used effectively. Within that context it is important to think through processes of

  • making decisions about what research is to be done and how it is to be done are made
  • communicating the results of research
  • making decisions in the context of the research.

One of the possibilities is to build research into review processes. The questions for research then arise out of the matters to be considered in the review. The research is clearly oriented to the decision-making processes.

There is a place for research which will not be directly used. Some research paints backdrops, changing people’s understanding of the contexts in which they make decisions. The research may not have highly specific applications itself, but in subtle ways changes the ways many things are done. For example, the importance of research about the changing nature of religion in Australia society, about processes of secularisation and the consumerisation of religion, has enormous but very general implications, for it changes the ways in which people see the nature of faith, the functioning of the church and the appropriate patterns of leadership.

Much of the research that is done within the context of writing a thesis falls into this category. It may not determine particular decisions, but it changes the backdrop for much decision-making. It provides new perspectives on the general context in which decisions are made. In such ways, it contributes to making better decisions. While the research may not be directly used, making the research available in an appropriate forms remains important. Some of these issues are discussed in the sections on ‘Writing a Paper’ and ‘Writing a Thesis’.

Other research is well used because it arises out of specific questions facing an individual or a group. For example, a theological college is in the process of developing a mentoring process. It looks at what mentoring processes have been used by other colleges and denominations and what factors made such processes successful or not so successful. The research directly informs the processes that theological college uses in developing the program.

The researcher should always keep in mind the limitations of research in general, and the researcher’s own work in particular. In general, there are necessarily limitations because of the gap between what ‘is’ the case and what ‘ought’ to be the case. Because certain things have been found to be the case does not necessarily imply that anyone should act in a certain way in the future. Because certain programs are well accepted by those who participate, for example, does not mean that those programs should be run again. It may well be that, despite their popularity, the programs were not theologically sound or well developed, for example. Even in the world of television, to take another example from beyond the religious context, the fact that a program is popular does not mean that it is ‘good television’ or even that it is morally helpful, or even correct, to show it. Such issues of theology and application of research are explored more fully in the sections ‘Theological Issues’ and ‘Methods in Practical Theology’ below.

Researchers should never hide from the limitations of their own research. By presenting the true value of their conclusions, and breadth and narrowness of those conclusions, ultimately, the researcher will only earn respect. Little research is as tight as the researchers would like it to be. Usually, the sampling is not as random or as broad in its stratification as one would like. The response rate is far from perfect. There are good reasons for believing that the people who did not respond are a little different from those who did. There are ambiguities in questions and scales only approximately measure complex concepts. The results could be interpreted in a variety of ways.

Research may point in definite directions. It is a vast improvement on hunches and whims. But it is almost never water-tight. Research cannot determine the future, even though it may help in its prediction. The researcher is part of a community and has a role to play within the community. The researcher has listened carefully to what is happening. Through research, certain relationships and convergences may have become apparent. But the researcher must contribute as one member of the community, remembering that others may bring other skills of administration, of theological and ethical sensibility, and of the ability to make things happen. It is through cooperation, as a community, that the ends are best achieved.

The Use of Data in Planning and Review

Among the ways in which empirical research can be used in congregations and church-related organisations, is in the processing of planning and review.

  1. Planning. Data can have a very valuable role in planning – in as far as they can be used to describe the situation. Analysis of relevant data can assist in identifying particular groups of people or particular needs. Again, at more sophisticated levels of analysis, data can be used to understand a situation at depth – beyond the expressed needs. It can be used, for example, to assist in understanding a culture or a group of people, a set of needs or why people think or behave as they do.
  2. Review. Data can provide a check on whether functions have been undertaken and undertaken in appropriate ways … in other words, whether the right things are happening. Occurring at frequent intervals, data can be used to ensure accountability. At a more sophisticated level of usage, they can provide feedback on the appropriateness of particular programs or activities. They can assist in answering the question, does this particular program serve the ends for which it has been designed for the particular group of people we had in mind? Another step in analysis might be to use the data to discover why a particular program or activity is not functioning as well as it might.

Research that is designed to assist in processes of planning or review is more likely to be used effectively by the organisation than if people begin to ask what relevance the research has after the research has been done. However, this means that the processes of planning and review must be clear before the research is conducted and must play a major role in deciding what research is conducted and how it is conducted.

Many organisations gather statistical data from the various sections of the organisation. In many cases, this information is rarely used or poorly used. There is no point in gathering information which is not relevant to these planning or review processes, unless there are specific requirements for data for legal, comparative or accountability purposes. The processes of planning and review should structure the research and the gathering of information rather than the other way round.

General Ministry Reviews

In relation to on-going ministry structures such as congregations and district organisations such as dioceses, presbyteries and synods, reviews generally best happen

  • annually
  • at critical points in the life of a group such as when leadership changes
  • in relation to building longer-term (eg 5 year) strategic plans.

At these points in time, it is good for the structure to review performance, to address areas of weakness, to build on strengths, and to plan for addressing future issues.

The data should not control these reviews, but be a major resource for those reviews. Leadership which empowers is responsive to needs and interests of people and the data may provide insights into those needs and interests. Empowering leadership keeps in mind the overall aims and goals of the organisation, but is able to apply them to particular situations. There are always many ways of achieving particular goals. Effective leadership not only provides a sense of vision, but also identifies the paths to achieving such visions. Data can be used to measure the effectiveness of certain paths in achieving goals. It will identify the individual steps that need to be achieved and will engage people and other resources in taking those steps.

Numbers voluntarily attending activities or events is an indication that those activities and events are meeting some needs or interests. However, in themselves, numbers of attenders are insufficient to indicate that effective ministry is occurring. Are people coming because the activities are entertaining, because they have nothing better to do, out of loyalty to the organisation, or because they feel that these activities are assisting them in their spiritual lives? Qualitative data about whether people feel that, through this form of ministry, they are closer to God, for example, adds significantly to the picture.

The goals in ministry should not be determined by descriptive data, quantitative or qualitative, but should arise out of theological commitments. For example, the Salvation Army (Southern Territory) has developed a Strategic Planner which appropriately describes the theological goals of ministry based on Biblical imperatives. Statistical data can be used to provide some measures of the context in which the goals are to be achieved, and thus contribute to directions in planning for achieving those goals. For example, if the goal is the alleviation of human need, data may be used to identify and locate specific areas of human need. Further, data can be used in measuring performance in achieving goals, for example, whether particular needs have been alleviated. In this way, the examination of data may lead to changes in the ways an organisation seeks to achieve its goals, or the resources and energy brought to the processes of achieving the goals.

Census or Sample?

Data gathered from every person and every event is the most accurate. Some congregations, for example, gather information about the numbers attending at every service of worship or every group meeting. In most cases, that level of accuracy is not necessary for a review process. Indeed, such collection of data can be misleading, as numbers attending can be substituted for quality of ministry. Further, collecting accurate data from everyone to provide total accuracy can become very difficult. It is easy for systematic biases to develop in such data.

For most purposes, sample data, collected at some times but not others, provides sufficient accuracy for review process and is far less onerous to collect. It will be important that the sample be large enough. For example, attendance at the meetings in one week of the year may not give a good sense of overall attendance as there may be special considerations for that week. But gathering attendance for every week for a month may be adequate. The month would need to be chosen carefully, that there were no systematic biases built in, such as school holidays or special celebrations. Ideally, four separate weeks during the year than all events in a month may give slightly higher accuracy, but would be harder to organise. This is the method used by the Catholic Church, for example, for its ‘mass counts’.

Five Year Strategic Planning and Review

A good period for conducting major reviews and developing long-term plans is five years. At this time, strategic planning and review may draw on a wide range of information and data. It may also be a good time to seek external assistance from other organisations which can facilitate reviews or assist in providing information. At this time, step by step objectives should be identified which should measurable as to what is desired to achieve.

There are several reasons for suggesting major strategic planning and review sessions be conducted each five years:

  1. Any major changes in direction will take some time to implement and if assessments occur too quickly after such changes, these may be misleading. In other words, it is important to give programs or activities time to produce results.
  2. Each five years, Census data is gathered and the NCLS undertakes their surveys. These provide a wealth of in-depth information which cannot be easily gathered in other ways to be used in strategic planning and review.
  3. Too much time can be spent undertaking planning rather than carrying out the work. Planning, reviews and data collection should take place in order to assist efficient and effective ministry and should not impede ministry.

In the general review process of a congregation, for example, the National Population Census data can be used to examine

  • the changes in the nature of the community – changes in age, socio-economic levels, numbers of immigrants, special community needs, plus other social indicators such as family type;
  • relationships between the local community and the church community – thus is the congregation may check whether it is connecting with the various sectors of the community and which are the sectors of the community that the congregation might address in developing new programs?
  • some indicators as to whether the programs and activities of the congregation are achieving their desired aims in terms of the transformation of people and society. (For example, if a church was seeking to address unemployment or levels of poverty in a particular area, one might hope that results would be apparent in Census results.)

National Population Census data can provide information of relevance to alleviating human need, targeting social action and leading people into Christian faith through:

  • details of socio-economic levels;
  • identification of groups with special needs such as migrants who do not speak English, aged people living alone, single parent families, unemployed, etc.;
  • numbers of people who identify with the Salvation Army and other Christian denominations (including people who identify but may not be attending);
  • age groups in the community.

The very detailed nature of Census data, available for small areas of the population, and the possibility of some useful cross-tabulations such as numbers identifying with the particular religious denomination by age, make it particularly useful for planning some forms of ministry within specific local areas.

The National Church Life Survey (NCLS) data can provide detailed accounts of the local congregation in relation to a range of strategic objectives in which a congregation might be interested. For example, the National Church Life Survey provides data on attenders perspectives related to:

  • The sense of belonging
  • Involvement in congregational groups
  • Leading people into Christian faith
  • Involvement in the community
  • Deepening Christian faith and understanding
  • Developing leadership.

The NCLS information is sparse in relation to involvement in social justice and in involvement in community life. Congregations should consider carefully what are the aspects of its life that it wants to review rather than being driven by the data available. This issue is even more important in relation to the data gathered by and fed back to congregations by the Natural Church Development processes. Congregations should be aware of the strong theological orientations that are built into the questions that the Natural Church Development questionnaires ask and the fact that there is almost nothing which relates to the church’s mission in the wider community apart from seeking to bring people into the church. Churches should also be wary of the fact that the information is gathered from only a small group within the congregation, and will not represent the feelings and opinions of the church community as a whole.

It is important that congregations examine the ‘spread’ in relation to indicators. It may well be that people in the core of the church’s life are being well served, but the needs of those on the fringe are not being addressed at all. It may be that the Christian education programs are most suitable for older people, but are irrelevant to younger people.

While the NCLS data provides very detailed information about attender perspectives, it does not provide information about the structures, activities and programs that each congregation has in place. Information about these must also be gathered independently from the NCLS or from the Natural Church Development survey for the purposes of review and planning. An additional small survey could be developed for use on a five yearly basis to accompany the National Church Life Survey.

Annual Reviews

In addition, there is a need for an annual review to check whether the various levels of the congregation or organisation are ‘on track’ in relation to the strategic plans. Thus, some performance indicators will need to be gathered on an annual basis to check progress, to help refine methods of achieving ends, of checking whether needs, interests, or resources are changing. Most annual data will need to be gathered by the organisation itself.

Specific Programs or Activities

Specific programs or activities which are initiated by a congregation, denomination or other organisation should have built-in processes for evaluation in order to check whether they are achieving the desired goals in an efficient and effective manner.

It is desirable, but not always possible, to gather ‘baseline’ data on the situation prior to specific program or activity. It is often possible to gather some feedback from participants or those impacted by the program or activity on the processes and outcomes. For the perspectives of empirical analysis, it is desirable to have a ‘control group’ which is similar in demographic characteristics to those involved in the activity or program but does not undertake it, which can provide a basis for comparison.

For example, supposing a program was being initiated which involved developing support groups for unemployed young people with the aims that it would assist in raising self-esteem, would provide peer support, would develop networks and contribute to numbers finding work. A process of evaluation would include:

  1. A survey given to a range of unemployed people – including those about to start the program and some who were not, but were of similar age, gender and had similar background experiences and levels of education, which would measure levels of self-esteem, current peer group involvements and networks of contacts and would note, for the purposes of control, the length of time without employment.
  2. A simple survey may be given to those involved in the unemployed support group scheme about their experiences of the group.
  3. After six months, or whatever time frame was deemed appropriate for assessment, a similar survey to the first would be given to all who first responded to the survey – both those who were involved in the support networks and those not involved – which would again measure levels of self-esteem, current peer group involvements and networks of contacts and whether they had found work.

The success of the program would be measured by statistical differences in the results of the surveys prior to and following involvement in the program, and between the control group and the group which participated. In assessing efficiency and effectiveness, these results would be considered alongside the costs in time and money of running the program, and the willingness of people to be involved and their appreciation of the process.

Such a process would be just as desirable for a new Christian Education program or a children’s program. For programs which are developed to appeal to members of the wider community, it is not always possible to take measures of a control group. However, it is often possible to have some specific measures of ‘before’ and ‘after’ as well as gathering some feedback about how much people appreciated the program or activity.

It should be noted that any research of this kind, beyond gathering a little feedback from people involved in the processes, should be carefully and ethically done. In ethical terms, it means putting research methods and survey forms before an ethics committee such as the one established by the Christian Research Association in conjunction with Inter-Church Trade and Industry Mission. It means getting permission from parents if dependent children below the age of 15 are to complete a questionnaire or take part in an interview.

Other Research Projects

It should be noted that research can contribute to many other planning processes within an organisation. In planting churches, for example, Census data can be used to identifying where a group of people identifying with a particular denomination might be found in an area not close to an existing congregation who might provide a foundation for a new congregation. In looking at effective forms of ministry, research can provide clues by looking at existing patterns, seeking information from people about their opinions and attitudes to specific possibilities.

Much research provides a general backdrop against which decisions are made. For example, the Christian Research Association is embarking on a major study of Youth Spirituality which will provide a picture of young people and their attitudes to spiritual issues. The research is not orientated to any particular programs or activities, but will paint a general picture in relation to which various ideas for programs and activities may be developed.

Other research may be oriented to specific needs, seeking to discover why particular needs have arisen and what are the underlying causes. For example, NCLS and CRA research has found that many people say they are ‘bored’ by church worship and give that a reason for not attending. More research is needed to discover what people mean by this, what they are looking for in worship, and how they find worship relates to them.

Careful research can contribute in many ways to strategic activities and programs which are effective in achieving mission goals.

Research and Theology

For those who are conducting empirical research in the context of church life and ministry, the application of research raises the issues of how research and theology relate to each other. While this issue was canvassed in the sections on ‘why do theology’, it is appropriate to return to it. The application of empirical research will be worked out in relation to theology.

Empirical studies can provide an accurate description of who people are, the people to whom the church attempts to minister or communicate. It can provide an accurate description of what people think, their attitudes and values. Empirical studies can help people understand the culture in which a church is situated and the sub-cultures in which it works. In this article, we will consider the relationship between empirical study and theology. I am using ‘theology’ in a broad sense for the attempt to think as clearly and coherently as possible about the nature of Christian faith and how people should live as Christians, both individually and collectively.

Philosophers have long insisted that there is a logical gap between what ‘is’ the case and what ‘ought’ to be the case. One can never move simply from what ‘is’ to what ‘ought to be’. In other words, a description of a person’s situation can never logically provide the answers to the question who that person should respond to that situation.

For example, there are many responses a person might make in a situation of poverty. One may say that that is God’s will, and therefore should simply be accepted. Or one may say that poverty provides the challenge for doing all one can to improve the situation. Another person may argue that it is a responsibility for society. The fact of poverty challenges the society to work for social change. These responses may reflect different views about the nature of the world and about basic values for life and society.

The acceptance of poverty may arise out of a theology which says that all states of affairs are divinely appointed, and should be accepted as such. A very different theological perspective says that each person is given certain gifts and opportunities and must make every effort to use them to create a better life for themselves. Another theological perspective argues that it is the human responsibility seeks social justice for the good of all people.

These theological perspectives appear quite distinct from the situations about which they make comment. They arise, not out of those situations, but out broader theological approaches to life and society.

Many people argue, then, that empirical study can have no impact on theology. Rather, theology has an impact on how one deals with the empirical situation. Some see theology emerging from Biblical sources. They look for the theological principles which they apply to life in the Biblical writings. Or they look for them in the traditions or authority structures of the church. Reason has its own part to play in the working out of theological statements, in developing them in a consistent and coherent way. However, it would appear that all of that can be done apart from any empirical study.

Within this approach to theology, empirical study is important in the application of the theological principles. If the theological imperative involves caring for the poor, then the empirical study is important in identifying who the poor are, what are the most pressing needs that arise out of the poverty, and what methods can be used to assist them.

Empirical studies are frequently used in this way. Denominations use the empirical data provided by the census in order to determine where to place new churches, or to decide what sorts of ministry should be developed in a given area. A frequently assumed theological principle is that the Church has the responsibility to minister to all people. The empirical question is where people are and what sorts of ministry are appropriate.

However, empirical studies may also assist in the framing of the theological principles themselves. When a theological principle refers to ‘poverty’, for example, it is referring to a state of affairs, or at least to an abstraction from a range of empirical data. ‘Poverty’ may refer to the fact that the person cannot pay for food in the shops or the bill for electricity, for example.

A closer examination of the nature of poverty may show that it has to do with the nature of the social structures in which the person lives. For people living in a capital city in Australia, poverty may mean that they are not able to afford to rent a house. Part of the reason for this is the limited types of housing available as determined by planning permits and other laws. In a village in Asia, poverty takes different forms. In some places, houses can be built from materials available in public areas, but obtaining clean water for drinking is a more pressing problem.

In Australia, poverty should be considered in relation to the burdens of taxation and the benefits available through social services. In some places, poverty has a lot to do with local landowners and the controls they have over those who work on the land. In most modern societies, poverty is related to education and opportunities for employment. It may also be related to problems of issues of health and incapacity to work.

As empirical studies describe the nature and causes of poverty, they also define something of the very meaning of the word within a given situation. Thus, ‘poverty’ may be defined as a personal situation, or as a characteristic of a part of a social structure. A theology of poverty must consider carefully the empirical situation in as far as it involves some definition of what poverty is.

While there remains a logical gap in moving from ‘is’ the case to what ‘ought to be’ the case, neither can be described without reference to the empirical situation. What ‘ought to be’ the case is not determined by the empirical situation, but cannot be described without reference to it. Empirical studies provide the context in which both the formation and the application of theological ideas and principles take place.

Another way in which empirical studies may impact on theology is through the definition of the theological issues. My first pastoral appointment was a small church in the inner city in the mid 70s. As I reflected on ministry there, I was sure that the church had to change to meet the culture at some points. It seemed to me that the ‘culture’ of the church and the ‘culture’ of most of the people living in the neighbourhood were quite different. The church was failing to communicate with people because it was not speaking the right language. For example, it spoke about salvation, justification and sanctification. The people around were concerned about having a good life, but did not understand the church’s language as having any meaning or relevance for them.

At the same time, I was concerned that if the church took on the surrounding culture it would have nothing to say. In order to be the church, the church had to define itself over against the culture, pointing to its calling to be ‘the people of God’.

However, I decided that, in order to provide a stimulus for thinking about this problem, I would undertake an empirical study of what had happened when the Christian faith had entered a new culture. I would examine in what ways the Christian faith had been re-expressed in the context of the new culture, and how the faith had been defined over against the culture. I spent three years in northern Thailand looking at the dynamics of Christianity and culture using the tools of historical, anthropological and sociological study, and reflecting theologically on the results.

The empirical study showed that there were some important dynamics in the situation that I had not previously considered. Part of the problem was that, superficially, it seemed that the Christian faith had been expressed in the Thai context complete with the Western culture in which the Christian missionaries had packaged it. The Thai churches sang mainly Western hymns translated into the Thai language. Most of their churches reflected Western architecture. The ministers wore Western style preaching-robes. While the language of worship was Thai, many new words had been introduced. In general, words which had Buddhist overtones had been avoided.

However, when one examined the ways in which Christians understood the nature of faith, they reflected the patterns of Thai culture. Underlying most of the Christian sermons was the theme which was dominant in the ethics of Thai culture ‘do good, receive good; do evil, receive evil’. The messages of Christian pastors were, in fact, very similar to those of the Buddhist monks.

A survey of matched groups of Buddhist and Christian students showed that the values which the Christians held important were almost identical to those chosen by the Buddhists.

When Christianity entered Thailand it led to the formation of a group of people with a very distinct social identity. Many of the people who had become Christians had, in fact, been rejected socially, either because of leprosy or for some other reason. These people expressed their new identity through appearing very different from their Buddhist neighbours in the forms of their religious observance, the institutions with which they associated and the language they used. However, the impact on their actual values and they way religion operated for them was small.

A comparative study of the values of church-goers and non-church-goers in Australia arising out of the Australian Values Study Survey in 1983 indicated that here, too, the values of church-goers were often not very different from non-church-goers in most everyday aspects of life. The article on ‘consequences’ reaches some similar conclusions.

The theological problem of Christianity and culture had to take into account the fact that often Christians have taken on a new social identity without taking on a new set of values or attitudes about the world. Theologically, one must ask whether this is what should happen. Should the Christian faith give people primarily a new social and theological identity? Should it also give them a ‘new culture’? And, if so, in what ways should that culture be distinctively Christian?

The empirical study did not and could not, in itself, solve those theological problems. However, it re-drew the issues and dynamics of the problems themselves. It led to a change in the framing of some of those problems.

Theology which does not take into account empirical study of the nature of people, society, and the world, is in constant danger of being irrelevant. It may ask the wrong questions, and it therefore may provide the wrong answers. Thus, in much theological writing, one would expect to find reference to empirical research about the world, about society and people. The empirical references would not be seen as determining the response to the issues, but as describing the issues to which theology was responding.

At the same time, empirical researchers must consider the theological questions and contexts when applying their research to church life, society or the life of individuals. The empirical researcher cannot draw conclusions about what ‘ought’ to be the case apart from ethical and theological considerations. The very way that an empirical researcher writes conclusions often implies that this or that ought to be done. At this point, the theological assumptions and underlying theological propositions should be made plain.

Another important way in which theology and empirical studies may interact is in the examination of the consequences of a theological position. Some ethical theories point to the importance of examining the consequences of a particular ethical proposition as a major part of the process of evaluating that proposition. For example, R.M. Hare, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford argued in his book The Language of Morals that one could evaluate many ethical statements by universalising them. One criterion that all ethical principles must subscribe to is that they can be logically, coherently and consistently applied to all people.

In the highlands of New Guinea, as in some other places in the world, it has been a common practice to re-marry widows to younger men. It is a social way of ensuring that widows are not left without support and care, particularly in old age. Missionaries who opposed polygamy have found themselves with a major social problem: what to do with the widows. They had not realised the consequences of enforcing monogamy in that many elderly women were left without any social support. Realisation of the empirical consequences of a theological position can sometimes lead to the re-evaluation of the theological position, or, at least, a reapplication of it.

Empirical studies cannot provide theological answers. But they provide an appropriate context in which meaningful and relevant theology can be done, both in terms of framing the questions, thinking through the basic issues of faith, and in applying the principles of theology to life situations. This is true at the deepest levels of academic theology, at the level of the Sunday sermon, and as individuals struggle to relate faith to the dynamics of everyday life.

Karl Barth is supposed to have said that one must do theology with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. I am dubious about the newspaper. For many purposes, there are other, better sources of information about the world in which we live. However, the point remains, an accurate picture of the world will provide a better basis for theological thinking.


The Whiteheads: sources and process in practical theology

James & Evelyn White head’s book Method in Ministry: theological reflection and Christian ministry, New York, Seabury, 1980 was a foundational attempt to bring the contemporary discussions of theological method among systematic theologians into the province of practical ministry. Their aim was to elucidate a model and method sufficiently rigorous to take seriously the concerns of the systematicians, yet flexible and direct enough to be used in reflection upon everyday ministry encounters.

Their model proposes three sources:

  • Christian tradition
  • Personal experience
  • Cultural information

The method involves:

Attending seeking out the information on a particular pastoral concern that is available in personal experience, Christian tradition, and cultural sources. Assertion engaging the information from these three sources in a process of mutual clarification and challenge in order to expand and deepen religious insight. Decision moving from insight through decision to pastoral action.

This process engages each of the three sources in particular ways:

The Tradition

Scripture provides paradigms for pastoral reflection, insight and action. The stance to be taken in attending to Scripture is one of befriending, not mastery, moving between participation in faith in the biblical writings and an informed critical understanding of them. In assertion, the question of discernment becomes important as we seek to select the aspects of our tradition which are relevant to the contemporary situation. In reaching decision, it is important to be aware of ways in which a particular text has been used in the history of the church and of this community.


Three components are distinguished –

  • experience which is common to a culture
  • experience particular to an individual or a specific community
  • Christian experience which both links with and contributes to shaping tradition.

Experience is a vital component of theological reflection, introducing elements of ambiguity, struggle, incoherence, passion, alienation, joy, . . . It is as much oriented toward action as toward insight. Access to experience raises some significant issues for doing theology.


It is only by dealing with culture as an explicit factor in theological reflection in ministry that the community of faith is in a position to recognize and overcome the negative effects of culture and to harness and use its complementary forces. It is also only when alert to the voices of the age as they sound in the culture that the community can hear the call to judgement that can arise in the culture as it challenges the church to be aware of how its structure has drifted away from the gospel norm or how its practice is less reflective and more superficial than it should be. (Whitehead & Whitehead 1980: 70)

Three stances can be found in Christian tradition:

  • Tradition challenges the culture
  • Tradition is challenged by the culture
  • Tradition uses the resources of culture in pursuing its own religious mission

The third stance is that employed in this model; but the other stances are equally legitimate or appropriate within the tradition. Four sources from which cultural information may be sought:

  • philosophy
  • political interpretation
  • social sciences
  • other religious traditions

The contribution of the social sciences – and presumably of other cultural sources as well – is at three levels: the provision of intellectual perspective; the defining and clarifications of categories; and the actual methods and findings of the discipline concerned.

Taking the Whiteheads’ model as a basic paradigm for theological reflection upon practice, research methodologies connect with theological reflection methodologies primarily in the way we attend to the resources of experience, culture, and Christian tradition.

Research methods offer intentional and systematic approaches to representing experience and to accessing the data of contemporary culture and Christian tradition. Theological reflection organises the conversation between these bodies of knowledge. Obviously the character of the reflection depends upon the rules of the conversation and the nature of the contribution made by each participant.

If we begin with experiences, the themes that emerge will suggest the strands of culture and Christian tradition with which to engage. Attention needs to be paid both to the cultures that have shaped the representations of experience and the cultures that have shaped the Christian traditions upon which we draw. This in turn asks of researchers a capacity to appreciate the differences between cultures and between strands of Christian tradition. Such capacity is enhanced if researchers participate in more than one (sub-) culture of church and society.

Attempting to set up dialogue between representations of experience and formal religious and cultural resources soon acquaints us with the unhelpfulness of “value free” or “objective” writing, and of the incommensurate ways in which many disciplines present their findings.

Rules of conversation

Using the metaphor of conversation for the theological reflection process may be helpful both in assessing our own work and analysing others’. Who has been invited into the conversation? Who might have been invited but didn’t receive an invitation? Who starts the conversation? Who speaks to whom and under what conditions? Who seems to have the loudest voice or experience the least interruptions? Who has the last word?

For example, in some pastoral ministry literature the major participants are ministers’ experiences, psychology, and business organisational models. (Sometimes it’s the latters’ elderly relations who attend rather than the bright young things who liven up conversations in the “secular” world.) Christian tradition moves in and out of the conversation, but usually makes affirmative comments that support the assertions of the major players. Seldom does tradition venture a critical remark or an alternative opinion. The experience of clients (“people in the pews”) is notable by its absence, as are cultural studies and sociology (except that occasional demographic data are invoked). Pragmatic ministerial concerns (“successful leadership”) seem to have the loudest and last voice.

Ideally a reflection process will incorporate a range of learning skills. Kolb’s learning process is one example of this. A cognate example is the suggestion that a decision-making or research process should draw upon all four Jungian functions of personality (Sensing -> iNtuition -> Thinking -> Feeling), involving both focused and global forms of attending and both rational and a-rational forms of evaluating.

Such a suggestion reinforces the assertion that theology should be done in community, for no individual is skilled in the use of all four functions. A learning community may be realised in a number of ways. One is to select a varied group of co-researchers. Another is to work with a supervisor who has skills that complement, rather than coincide with, your own. Yet another is to be intentional about drawing upon the differing contributions available in published literatures.

Poling & Miller: styles and steps in practical theology

James Poling and Donald E Miller (1985) aim to develop a theory and method for a unifying practical theology, which they see as having been replaced in our contemporary situation by a set of practical ministerial disciplines. The central image in their formulation is ministry as community formation; a more inclusive image they suggest than either discipleship or servanthood.

They identify a series of six types of practical theology emerging from the intersection of two axes or dimensions in practical theological thought. One axis denotes the type of critical method used in bringing together Christian tradition and contemporary culture; the other indicates the nature of the relationship between church and society.

Along the axis of critical method they distinguish three basic positions:

  1. Critical scientific method: a secular discipline provides the framework and norms for practical theology, and tradition plays a secondary role.
  2. Critical correlation method: aiming at essentially equal dialogue between tradition and secular disciplinary partners.
  3. Critical confessional method: tradition has priority, and secular sciences are used cautiously within this confessional framework.

On the intersecting axis of church and society two poles are distinguished:

  1. The locus of praxis is the Christian community in its struggle to be faithful in the modern world.
  2. The locus of praxis is the secular society which the church endeavours to transform.

The intersection of these axes identifies six types of practical theology; recognising that the boundaries between the criteria – especially along the church and society axis – are rather ill-defined.

Type 1A
Practical theology can take the form of a critical science whose purpose is the formation of society

Type 1B
Practical theology can take the form of a critical science whose purpose is the formation of the church

Type 2A
Practical theology can take the form of a critical correlation of the Christian tradition and contemporary philosophy and science in its concern for the formation of society

Type 2B
Practical theology can take the form of a critical correlation which focuses primarily upon the formation of the church as a community of faith

Type 3A
Practical theology can take the form of critical confession focused primarily upon the church’s vision for society at large

Type 3B
Practical theology can take the form of a critical confession centred upon the practice of a specific missioning community

Examples of each type:

1A Beed, C. (1981) Melbourne’s Development and Planning. Melbourne: Clewara Press.

1B Dudley, C. (1978) Making the Small Church Effective. Nashville: Abingdon.; Worley, R. (1983) A Gathering of Strangers: understanding the life of your church. Philadelphia: Westminster.

2A Browning, D. (1987) Religious Thought and the Modern Psychologies: a critical conversation in the theology of culture. Philadelphia: Fortress.

2B Fowler, J. (1987) Faith Development and Pastoral Care. Philadelphia: Fortress.

3A Yoder, J. (1972) The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

3B Thurneysen, E. (1962) A Theology of Pastoral Care. Richmond: John Knox.

An understanding of and method for practical theology

Practical theology is critical and constructive reflection within a living community about human experience and interaction, involving a correlation of the Christian story and other perspectives, leading to an interpretation of meaning and value, and resulting in everyday guidelines and skills for the formation of persons and communities.

(Poling’s subsequent work emphasises the role of practical theology in hearing and responding to the voice of marginalized communities.)

Utilising this definition and empirical principles, a six-stage method is proposed:

  1. Description of lived experience
  2. Critical awareness of perspectives and interests
  3. Correlation of perspectives from culture and the Christian tradition
  4. Interpretation of meaning and value
  5. Critique of interpretation
  6. Guidelines and specific plans for a particular community

Thus the focus of the method is upon community formation, according to a particular understanding:
Loving community is a process of interaction within a historical and socio-political context which moves toward creativity, justice, intimacy, and faith (p. 129)

The concept of community formation may provide a larger image of ministry which reveals the proper role of our various contemporary specialties; serving the formation of Christian community in its mission in the world.

Michael Taylor: a congregational context for practical theology

Taylor (1983) offers a detailed theological reflection process. He summarizes this further in a WCC paper (Taylor 1986) as:

  1. commitment to practice
  2. constant confession of faith
  3. attention paid to Jesus
  4. openness to the common wealth of Christianity
  5. exposure to what the world is really like
  6. conversation between the five preceding elements

Three ongoing congregational disciplines support this process:

  1. making and telling a good story of congregational life
  2. filling out and reflecting upon a picture of Jesus
  3. building and refining a pastoral theology

Taylor discusses how these processes and disciplines might be nurtured in a congregation which meets together weekly for worship; fortnightly in small fellowship groups which focus attention on Christian practice both as a group and as individual Christians in the everyday world; and bimonthly in a congregational meeting which oversees the life of the whole congregation, reflecting upon the reports, requests and proposals of the fellowship groups, and making available resources individuals or groups cannot provide for themselves.


Method in practical theology

Ballard. P. (ed) (1986) The foundations of pastoral studies and practical theology. Cardiff: The Board of Studies for Pastoral Studies, University College.
Ballard, P. & Pritchard, J. (1996) Practical theology in action: Christian thinking in the service of church and society. London: SPCK.
Deeks, D. (1987) Pastoral theology: an inquiry. London: Epworth.
Duffy, R. (1983) A Roman Catholic theology of pastoral care. Philadelphia: Fortress
Pattison, S. & Woodward, J. (1994) A vision of pastoral theology. Edinburgh: Contact.
Poling, J. & Miller, D. (1985) Foundations for a practical theology of ministry. Nashville: Abingdon.
Reader, J. (1994) Local theology: church and community in dialogue. London: SPCK.
Schreiter, R. (1985) Constructing local theologies. London: SCM.
Taylor, M. (1983) Learning to care: Christian reflection on pastoral practice. London: SPCK.
Taylor, M. (1986) “People at work”, in S. Armirtham & J. Pobee (eds.). Theology by the people: reflections on doing theology in community. Geneva: WCC, pp 116-129.
Whitehead, E. & Whitehead, J. (1980) Method in ministry: theological reflection and Christian ministry. New York: Seabury. (Revised edition 1996).

Theological reflection

Collins, R. (1984) Models of theological reflection. Lanham: University Press of America.
Darragh, N. (1995) Doing theology ourselves: a guide to research and action. Auckland: Accent.
Killen, P. & de Beer, J. (1995) The art of theological reflection. New York: Crossroad.


Browning, D. (ed) (1983) Practical theology. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Forrester, D. (ed) (1990) Theology and practice. London: Epworth.
Glaz, M. & Moessner, J. (eds) (1991) Women in travail and transition: a new pastoral care. Philadelphia: Fortress.
Mudge, L. & Poling, J. (eds) (1987) Formation and reflection: the promise of practical theology. Philadelphia: Fortress.