The Nature of Empirical Research

Empirical research is primarily about listening carefully to people, to society, to the world in which we live. As such, it is a refinement of what we do constantly, in every day life, as we listen and look, take into account the opinions of others, and make our own decisions about how we should live and how we should respond to situations in which we find ourselves.

Some forms of scientific research also allow us to listen very carefully to the Bible and historical traditions. Counting the number of times a word is used in one part of the Bible or another, and an examination of the particular contexts in which a word is used, is a simple form of research. It can assist us in understanding the various meanings associated with the word, the importance the word has, and what might be the significance of its use.

However, this course will focus on research about people and society. In the use of the word ’empirical’, we are limiting our research to what can be observed in empirical ways – what can be seen, heard, touched or smelt by our senses or by scientific instruments which extend our eyes, ears and senses of touch and smell.

There are other types of research which use different methods. Research in the areas of ethics, literature, logic, mathematics, philosophy, and theology use different methods. While they may make some use of empirical research, they are not dependent on them. Our focus on empirical research should not be taken to imply that these other methods of research are not valid, just different. Each form of research is subject to its own rules of evaluation. Each form of research operates within its own spheres of life.

Empirical research is about investigating what ‘is’ the case. It involves looking at the people, society and the world around us and discovering the patterns and the relationships which occur. As such, empirical research cannot say what ‘ought’ to be the case. There is a logical gap between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’ to be that empirical research, within itself, cannot bridge. The fact that on average, in Australia, women live for 80 years and men live for 78 years, does not mean that people ‘ought’ to live that long, or that women ought to live longer than men. The fact that evangelistic activitites of a certain kind help churches to grow in the numbers involved does not mean that churches ‘should’ hold such activities, or even that churches ‘should’ grow. What churches or people should or should not do is a matter for theology and ethics.

However, having decided, on theological grounds, that churches should grow in numbers, or, for that matter, in quality, empirical research can assist by evaluating the effectiveness of various programs designed to assist churches in growing. It can identify some of the factors which are hindering growth. It can distinguish between the groups of people who are being attracted to churches and the groups of people who are not being touched by the churches’ activities.

In other words, once particular goals are decided on theological grounds, empirical research can be used in

  • measuring the extent to which those goals are being achieved,
  • evaluating the means being used in achieving those goals,
  • identifying factors which contribute to the achievement of those goals and which hinder their achievement,
  • distinguishing the groups of people among whom the goals are being achieved or not being achieved.

There are times when empirical research illuminates situations in such a way as it changes the ways in which theological goals are framed. For example, my own empirical research looked at how Christian communities have related to culture. It drew attention to the importance of distinguishing between dimensions of culture which have to do with the basic frameworks people use in their thinking and their values and those dimensions of culture which have to do with particular means of expressing themselves at a particular time and place. Those latter dimensions include the architecture of religious buildings and the music used in religious services. Thus, empirical research drew attention to the importance of framing theological conclusions about how Christian communities should relate to culture not only in terms of elements such as buildings and music, but also in terms of the basic frameworks of thinking or worldview.

However, in general, theological goals and conclusions will not be dependent on empirical research. Empirical research will generally have more of a role in the application of theological goals and conclusions.

The Place of Empirical Research in a Research Project

Given the strengths and limitations of empirical research, a student who is designing a research project will need to think through what empirical research can contribute to the overall project: what part of the project is theological or ethical and what part of it will be conducted through empirical research. Supposing someone wants to look at multicultural ministry, for example, there will be elements of the project which will be theological. The student will need to ask what the theological sources and traditions say about multiculturalism, about the importance and the rationale for adapting forms of ministry to respond to different cultures. Debate about how the Christian faith should or should not adapt to different cultural settings goes back to the very earliest days of the churches in the time of the Apostle Paul. But the student may also want to look at the current issues as they are experienced in a particular situation and people’s experiences within that situation. For this purpose, empirical research will be important. A student may choose to examine different patterns of ministry in multicultural situations and evaluate these partly in terms of how the people involved feel about them. At the same time, it will be important to note that how people feel will generally not be the only criteria used in such an evaluation.

Empirical research, because of the limitations of its own methods, cannot say anything about God or about any other ‘entity’ which is purported to be divine. While it may make comments about churches as human institutions, it cannot examine ‘the Church as the body of Christ’. It can examine how church attenders and those groups who identify themselves as Christians think or behave. To the extent that the concept of a Christian is identified as ‘one who has been chosen by God’, empirical research can say nothing about Christians.

Nor can empirical research examine what God, or powers of evil, for that matter, might be doing, in a particular situation. ‘God’ and ‘powers of evil’ cannot be seen or heard or measured with scientific instruments. They are not part of the material world which empirical research has the power to investigate. Thus, empirical research can never postulate, or come to the conclusion, that ‘God’ is the cause of something that has occurred. Empirical research may, on the other hand, conclude that in terms of its own methods it is unable to reach any conclusions at the present time, about what might be the cause of something occurring.

Thus, the student will need to separate theological and empirical components in the research project. The empirical components in the research project will need to be phrased in terms that can be handled by empirical methods.

Making Decisions

In every-day decision-making within the context of church activities, similar distinctions must be made. Some sources of information will have their roots in theology or tradition, other sources will be appropriate for the application of empirical methods of observing and listening.

For example, a worship leader will have to decide each week what will be the format of a service of worship and what will be said in the sermon or homily. A pastor will decide the strategies for pastoral care: who to visit, when to visit, and how to interact to people in visiting, for example. There are several sources of such decisions.

  • Tradition – what has been done in the past, and what others have taught one to do. (Most of the time we do not even stop to think about what we should do, but automatically follow the patterns we have been taught to adopt, or have developed over the years. For example, in most worship services, people follow a similar format in our services unless there are good reasons to change.)
  • Bible or theology – what is believed to be important on the basis of the Bible, or theological teaching. (For example, the day most Christians worship, on a Sunday, has roots that have been developed through the history of the Church. On Sundays, services of worship celebrate the resurrection, as did many early Christians.)
  • What people like or can relate to. (Speaking with children and adults is quite different and demands different skills in communication. The comprehension and life experiences of different age groups vary considerably. )

Many decisions are developed out of mixture of all three sources. For example, the hymns or songs for a service of worship will be partly chosen from tradition (the body of songs which have been handed down), partly for theological reasons (expressing the aspects of faith that the leader wants to affirm in the service) and partly according to those which people enjoy and to which they relate well. In some areas of church life, it is most important that the decision-maker has sound Biblical and theological knowledge. In many areas, it is important that the decision-maker has a sound knowledge of the people who will affected by the decision. Understanding people involves listening to them. Surveys and other forms of empirical research can be important aids in listening to people. They can help us in the following ways: enabling one …

  1. to listen to many people’s responses to the same question;
  2. to distinguish how specific groups of people think;
  3. to compare what different groups of people think (such as young people as distinct from older people);
  4. to identify patterns in people’s thinking … and even begin to answer questions about why people think the ways they do.

Some other applications of empirical research are explored in the following articles.

Listening to Communities

A business person is planning to set up a shop to sell mobile phones. He or she knows that the age group which make most use of the mobile system are people between the ages of 25 and 40 with comparatively high incomes. Thus, it is easy to deduce that the best place to set up the shop is where there are lots of young people between 25 and 40 with high incomes. Such data is readily available from the census data provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics or from many other organisations which have established themselves to provide such data to clients.

People who are seeking to establish churches may use the census data in similar ways. They may look for areas where there are many people without easy access to a church. They may look in more detail for those areas containing many people who indicate on the census that they belong to a particular denomination, but are not within easy reach of a church of that denomination.

When I went to minister in a small country town, I was surprised at the amount of local knowledge available. There were people in the church who could tell me who lived in almost every house in the town. If they did not know the people personally, they certainly knew when they had arrived in the town. There are few people in the larger country towns or cities with that sort of knowledge. Indeed, in many churches the impressions people have of their local neighbourhoods are often quite wrong.

For most churches, the immediate context for ministry is the local neighbourhood. With changing and moving populations, with all the people who live in an area but work in another, it is important to use statistics to get an accurate picture of that neighbourhood. Statistics draw the picture of the church’s context.

Churches often cater for their actual congregations while ignoring the potential congregation that exists in the area. Appropriate activities for children are necessary to attract people into the church. The same applies for every other age group. 15% of Australians speak a language other than English at home. Again, language is a very important factor in deciding what activities would be most appropriate for people in the local area.

The National Church Life Survey book, Winds of Change (1994) noted that even many small churches are becoming regional in nature. People are travelling further to church than they ever did in the past. However, activities for pre-school and primary-aged children and their parents, such as Play Groups and children’s clubs are often best located in local areas. They can then feed more centralised Sunday services, and, in later years, youth groups. Regional churches are wise to establish some activities, perhaps using homes, schools, or local community facilities, to serve local areas.

As churches look at forms of service they might establish, it is important, again, to look at the statistics for the local area. The census data will provide information about the groups in the community which have special needs: the low income groups, the unemployment levels, the numbers of single parent families, the aged, and so on. Councils make extensive use of these statistics as they plan their services to the community. Churches are well advised to look at that same information. Is this a good area of a drop-in centre for young people, or a day care centre for the elderly? There is no excuse for guess work, when churches are investing large amounts of money in serving people. For an example of the sort of information provided by a report on the Census prepared by the Christian Research Association, see ‘Area Report: Australia‘.

Census statistics do not provide all the information churches need. In times of dormitory suburbs, we need to look not only at where people sleep, but where they work and where they socialise, where they do their shopping and where they take their leisure. Many churches are taking their ministry into shopping centres and places of work, as well as hospitals and educational institutions.

Having a picture of the sorts of people who live in a neighbourhood does not tell us, in itself, how those people think or what they believe. The next dimension of sociological research is understanding people: what are their values and opinions. What do they think about the Christian faith and about the church? See the article: Listening to People.


Peter Kaldor, John Bellamy, Ruth Powell, Merilyn Correy, Keith Castle, 1994, Winds of Change: The Experience of Church in a Changing Australia, Lancer, Sydney.

Listening to People

Empirical research is very useful in telling us who the people are in our neighbourhood, or where they are seeking to work. Census data can tell us about people’s age, occupation, the religious denominations with which they identify, and other information. The census does not attempt, however, to tell us how people think. For that, we need other surveys.

The polls we see in the newspapers from week to week are the simplest form of survey about how people think and what are their preferences. Usually, they are conducted by a company which phones people and asks them a series of questions. They can be very useful as we seek to listen to people. However, one must also be aware of the problems polls and surveys face in giving us an accurate picture.

1. Categorising responses.

Inevitably, polls and surveys push people’s responses into boxes. They do not, and cannot, represent the full range and complexity of people’s opinions. A newspoll published in The Australian on Thursday 22nd June 1995 tells us that 50 per cent of people favour Australia becoming a republic. However, on page 2, we find that of those 50 per cent, just over half are strongly in favour and just under half of them are partially in favour. Another 15 per cent were uncommitted.

We do not how many people gave conditional answers. Some may have said, for example, that becoming a republic may be appropriate in another twenty years, but is not appropriate at the moment. Others may have said that they favoured having an Australian head-of-state, but did not feel that we should call Australia a republic. We do not know the true variety of responses people gave to the question, or would give if asked to explain their response.

A good survey will ask a range of questions about one issue, in an attempt to gather something of the diversity of opinions. However, no survey will give the richness of response that is available from an in-depth interview. In interpreting responses to survey questions, one must be aware of the limitations of the question, and the limitations imposed by the categories into which responses are classified.

2. What people really think.

Another limitation of surveys is they usually ask people about hypothetical situations. We know that what people actually vote on voting day may be different from the ways they said they would vote in the telephone poll a day or two before. In some survey questions, there are responses which clearly more socially acceptable than others. A recent survey asked people if they felt it was wrong if a taxpayer does not report all of his or her income in order to pay less income tax. It would be interesting to know the relationship between what people said and what they actually do.

While we must be aware of their limitations, surveys do have a great deal of value as a way of listening to people. They do give us an indication of how people do think and give us the material so that we can look at differences between older and younger people, between church-goers and non-church-goers, between people now and people ten years ago.

Interviews give us more in-depth information, but are very costly to do with large numbers of people. Surveys enable us to get some information from a much larger group of people for a lower cost. Even within a church congregation of one hundred people, it would usually be too expensive or time-consuming to conduct an interview with everyone. But a survey will give everyone a chance to have their say.

When people want to know what a large group of people (such as all Australians) think about a particular issue, they usually use a sample survey. A well-chosen sample of little more than a thousand people can tell us, with a high degree of probability, what the whole population would say if they were asked. They key to success lies in the careful use of methods to ensure a random sample of the population is chosen. (For details on methods of sampling see Sampling.)

While surveys tell us what people think, they can never tell us what is right and wrong. A survey can never tell us whether Australia should become a republic. But if one has decided on ethical or political grounds that Australia should be a republic, a survey can assist in assessing what are some of the most effective ways of changing people’s opinions. It can also assist in identifying which groups of people remain to be convinced: whether they are older or younger people, of British origin or not, well-educated people or people with little formal education.

In a similar way, a survey cannot tell us what role the church should have. But it can tell us how people see the church and what role they think it should have. It can help us to know how to educate people about what the church is.

Surveys can help us to listen. They are useful in ensuring that we receive a balanced picture, not only from those who are vocal about their opinions, but also from people who need to be asked before they speak. Effective ministry begins by listening.

Listening to Culture

The Nature of Culture

The word ‘culture’ has many meanings. Originally the word was closely related to the word ‘cultivate’ and had the idea of protecting in order to promote natural growth. This meaning is still present in the phrase ‘the culture of pearls’.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people began to speak of the culture of the mind and the understanding. It was used particularly of a person’s or a society’s mental and artistic capabilities. People talked of ‘cultured people’. The society’s culture was its music, literature, painting and sculpture, theatre and film. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many people believed in a natural development occuring through the history. ‘Culture’ was used to refer to the highest point or telos of human achievement.

As people realised that there were many ‘cultures’ which were not necessarily developing in one direction, the idea of ‘folk-culture’ developed. The anthropological usage of ‘culture’ has developed directly from this. It has come to refer not only to artistic or intellectual achievement, but to the total way of life of a group of people.

‘Culture’ in that anthropological sense does not refer to biological patterns of behaviour universally practised, such as eating. But it does refer to those patterns which are not of biological origin: what one eats, where, when, and what implements are used in eating. On the other hand, we do not include individual ways of behaving as distinct from those practised by a group of people.

When we speak of ‘culture’ we are assuming that there are patterns in human activities that underly the particular actions or behaviour that we observe. We assume that particular actions are linked in terms of ‘types of actions’. The study of culture involves interpretation: the bringing together of a variety of activities and beliefs into integrated systems.

As we discern patterns and are able to locate particular activities within a larger context, we can make sense of those particular activities. Unless we are able to discern patterns, every new thought and every new action will be a complete surprise! The study of culture is the study of the patterns of people’s lives in the context of social groups.

Researching Culture

There are many ways of examining a culture. Many people turn to the arts as an expression of culture. Literature, painting, music and other artistic forms often reflect themes and motifs in culture. Artists are often particularly sensitive to what is going on around them, and reflect their society in their art. However, one must be careful in distinguishing the ‘high culture’ of the arts with the anthropological culture of the society as a whole. The ‘high culture’ does not always reflect accurately the culture of the whole society.

Case-studies of people, such as biographies, or in-depth psychoanalytic studies, may also be helpful in looking at culture. Through the careful analysis of how a few individuals live, some of the themes of culture may sometimes be discovered. Qualitative research will provide ways of examining in depth and in context, the ways in which people behave, how they think, and how those patterns contribute to the functioning of the culture.

However, one has to ask how generalisable are the results of studies of a few individuals? To what extent does the individual reflect the patterns that are dominant in the wider society? To what extent does the way one person thinks reflect patterns found throughout the society? Quantitative research methods, used with large numbers of people, such as surveys among random samples of the population, have a place in determining how widespread certain patterns are.

Surveys and Culture

While surveys tell us how widespread are answers to a particular question, they also have limitations in the examination of culture. Answers to one or two questions cannot show us the whole culture. Because ‘culture’ is the underlying pattern rather than the behaviour or responses themselves, surveys cannot directly measure ‘culture’.

Sometimes, patterns become apparent when one is looking at a large number of answers to questions. As we look at how response to one question relates to responses to other questions, so the patterns may begin to emerge. However, one is still restricted by the questions that have been asked. If different questions were asked, or similar questions in different words, would the patterns of responses be similar?

In a careful study of culture, scientific methods can contribute to the accuracy of the information gathered. The following steps are not required strictly in this order every time, but something like them needs to be adopted.

1. One begins with a general review of the aspect of culture. Often this means a literature search looking for what people have written about the aspect of culture one wants to study. Sometimes it means looking through the results of past surveys, or gathering data from interviews and other sources.

2. From the general review, one formulates hypotheses. These hyptheses are ideas about what the patterns of culture might be. If one has observed people behaving in certain ways on certain occasions, then one might speculate that there are certain patterns of behaviour. From general hypotheses about patterns, one then deduces more precise ideas about how people might behaviour or think under particular circumstances. Thus, ‘testable’ hypotheses are developed. It is important that hypotheses are, in fact, testable, and that questions are asked of people or of their behaviour which can be answered in different ways.

3. Surveys may then be used in testing these specific hypotheses. In this way, they are used to test specific ideas about culture.

Christian faith and culture

Churches in many denominations have experienced a significant drop in rates of attendance over the last thirty years. Many are finding it hard to attract young people. The reasons why this is so are complex. They have to do with major changes in Australian culture. We cannot simply ask people why they have dropped out of church. Even if people can provide answers, those answers will, at best, provide some slim pointers to the cultural changes that have occurred.

Some will say that the churches have not changed adequately with the times or that they are not presenting their message in relevant ways. Some will point to the competing attractions such as television. Some will argue in terms of the rise of materialism or secularism.

To understand the changes in Australian culture, we need to look at the broad sweep of changed patterns of life. One of the significant factors identified in research by the Christian Research Association is decline in local community life. Local community churches have declined as local communities have become less important to people socially. Most people today are not antagonistic to the church. But neither does church attendance have a high priority.

No one would explain their decline in church attendance as a result of lack of interest in the local community. They do not see it in those terms. Yet, that way of describing the pattern makes sense of a range of attitudes and behaviour.

The decline in local community life is just one factor. Other factors which have to do with changes in the ways people see the world, the values they hold, and what they consider life to be about. For an examination of these factors see Philip Hughes, Changing Society, Changing Religion: Implications for Religious Education and Church Life, CD-Rom, published by the Christian Research Association, 2002.

Only through painstaking and wide-ranging examination of the patterns of culture are the highest levels of understanding attained.