Can research really help my church?

Tyler Greenway, PhD Image Tyler Greenway, PhD | Jan 20, 2017

Photo by Dang Nguyen

My wife and I have an energetic 18-month-old son, Andrew. When we first became parents, we knew we had a lot to learn. Parenting instincts quickly kicked in (when the baby cries, you pick him up). Experience taught us even more (babies wake up a lot when they’re young).

But both our instincts and personal experience were still limited. Is it okay that blueberries make up 50% of his diet? Is it normal for him to put blueberries in his hair every time he eats? How do we get blueberry stains out of our carpet and off of our walls (open question)? My wife and I routinely ask others for advice on these—and far more serious—matters. Our parents, Andrew’s doctor, friends who have kids, and parenting experts teach us a lot about parenting.

As in raising a family, we have instincts about how to grow in our faith, too. But regardless of our role in our church communities, we also seek the help of others. Pastors often go to seminary to learn how to preach and teach. Parents read books and take classes to learn how to nurture their children’s faith. We read Scripture for guidance. We learn from spiritual leaders, those with more experience, and through research.

You might be wary of research as a tool to help us develop faith and leadership practices, and you are not alone. Churches have not always incorporated research into their decision-making processes.

So what is the value of research for the church? Why should we conduct it, understand it, and learn from it?

It turns out that research can help us answer specific questions about the community in which we live and serve. What lessons are kids ready to learn and at what ages? How has life changed for today’s young people? How can our ministry adapt to these changes? Careful study helps us observe and listen to people and recognize how we can care for them. Research can help us better understand people, culture, and ministry.

Research helps us understand people

Research helps us break away from assumptions by revealing what might not be immediately apparent. For example, the way that young people learn and grow—and what might be appropriate at various ages—can be contrary to our expectations.

This type of research may help direct parents and Sunday School teachers as they consider what lessons are appropriate for different ages and where to focus their time. For instance, there’s some research that suggests that certain aspects of God’s nature are harder to learn about and apply to everyday life than others.[1] God’s omniscience may be easier to learn about than God’s omnipresence. If we reflect on this, it might make sense, but it’s not necessarily an instinct. Research helps solidify how we instruct and lead others.

Research helps us understand culture

Research is also important because it helps us track changes in culture. When my great grandfather was a pastor, the churches in his area weren’t shrinking like they are today. Church attendance was a cultural norm. Most people in the community attended two worship services every Sunday. Divorce and drug abuse were relatively unheard of. Research shows us that things have changed—not just in his city, but all over the country.

Understanding these changes on a national (or even global) level requires more than what any single leader can observe on his or her own. Dr. Steven Argue, our Applied Research Strategist, helps our research team track these changes in culture. Young people face different challenges today than they did 50 years ago. Due to significant developments in technology, education, and the global economy, today’s young people are getting married, having children, and settling into jobs later than past generations did.[2]

Generational differences can create distance between younger and older people. As research informs us of these wide-reaching shifts in culture, we can better empathize and listen to young people in our congregations. Rather than relying on our judgments and suspicions, research can help us recognize these realities and learn together.

Research helps us understand ministry

If things weren’t complicated enough already, ministry itself is changing along with people and culture. Church leaders and parents face tough questions. Should our church stop using hymnals? Should I make my child go to youth group? How do we get young people involved in the church? How can we address teenagers’ pressing questions about faith?

Here again, research can help us understand and improve our ministry practices. Rather than simply following trends or going with our gut, research may reflect realities that we might not otherwise observe in full. Our team’s Growing Young research, for instance, sheds light on how today’s leading churches successfully engage young people. While some of our findings may seem like no-brainers, others are quite surprising. Our hope is that our research will help churches grow to love and engage young people as they develop the faith they need.

Research doesn’t discount prayer, study of the Bible, or theology

Research is one of many tools that help us determine appropriate next steps in our ministries and families. As we gain insight from research, we must remember that it can only answer certain types of questions and will always be limited in scope. Research can’t tell us what’s right or wrong, nor can it always tell us what’s best for our particular context. We still need to rely on discernment and God’s guiding.

Ultimately, research enables all of us to better serve, learn, and nurture faith by improving our understanding of the people to whom we minister. We are created with the desire to learn about the world around us; careful research methods allow us to faithfully learn about God’s creation and people. Our hope is that research will sharpen and give life to the mission and vision of each parent, leader, and church.

Ready to put research to work? Here are a few ways.

1) Take the Growing Young Assessment.

We’ve created a church-centered assessment tool based on our latest research on churches engaging young people. This free survey gives you immediate insights into where your church stands in being effective with teenagers and young adults.


2) Explore developmental implications for ministry.

There’s nothing more reassuring in ministry or parenting than to find out that the current challenge you are facing with a particular young person is not only not unique, but also completely normal for their developmental stage. Our friends at Orange have created a series of resources with recommendations for ministering to and parenting young people at every stage of childhood and adolescence. Discover the Just A Phase resources here.

3) Watch our family training videos.

What could be better than research that can add tools to your parenting toolbelt? Gather with other parents and find out what we’ve learned about families that thrive together and foster long-lasting faith—and how yours can, too. Get our videos here.

[1] Barrett, Justin L. Born believers: The science of children's religious belief. Simon and Schuster, 2012.

[2] Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. OUP, 2014.

Tyler Greenway, PhD Image
Tyler Greenway, PhD

Dr. Tyler Greenway is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Calvin University. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Psychological Science from Fuller Theological Seminary, an MDiv from Calvin Theological Seminary, and a B.A. in Psychology from Calvin University. Dr. Greenway’s work focuses on the psychology of religion, character and virtue development, the integration of psychology and theology, and the application of psychology in religious contexts. Before joining Calvin, Dr. Greenway also served as an Associate Research Scientist in the Science of Virtues Lab at Baylor University.

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