Surveys Sharpen Statistics,
Research Claims

New wave of research aims to prove, or correct, widely held assumptions (Posted April 12, 2012)


A new round of global and regional surveys beginning in April 2012 is aimed at sharpening the statistical focus of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, officials said. Faced with oft-heard claims about the percentage of church members who are women, or of the number of Adventists who do (or do not) read the Bible daily, leaders hope the new research will confirm, or help correct, some of these assumptions.

Regularly cited at Adventist board meetings and business sessions, many so-called church statistics are not positively known to be factual, one researcher said. Many of these familiar “facts” might better be classified as “anecdotes, hunches, and instincts,” said Adventist researcher David Trim.

Trim, who directs the General Conference’s Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, wants to see anecdotal evidence replaced by “actual data.” His office will oversee a major research project to survey the opinions, attitudes, and spiritual life patterns of Adventist pastors, church members, institutional employees, and college and university professors worldwide.

“We need to know what is actually happening in the church, not just what we’d like to have happening,” Trim added. That knowledge can equip church leaders to use money and resources more judiciously and effectively, he said.

QUESTION TIME: Adventist researcher David Trim wants to see “actual data” replace “anecdotes, hunches, and instincts” about the church. Here, Trim reviews files in the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, which he directs at world church headquarters. [PHOTO: ANN]
“We’re doing this because we want to do ministry and mission better. We want to be better stewards of what God has given to us, and we want to be more effective in discipling and winning souls,” Trim said.

It wasn’t until 2011 that top church officials first voted to establish an ongoing budget for Adventist research meant to inform the church’s strategic plan. Previously, Adventist research was conducted sporadically, with limited focus and funding, and almost exclusively in North America, Trim said.

This time around, the plan is for a “rigorous” survey carried out in each of the church’s 13 world divisions, Trim said. Using the new research budget, his office has contracted with research teams at Adventist universities in North America, South America, Inter-America, Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Each team has demonstrated research “expertise and experience,” Trim said. While much of the anonymous polling will take place this year, some surveys may continue into early 2013, with full results due back at world church headquarters by June of 2013.

Survey questions will go beyond age, gender, ethnicity, and other statistics-based research to ask about attitudes and opinions on spiritual life, fundamental beliefs and values, church leadership, Adventist institutions, and fellow members, among other topics.

“The Adventist Church is committed to a strategic planning process that provides direction based on a body of evidence,” said Michael L. Ryan, a general vice president of the General Conference, and vice chair of the church’s Strategic Planning and Budgeting Committee.

“All strategic planning is really only for one reason: How do we better advance the mission?” Ryan added.

How beneficial the results are depends largely upon whether Adventists worldwide fully engage in the survey, Trim said. There’s no way to track survey results back to individual respondents, so researchers are hoping members will feel confident in giving honest answers—“not what you think we’d like to hear,” he said.

“We understand that people will not always be doing what we wish they were doing. We understand that people do not necessarily believe what we want them to believe. And we understand that often they won’t be feeling very happy with us,” Trim said. “There’s going to be what will be perceived as bad news. But we want to know this so we can do a better job.”

In some cases survey results might spur church leaders to launch programs that would “modify our behavior and practices,” Trim said. Other results may prompt better communication between leaders and members.

“If people are unhappy with an area that’s fundamental to our faith, then we can educate and explain to members why this is essential,” Trim said.

While he expects Adventist scholars will publish much of the research, Trim said some of it would remain confidential.

“My hope is that in fact we would not only get answers to really important questions, but—as a side product—we would also increase the research capacity of the church,” Trim said.

Many Adventist researchers have demonstrated that they can produce “good, rigorous research,” and Trim said he is keen to see them given “time and space” to benefit the movement. More and better Adventist research will equip leadership to use church money and resources in the best possible way rather than the most immediately appealing way, he said.

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