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Spring 1986 · Vol. 15 No. 1 · pp. 73–78 

Survey-Research and Kingdom Politics: Are They Really Compatible? A Response to the M.B. Church Membership Profile

Robert Siemens


But David’s heart smote him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, Oh Lord, I pray thee take away the iniquity of thy servant, for I have done very foolishly” (2 Sam. 24:10).

As one trained in survey-research sociology and as one whose fingers were gently pried off survey-research sociology by the writing of Ludwig Wittgenstein (somewhat of a contemporary Socrates), the story of David’s census and his remorse is a story that holds a personal interest for me.

Are we to turn from the Holy Spirit and the resurrection hope to survey research techniques?

Kauffman and Harder’s work, Anabaptism Four Centuries Later, and the ensuing Mennonite Brethren Church Membership Profile 1972-1982, evoke memories of my spiritual pilgrimage, a path which I always retrace reluctantly and with hesitant steps. The story of King David’s census, and his “foolishness” brings my own folly to painful memory. {74}

As a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and quite unconscious young undergraduate sociology student eager to improve his GPA, I polled the M.B. Churches in the Lower Mainland of the Fraser Valley with the aim of establishing a correlation between pastors’ salaries and education and between pastors’ education and congregational self-consciousness. I had marvelous results, an “A” in the course, and an uneasy conscience ever since.

And now, I have been asked to contribute a response to the recent MB Church Membership Profile and to the articles discussing it in the Fall 1985 (Vol. 14, No. 2) issue of Direction.

Let me begin with a few general comments addressing my disappointment that all the articles accepted took seriously the research instrument (I feel about survey-research like a cured alcoholic about liquor—it is a fatal temptation, but at another level). It is encouraging that the respondents rose above the instruments. None of them addressed the study from the perspective of a practitioner of survey-research sociology. Although a methodologically defective research instrument was used (given the aims of the church), the study was a success in terms of the quality of the conversation it produced.

By this I mean that the study evoked responses of hope, fear, joy and sorrow that reflected the different contexts and perspectives from which the various authors analyzed the data and from which they drew their conclusions. A Mennonite profile has been carved into the facelessness of American statistical research-survey sociology.

The article that both most excited and most disappointed me, the only article I will address specifically—“Cultural Change” by Delbert Wiens—addressed the Mennonite Brethren community as a “tribe.” This is an idea that needs to be developed; but I was disappointed because the author appeared to be unaware of the critical difference between the study of an agglomeration of individuals as carried out by statistical survey research and the study of a community as it is practiced by anthropologists.

David’s sin was that he did not trust the Lord, but relied on his own calculations. Survey-research techniques were developed to meet administrative and actuarial needs which are antithetical in spirit to community life. They subtly, but critically, make it possible to shift the basis for an individual’s security to a system based on money to provide protection, to pay injury expenses, and to recompense loss of property. This results in the disintegration {75} of collective experience, a disintegration which is then aptly described by the sociological paradigm. From the point of view of the community, however, as articulated by the anthropological paradigm, individual well-being are family and community responsibilities.

We do not wish, however, to remain with the negative. Statistical research is an infantile tool; American sociology is an infantile discipline. And we must not let ourselves be mesmerized by the feeling of power created by the ability to manipulate data and by the aesthetic illusion of being able to create pleasing patterns. We need to articulate an understanding of basic human relationships that can be explained to all our people. The church as a socializing agent (into the Kingdom as well) is much more important than the church as fodder for the survey-research practitioners.

Our secular culture (do we want to be part of this?) has reduced our understanding of ourselves to that of individuals in the interest of administering the state and the economy. The challenge for us is whether we want to be assimilated to the state or whether we want to educate ourselves to what it means to be a community.


Returning to the original study to get our bearings, we learn that the rationale for “research” is that it gives leaders who desire “hard data; “a reading on the state of health of the churches” and this in addition to their “more informal insights and hunches” (Kauffman and Harder, 1975:7).

Kauffmann and Harder describe their study as that of learning how present-day churches reflect the sixteenth-century vision that they call “Anabaptism.” Here is my first problem: in what possible sense can survey research measure “Anabaptism?” As the Radical Reformers understood it, this was not something on which a tradition could be founded but it was a way of drawing closer to Christ and of overcoming the barriers of accumulated traditions and legends, interests and wealth, lands and houses that had come to encumber medieval Christendom. To capture the “Spirit” of Anabaptism, rather than the letter, means to draw nearer to Christ in one’s own personal life rather than to go out and measure how others are doing. As Christ said, “First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will be able to pull the splinter out of your brother’s.” {76}

The Spirit of Anabaptism, as it is experienced four centuries later, all too often appears to be dominated by an unconscious avoidance of our brother because we see the restless signs of inner struggle with a beam. Why are we unable to see the splinter in his eye that is troubling him? Is it because we are likewise preoccupied with beams in our own eyes? Why can we not pull it out for him? There is so much talk of charismatic healing and inner healing in evangelical circles; but does the M.B. Church perceive of itself as a healing community? And how would survey-research measure this?

My second problem is that “sociological” paradigms are being substituted for biblical teaching as the guide to our continued “education,” thus leading to further departures from the Anabaptist vision.

How can curriculum material be prepared . . . unless more is known about . . . their religious practices;  . . theological and doctrinal beliefs; . . . attitudes and practices concerning . . . war, poverty and race; . . . standards of right and wrong; . . . attitudes toward the church; . . . recreational activities; . . . educational, occupational, economic, and marital status (Kauffman and Harder, 1975:9).

I have quoted this list in its entirety because it consists of items on which the Bible is clear, direct and concise in its teaching. The only interest in gaining the sort of information a study such as Kauffman and Harder propose would be to help Sunday School teachers communicate the biblical teaching more effectively, that is, to help them determine where to begin. But aside from these preliminary considerations, I do not see how the generalities of survey-research are going to do us much good.

This is a problem of effectiveness. How much does a general picture, and Sunday School material based on a general picture, help particular teachers grappling with specific situations? Such information can be of limited value at best. The critical challenge to the publishers of Sunday School material is to bring an awareness of biblical standards for the conduct of everyday life. Rather than merely presenting a negative moral limit to personal conduct, they must present an alternative way of life to the congregation.

Ludwig Wittgenstein points out in his Brown Book that there is no such thing as a composite picture—of a leaf, to use his example. We recognize particular leaves because of their “leafness,” not because they match the general image of a leaf that we {77} carry around in our brain. And this holds for communities and cultures, but only communities and cultures expressing what it is to be a community or culture—or failing to do so. And then they disappear. And I have concluded that survey-research, which is based on the epistemological assumption of “general images” and “composite pictures,” is antithetical to the interests of community.

The tragedy of much Sunday School material is that it substitutes for the biblical story an abstract, statistically arrived at, general middle class American (not Canadian) family and neighborhood. When this is done, the story ceases to be a measure by which we judge our own conduct and experience. The biblical story, to the extent that it has been replaced by the administrative vision of man and human potential that animates survey research, can no longer define the path which leads to life. An especially serious concern is that this illusion shapes the children’s perception of reality during their most impressionable years.

The Anabaptist vision has become stifled and lost because we and our children alike are nourished on the spiritual illusion of the middle class American family. By accepting this illusion as a self-image the working class is pacified and allows itself to become susceptible to the “rationale” of state and economy.

The alternative to stereotypes—whether the stereotypes of the right or the left—is personality, and personality is revealed through relationships. This is the biblical understanding of experience. But how can personal and relational “faithfulness” and “falling short” be measured by survey-research techniques? All they can do is tell us about generalities and averages. They cannot remove stereotypes; they can only substitute one stereotype for another.

My third problem is that these stereotypes not only distort both our reality and the Bible’s but that they also hide from us some of the most important ways that the Church has been important in our lives. Mennonite Brethren are distinguished by strong commitment of the Church to its individuals. But its importance to their lives is not identical to their perception of the church’s role in their life. I would go so far as to say that the bulk of the church’s force in the average member’s life is necessarily unconscious.

Contemporary American sociology, however, is based on the idea that the individual’s attitude is the determining factor in his {78} action; and that if we interrogate his motives (interview him/her) we will find out why he/she acted as he/she did. Kauffman and Harder have carried this methodological conceit into the realm of the spiritual. If we know enough details about enough individuals, somehow it will, with proper “cooking,” add up to a meaningful whole. And so David thought as well.

My final, and largest, problem is that sample-survey research techniques, based on the strategy of holding all variables constant and varying one at a controlled rate, leave little room for recognition of the work of the Holy Spirit, who is like the wind in his essential unpredictability. Relying on sample-survey research techniques leaves very little incentive, as well, to expect the unexpected from God. The goal of this sort of sociology is, after all, to reduce the world to predictables.


What does the church mean to the member? As I see it, this is essentially the question that the research instrument is asking. And, while I share the researchers’ concerns and interests, I am in grave doubt as to the value of such research. In what sense does it give us a goal to strive for? In what sense does it give us a vision to live by?

The sort of knowledge with which the church concerns itself is not of an order that can be compared to the commodities and services of everyday life, no matter how sophisticated these have become. The knowledge with which the church is concerned is knowledge that effects inner transformation. To reduce it to the comparables of everyday life is to tempt God and, perhaps, to insult the Holy Spirit.

The alternative, I would submit, is that of abandoning this paradigm of social science for a point of view that recognizes the church as a resource available to the individual. The Anabaptist distinctive of community responsibility is a conception that is taken for granted in two-thirds of the world, but that our Western secular culture has destroyed, thus making us the prey of “rational administration” of state and economy. We must now recover the vision of the Church as the center of a biblical and Anabaptist “Social Gospel” that addresses areas of need in all areas of the church-member’s life. In closing, I should like to direct our attention to four such areas of “sociological” interest, but which are not directly apprehensible through survey-research techniques. {79}

  1. The Pastor’s Office. To the member in good standing and full fellowship, the pastor’s office is a source of social power. The handicapped, the poor, the disenfranchised should be able to find in the pastor’s office a “voice in the gate.” And part of our responsibility to these “poor in the land” is to educate them to their possibility for participation in the corporate dignity that the church gives them.
  2. Continuing Education. Sunday School, mid-week Bible studies and other learning opportunities are vital educational resources. Continuing education through all phases of the life cycle is not the privilege of an elite, but a universal human need and right. The church provides an essential aspect of that education as its responsibility.
  3. Social Services. Marriages, child dedications, baptisms and funerals, as well as the festivals that celebrate who we are as a people, are social services which the family is essentially unable to perform for itself, and in which the state is too disinterested to be able to perform satisfactorily.
  4. Spiritual Value. The church assures us of our hope, strengthens us in our faith and motivates us to love. The social ramifications are inestimable. As one sociologist put it, “the family is the heart of a heartless world.” I should like to add the corollary that the church must become the body in which this “heart” can beat strongly and warmly.

This is the last item on my list because, as the most important, it is the only one we conventionally (i.e., when we think as individuals) associate with the “meaning” of the church. But when we fail to link up the social aspects of the Church with its spiritual meaning, then our spirituality becomes something of a mental image instead of a relationship. When the vital core of our religious experience, our resurrection hope, becomes detached from the rest of our experience and conduct, it is brought into dialectical tension with the resurrection dread of hell. And then it ceases to be a positive source of our experience and conduct to assume the role of policeman. And we are terrified of even an authentic social gospel because we fear that it lets hell out of sight long enough for it to break loose here on earth.

But the Church cannot thrive without taking into consideration the social dimension of the Gospel message. Are we now to turn from the Holy Spirit and the resurrection hope to survey research techniques as the basis for its constitution? As Bob Dylan pointed out, “Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.”

Sociologist Robert Siemens is presently a student at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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