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The Importance of the Scientific Method in Ministry
"A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found."
Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching
"All truth is of Him who says, "I am the Truth."
On Christian Doctrine
Many people don’t think science and religious belief should mix.
But we use science in Christianity a lot. What congregation builds a church without consulting an architect (who uses physics to design a building that will
not collape). We accept the germ theory and encourage people to wash their hands and take anti-biotics--things not known 130 years ago. Even in theology pastors at
least occationally refer to findings in science when the argue the historic validity of Jesus's death. And when philosphers of physics concluded that only an advanced mind could
have created the universe, pastors jumped on the bandwagon of "Intellengt Design"--even though, as C.S. Lewis described, the theory of Intellegent Design merely encouraged the
existance of a very smart being or group of beings and not the God of the Bible.
Besides, if God has created something, it is ours to use, The facts of the Scientific Method are truth. We accept biological science, should we not
accept social science as well?
A Short History of the Scientific Method
First Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and later Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109, also known as Anselm of Aosta, from his birthplace in Italy) approached the
issue of What is Truth? and whether there can be multiple "truths" concerning a single concept. Both
agreed there is but one Truth and that this Truth comes from Godeither as a fact known by God or as the characteristic of something created by God. Thus, what causes a tree
to grow is known by God as something God created, but not immediately known by humans. Different people may come up with different explanations for the act of growing and
reproducing, but there is only one way by which God created trees to grow. It is the goal of humans to learn that one true explanation. Both emphasized that Truth
about the physical world can only be gained by reason enlightened by observation, that the Bible, a source of spiritual truth, is not the best source of truth about the physical,
Robert Grossteste (ca. 1170-1253), the Bishop of Lincoln and an Oxford lecturer, relied heavily on the writings of Augustine and Anselm. He has been called
by some "the real founder of scientific method". He was
the first to say that “every operation of nature occurs in the most finite, ordered, shortest, and best way possible for it”, which William of Ockham built upon. As Augustine
had said, Grossteste confirmed, that everything that is true is as God wants it to be. He realized that we have many ways of determining the truth and that our impression of
what is true can be flawed. Toward the goal of finding what is truly true, he proposed rudimentary descriptions of controlled experiments. Only with these controlled
approaches to learning could we begin to find the real Truth that reflected the real God and the reality created by God.
Grossteste was followed by Roger Bacon (1214-1294), a Franciscan friar and also Oxford lecturer who some call "the first modern scientist". As with
Grossteste, Bacon believed in the all-knowning, all-powerful Christian God who created all that is. There is some debate as to whether Grossteste's works were familiar
to Bacon, but both came to similar conclusions--an action that to Grossteste would strengthen the notion that their philosophies were "true", that is, reflecting the knowledge
of God. Bacon identified three ways of acquiring knowledge: through authority, reason, and experience. Stating that not all three ways are of equal value,
he argued that neither authority nor reason are sufficient for knowledge because reliance on authority alone yields belief but not understanding, while reason alone cannot
distinguish between true sentences and sentences having only the appearance of God's true knowledge. According to Bacon, achieving knowledge requires three things: (1)
to heed the structure of the scientific material and to begin with what is first, easier, and more general then proceed to what is later, more difficult, and more specific,
(2) to proceed using the clearest possible words without causing confusion, and (3) to reach a level of certainty that leaves behind all doubt. This is the essence of
the modern scientific method. When Bacon said “nothing can be sufficiently known without experience”, he meant to emphasize the role that our senses (smell,
taste, touch, hearing, and especially vision) play in the learning process. For Bacon, learning is not only the process of the gaining knowledge, but also the process
of restoring the wisdom that was given by God at the beginning of time and subsequently lost through sin.
Thus, in a way, to Bacon felt that anyone who attempts to learn some
"truth" about the world without using a valid learning process such as the experimental method is still lost in effects of sin.
Other important contributions to the scientific method came from William of Ockham (1287-1347), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Blaise Pascal
(1623-1662)all devout Christians.
These men all believed in God and sought to know God better by better knowing God's creation. They saw God as simple, but not
simplistic. God creates with order and reason, not the disorder and randomness apparent in Eastern philosophies. Since God is orderly, they argued, God's laws
should be knowable. Thus
western science was born as a way to understand the systems and laws set up by God when He created this universefrom stars down to atoms and all the physical and
biological processes in between. For example, William of Ockham developed a theorum, known now as
"Ockham's Razor", which states that the simplest explanation for any observation is the best. He came to that conclusion because of his understanding of God.
“If God gives you a watch, are you honoring Him more by asking Him what time it is
or by simply consulting the watch?”
A. W. Tozer
Bacon was the first to use experiments to find Truth. Descartes built on those ideas and claimed that experimentation was absolutely necessary
to verify and validate any theory (any idea of the way things are as created by God). Descartes was key to making people aware that there are things we think we know
and then there is what is True. He argued that we cannot assume something is true because we think it is true or hope it is true or assume it is true. He showed
that we must verify that an idea or impression of the world really is true about the
world as God created it. Pascal was much opposed to Descartes' idea that all knowledge and all Truth could be obtained by reason, yet when it came to the sciences,
Pascal seems to have agreed with Descartes that an all-knowing God creates in ways that are knowable to us.
In the Church it may be prudent to use a little of both reason and theology to understand people. The Scientific Methodespecially as it has
been applied to the social sciencescan help us to fill in the gaps of our knowledge about people. This is especially true about knowing what specific people
need and what action is most effective for each person.
We can use the scientific method to assertain where to direct our ministries and evangelism efforts, what will likely be most effective, and how effective
are efforts have been. It allows us to know what we know without guessing or hoping. By following Bacon's teaching, as well as Augustine and Anslem, we can truly know what
God has created even within the people of our congregation or community.
We can determine what actually works and what doesn’t.
We can use social science to determine what is true and what is not true.
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Scientific samples help us to determine what is true about people. Many years ago a newspaper editorial discussed the finding that 1
American in 10 considered themselves to be evangelical Christians. The author stated that he talked to 10 coworkers and none were Christians. From
that he decided that there couldn’t be so many Christians in America. His was not a scientific sample (validly representative). He held to his bias
by abandoning science.
Christians are not immune to the same problem. We often assume we understand the non-Christians in our towns and cities. But if you don’t
actually talk to them, you cannot know what they really think. Beyond that, if you are like that newspaper editorial writer and don’t talk to a representative
group, you will fail to learn how most people feel.
Not too long ago a missionary group surveyed villagers in Nigeria. This organization wanted to compare the attitudes and behaviors of
Christians in the villages with the non-Christians (mainly Muslims) who lived with them. Unfortunately, the samples were not representative. Whoever
was easy to find was interviewed. “Christians” were interviewed at church and whoever was around in the village was interviewed as a Muslim. However,
from their answers it was clear that many of the “Muslims” actually were Christians. Worse still, the answers gained from the supposed Muslims were used to
determine which villages were most open for evangelism.
When the evangelists arrived they must have either found few people to listen to the Gospel or they literally preached to the choir. They
may have had people come for the alter call, but did they realize that most of those were already saved?
A poor, non-scientific, sample led to wasting evangelistic resources. Furthermore, if they did not carefully ask correct follow-up questions
they may have falsely assumed that their efforts were more fruitful than they really were. Jesus said we were to go and find “workers for the harvest”. Good,
scientific, assessment helps us determine who is already a worker (and would need discipling, not evangelism) and who is not (still in need of hearing the Gospel).
The thing about samples is that there are many potential pitfalls. Some are obvious if you think about it, others may not be so clear.
Community Empowerment Research has the training and experience to help you build valid samples to interview or survey any population of
people: neighbors, church members, clients, etc.
There is a funny thing about survey questions. Someone can write a question and they know what they mean, but someone reading it might take
a totally different meaning.
Take as an example this question to which a reader is expected to indicate a level of agreement: “When I am feeling lonely, I quote my
Bible.” If someone disagrees, what does it mean? You might think they don’t use their Bible for spiritual support. But what if they don’t own
a Bible? Maybe they quote the Bible, but not their own. Maybe they don’t have many passages memorized and though they turn to the Bible, they
read it, not quote it. Maybe they use the Bible to help them feel better when they are sad or fearful, but turn to other Christians when they
are lonely. Each of these alternative explanations can come from the same answer.
From a well-written question only one conclusion can be drawn from each optional answer.
Similarly, a church once asked their members how often they invited friends to come to church. The choices were:
a) Never thought about it,
b) at least once, but not in the last year,
c) Once in the last year,
d) 2-3 times in last year,
e) at least once every month or two.
What about people who have thought about it, but have not done it? (There are other problems with these options, but we will let you see
if you can find them. One hint: are we looking to know how often or how recently?)
A well-written survey does not have questions like these.
Community Empowerment Research has extensive training and experience writing high-quality survey questions. We write the questions
that give the answers you need.
Consider the second example, above, where the church asked members how often they invited friends. When the church leaders analyzed
the data they simply reported the percent of respondents who answered each option. They reported that very few members had not invited anyone. They
didn’t notice that 20% of the people who took the survey failed to answer that question. Those are the people who have thought of inviting friends,
but never have actually invited anyone. The leaders of this church missed that fact. They were not aware of how many of their members were open to
the idea, but need either encouragement or training in how to invite others to church. These church leaders naively assumed that almost everyone invited
friends. Interestingly, that church has not grown in the years since that survey. Before that they had strongly emphasized and encouraged church members
to invite others and had grown at least 10% every year for 20 years.
Community Empowerment Research has extensive experience analyzing surveys and other research projects. We “think outside the
box” and can discover facts that others do not see.
And if you need advanced statistical techniques, we are expert at all the mathematical tools from Pearson’s correlation to logistic
regression and multivariate analysis of variance.