10/21/97 Researchers outline value of surveys for churches

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Church leaders can and should use the results of opinion polls in ministry and program planning, according to two officials with national polling firms.

"I'm a big believer in survey research, even in a church or mission setting," said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, Princeton, N.J. "It's very useful for leaders to have an idea of the attitudes and opinions of the people they're trying to serve."

Newport -- who grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, as the son of John Newport, a longtime administrator and professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary -- said membership polls can be useful tools.

But in a church setting -- unlike on a national basis -- it may be better to do a census, which is a poll of the entire membership, Newport said. "That means every single person in the church receives a survey to fill out."

A poll of the unchurched also can be valuable to a congregation seeking to reach out to its community, said David Kinnaman, research director for Barna Research Group, Oxnard, Calif.

"The types of information a church might typically use would include understanding the background characteristics of people in a ministry area or the lifestyles and daily preferences of people in the community," Kinnaman said.

Particularly for larger congregations, which might better be able to fund a representative poll of its community, opinion polls can be especially valuable, Newport suggested. "You can find out what the needs are of people who don't attend your church and how your church and its programs are perceived."

Both the Barna Research Group and Gallup Poll have been highly influenced by pollsters who themselves are Christians.

Barna was founded by George Barna, a widely published Christian author of such books as "User Friendly Churches," "The Power of Vision," "Generation Next" and "Evangelism That Works."

Founded in 1984, Barna's company specializes in conducting research for a wide range of nonprofit organizations and Christian ministries such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, World Vision, Salvation Army and American Bible Society.

Besides its polls that track the state of American's faith -- which are released in the Barna Report, a bimonthly newsletter -- Barna also helps ministry organizations find information they need and "conducts research for churches and organizations so they can better understand their context," Kinnaman said.

George H. Gallup Jr., whose father founded the Gallup Organization in the early 20th century, is an evangelical Episcopalian who now is executive director of the Princeton Religion Research Center.

Although the Gallup family sold the Gallup Organization in 1988 -- following the death of Gallup Sr. in 1984 -- George Jr. and his brother, Alec, still hold the title of co-chairmen of the firm, which is now employee-owned.

But for the most part, Gallup Jr. spends his time overseeing the Princeton center, which is a nonprofit subsidiary of the Gallup Organization.

According to its Internet web page, the PRRC "offers the latest statistics on religious belief and practice in the U.S., based on 60 years of Gallup Poll survey data."

This goal is accomplished through a variety of publishing endeavors, including the center's monthly newsletter, Emerging Trends, and a variety of books, such as "The Religious Life of Young Americans: Five Years Later," "Religion in America, 1996," "The Unchurched American: Ten Years Later," "The Role of the Bible in American Society" and "One Hundred Questions and Answers: Religion in America."

Newport acknowledged the Princeton center and the Gallup Poll make up only a relatively small part of what the greater Gallup Organization does. "Over 90 percent of what we do is working for business and industry, providing information on customer satisfaction and marketing. The poll is a small but very important percentage of our overall activities."

Gallup Poll figures are regularly released in partnership with Cable Network News (CNN) and USA Today and in a column distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Newport noted.

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