Action Research: A Methodology Towards a Model

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : January 20, 2005

I’ve been thinking about a few problems inherent within developing models of doing church in a post-[insert word here] context. The biblical way of conceiving of a church system (as far as I understand it) is relational, interdependent, decentralized, and fiercely pneumatological.  One could caricaturize the conventional church as a sort of opposite of these things: institutional, independently individualistic, centralized, and programmatic.  But any such caricature is misguided.  The Spirit has always been faithful to reveal Christ and form community in the Church–even when we unwittingly act in disconcert. 

Nevertheless, there is truth to the caricature.  If we want to conceive of a church as a community created by the Spirit–a calling together of those who are in the process of being saved–an interdependent array of broken people who reflect the life and love of Jesus Christ to one another and the world, then we need to reconceive the way in which we do church.  Our current approaches are generally inadequate. 

I’ve become intrigued by action-research and its potential for church development.  Here’s a definition of action research (which I got from this site):

Action research can be described as a family of research methodologies which pursue action (or change) and research (or understanding) at the same time. In most of its forms it does this by

  • using a cyclic or spiral process which alternates between action and critical reflection and
  • in the later cycles, continuously refining methods, data and interpretation in the light of the understanding developed in the earlier cycles.

It is thus an emergent process which takes shape as understanding increases;  it is an iterative process which converges towards a better understanding of what happens.

In most of its forms it is also participative (among other reasons, change is usually easier to achieve when those affected by the change are involved) and qualitative.

In other words, this approach engages in research on the fly.  You research and analyse as you go.  You take the time to process your actions and refine them as you go.  This approach challenges the common approach, which is TO START WITH THE END IN MIND AND CONSTANTLY TRY TO MANIPULATE THE SYSTEM TOWARDS THAT END. 

What is the alternative?  Here’s a perfect description (from Vineyard Central) of this system at work:

What does a typical house church meeting look like?
all a little different. What we encourage people to do is just get
together for a pot-luck meal and pot-luck worship ending with
communion. Pot-luck worship is based on 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul
writes "Everybody has a prophecy, word of encouragement, a song", etc.
If everybody (or most people) bring something that becomes the agenda.
Eventually this will start to take a form that fits the group’s gift
mix. So some groups have gifted teachers and those people can regularly
be counted on to bring a teaching. In the beginning, though, I just
encourage people to get together over a meal and start to build the
relationships. The last thing you want is a strict agenda and a
programatic approach. The structure will emerge from the group itself
over time.

It would be silly for a group to form without any sort of pre-conceived purpose.  But what if a handful of friends were to meet with the purpose of studying and praying about what it means to be church, and then let the pattern emerge as they pray together?  What if they allowed themselves to experiment–and allow for trial and error in developing a sytem?  This is perhaps a dramatic way of using action research in developing approaches to church development; there are a meriad of other applications to this approach to research. 

for further reading . . .

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5 Responses to “Action Research: A Methodology Towards a Model”

  1. D. Goodmanson on January 20th, 2005 1:34 pm

    “The biblical way of conceiving of a church system (as far as I understand it) is relational, interdependent, decentralized, and fiercely pneumatological.”

    I’d be curious where you see this. Didn’t the original Christian (Jews) gather centrally in the Temple before they got kicked out? Did they go ‘decentralized’ as a biblical way or out of necessity? Thanks for your thoughts on this…

  2. Van S on January 20th, 2005 5:35 pm

    It’s true that they met at the temple early on. However, their worship was no longer centered around the temple, it was centered on Jesus Christ. We see in Acts that they continued to meet at the temple, which was a central social phenomena, but they began to engage in religious practices in homes. The Temple was no longer the focus of worship. This message can be seen clearly in Hebrews. In Christianity, we see no earthly priests, no centralizing temple. We see a temple made of people and a high priest in heaven. Even with apostolic leadership, leadership is fluid, plural, and dialogical.

    Hanging out in one big place is permissable. I have nothing against hundreds of people getting together to sing and hear teaching. But this is only a small part of what the church is. So, while they had the ability to gather in the Temple, they did. When persecution came, they stopped going. They were able to make that transition very smoothly, because their theology was very much decentralized.

  3. D. Goodmanson on January 22nd, 2005 7:10 pm

    Thanks for your comments. As for the organic nature of doing church where ‘everybody brings prophecy, word of encouragement, song’ I’d add that we see some formal ’servant-leadership’ in the form of people preaching/teaching the group.

    1 Timothy 5:17 “elders with a gift of leadership should be considered worthy of respect, and of adequate salary, particularly if they work hard at their preaching and teaching.”

  4. Van S on January 22nd, 2005 9:24 pm

    Good comments. I don’t disagree that you have some people who serve in a more central role in different areas. I think we need teachers and leaders.

  5. Evan on February 15th, 2005 10:36 am

    When I was getting my MSEd (I’m a HS chemistry teacher) the Action Research thing was emphasized for us in a big way. The professors at Ohio State made us do an AR project for our thesis. The thinking here is to encourage teachers to stay in flux, trying new things and measuring the results quantitatively so they will become everfresh, lifelong innovators.

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