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Using the Resources of the Web to Research a Congregation

With the increased use of the World Wide Web by organizations of all sorts it has become very easy to gain some understanding of the congregation you are studying before you even venture outside your home. This knowledge gained from the Web doesn’t substitute for actual observation of the setting, participation in the service or involvement with congregational members. However, it can greatly enhance your preparation for entering into the research setting.

The Web Context

The first task when you go online to begin your investigation of a congregation and its religious, social and cultural context is to search for information directly related to the congregation itself. Choose a good search engine such as Google www.google.com, Lycos www.lycos.com or Alta Vista www.altavista.com and enter the full name of the congregation (placing the name within quotation marks usually returns more exact matches). Try different versions of the name, and in different search engines. You might also want to try searching for the Pastor’s name or other significant programs or persons at the congregation.

Does the congregation have a web site? If so, was it easy to find? What is on it? What isn’t? What does the site tell you about the congregation, explicitly and implicitly? See the Hartford Institute guide to good church web sites for help.  You might also want to see who is linked to the church's web site.  You can do this by going to www.google.com and then typing link:{and the web address you want to investigate}  such as link:http://www.mcchartford.com/  

Social and Economic Census Sites

An important next step is to get the "lay of the land," or an overview of the general population, through census and other demographic indicators. There are many sites where you can find U.S. Census information.

The foremost is the Census Bureau site itself U.S. Census Bureau www.census.gov. Previously, it had been difficult to use but the Bureau continues to make improvements to the site, so it is now very easy to use. You can find many other important resources on the Census site such as the economic and community census.

Good places to start on the site are the sections labeled "American FactFinder" and “Census 2000.”  Using the latter you can explore the 2000 census material by an explicit address, towns, counties, or states.   You might also want to try FEDSTATS  http://www.fedstats.gov/ which is a great repository for many federal government statistics.  Much of this information is also downloadable to your computer for further analysis.

There are many other excellent census and survey data sources to be found on the web. Try the links at the Hartford Institute data resources page http://hirr.hartsem.edu/sociology/research_datasets.html

You might also want to try these other sites which contain many links to census and survey data resources.

General Social Survey Data Home PageAt the GSS home site you can run statistical analysis on many national data sets covering a variety of survey topics. http://webapp.icpsr.umich.edu/GSS/

The Roper Center's List of Survey Research Organization Links is a good listing of additional survey research links. www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/links.html 

University of Michigan Documents CenterAn excellent and comprehensive collection of statistical data sources for many sociological topics. This is one of my favorite collections of data sources. www.lib.umich.edu/govdocs/stsoc.html


Religious Census Sites

Another essential overview to obtain before you "go into the field" is that of the number and type of local congregations in your study area - the religious ecology of an area. One very easy way to do this is to analyze the "Churches and Church Membership" data for the County you are studying. Go to the Association of Religion Data Archive www.thearda.com  and select "Interactive Maps and Reports" then select the state and county you want. 

You might also want to search for congregations in a given area using one of the many church locator programs which can be found at the Institute’s locator page http://hirr.hartsem.edu/sociology/research_datasets.html#church%20loc.

Most of these sources focus on the Christian congregations in our society, but given the increasing pluralism of our country you might want to explore the location of non-Christian religious groups. The easiest way to do this is to search The Pluralism Project’s web directory at www.pluralism.org/directory/search.php

Perhaps my favorite way to get a religious overview of an area is to use the tool attached to the Yahoo mapping site http://maps.yahoo.com/ or www.Mapquest.com. After you put the address of your congregation as the mapping address and the map comes up, then select the link to show "Nearby Businesses." This will bring up the yellow pages program and you can search for "churches" (or "religion" if you want a broader category) around your study congregation.

Drive around- Well, not literally, but on the information superhighway you can find many views of a city. Mapping programs abound on the Internet like those at www.Yahoo.com  or www.Mapquest.com. You can use the Yahoo "Nearby Businesses" mapping feature to locate the various businesses, schools, shops, etc. in the congregation’s general area.


Cultural Overviews

You can also get a feel for the cultural life of an area before you go out and begin to talk to business owners or interact with the residents. The web again allows you to do this in a number of ways.

What’s Happening? - What is going on in the town where the congregation is located? Check out the local newspaper online. You can also use the same mapping programs as above to link to town and city guides with listings of current events.

Governmental & Business Sources – Most school districts, towns, and cities have web sites with great local cultural information. Get a feel for the type of setting the congregation is in. You can tell a lot about the type of community from the web sites of towns and cities, Chambers of Commerce, school boards, Town library sites, and Merchant Associations.

Realtors – Nearly all Real Estate web sites have informative descriptions of the towns and sections of the cities they serve.

LifestylesAnother way to approach the cultural dimensions of a defined locale is to use demographic variables to create a composite "lifestyle" classification for the area’s residents. Percept http://www.percept1.com/pacific/start.asp, Claritas www.claritas.com and other companies offer free samples for a zipcode or more for a cost. Claritas offers their lifestyle profile for specific zip codes at www.MyBestSegments.com

Denominational Overview

Always try the official denominational home page specific to the congregation you are studying for information about the congregation itself, about other area congregations of that denomination, about the denomination’s theological position, as well as programs, resources, literature, etc. Many denominational web sites also offer information about the regional and local levels of the organization, clergy groups, and other ministries and missions which play a role in the life of the congregation. Likewise, some denominational web sites offer demographic profiles of areas or membership data for specific congregations. A listing of denominational sites can be found at http://hirr.hartsem.edu/denom/homepages.html

Non-profits Overview

You might also want to get a perspective on the social service networks and community resources within an area. Many Clergy Association sites as well as town/city, United Way, local newspaper, and yellow pages or Yahoo mapping sites have listings of area nonprofits.

Once you get the names of the area social service agencies you can find in-depth information about them on several excellent sites.

Guidestar http://www.guidestar.org/ This site has a database of information on 850,000 non-profit organizations, ranging from the arts to the environment to community and health services.

National Center for Charitable Statistics This site contains fact sheets on revenues and expenses of charitable organizations by state and county.

The Wallwatchers organization has a site www.ministrywatch.com with extensive information about religious parachurch organizations you might encounter in your study area or during your investigation of the local congregation. This is a Christian oriented site with a slight evangelical bias.


Online Comparison Studies

No congregation should be studied in isolation of other congregations in its denominational affiliation or the larger religious context. Because of the web, we now have access to numerous data sets, which can be analyzed by specific faith groups, areas of the country, or by other variables.

Faith Communities Today is one such data set which can offer a window into comparative religious information.

Another searchable religious data set is from the National Congregations Study http://saint-denis.library.arizona.edu/natcong

Association of Religion Data Archive www.thearda.com (ARDA) also provides ways to explore specific information about religious life and congregations online.

There are many other Religious Data Sites at the Hartford Institute web site http://hirr.hartsem.edu/sociology/research_datasets.html

Research Methods Sites

In addition to these more contextual overviews which a person can obtain prior to going out to investigate a congregation, the web also allows the researcher to examine many pages of research, analysis, and social scientific study method information.

http://www.socialresearchmethods.net//kb/index.htm  This is an online research methods textbook with many quality sections covering both quantitative and qualitative methods, analysis and report writing.

Congregational Observation Guides

Observation Guide created by Scott Thumma to parallel the book Studying Congregations.

Observational Guide created by Sociologist Meredith McGuire. http://www.trinity.edu/mmcguire/religion/observe.htm

Survey Research

http://www.srl.uic.edu/srllink/srllink.htm This is an excellent site covering many facets of survey research.

Survey Construction

http://hirr.hartsem.edu/sociology/research_questionbank.html Congregational Survey Question Bank - Using ten of the most recent surveys of congregations, the Institute compiled a question bank of often asked survey topics.

www.thearda.com The ARDA site also provides a survey question bank of sorts when you click on their section to "create your own survey."


Statistics Information

http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/selstat/ssstart.htm A nice interactive guide to selecting which statistics to use.  Great site http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/

http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/statsbk/  Introductory Statistics information by Square One.

http://davidmlane.com/hyperstat Introductory-level hypertext statistics book with links to many other resources.


http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/intrview.htm A good introduction to interviewing as a research methodology.

Content Analysis

http://academic.csuohio.edu/kneuendorf/content/resources/TOC.htm  This is one of the few sites devoted to instruction on how to do content analysis.

Miscellaneous Research Tools

http://www.NewsEngin.com/NewsEngin.nsf/JumpOffPoints/Free+Tools Cost of Living Calculator

http://www.geocode.com/modules.php?name=TestDrive_Eagle  Need the geocode for a church location?

http://babelfish.altavista.com Web Page Translator, roughly does what it says.

http://www.hymntime.com/tch The Cyber Hymnal site has over 4,700 Christian hymns and Gospel songs from many denominations. You’ll find lyrics, scores, MIDI files, pictures, history, and more.

Bibliographies of Congregational Studies Works

The Institute also has a bibliography of essential readings in the study of congregations that can be found at http://hirr.hartsem.edu/cong/congregational_studies_biblio.html

The Institute also has a broader list of recommended readings in the field of sociology of religion, which was prepared by Nancy Ammerman. http://hirr.hartsem.edu/sociology/bibliography_readings.html

Similar kinds of information can be found at the Resourcing Christianity web site www.resourcingchristianity.org, at Alban Institute’s www.congregationalresources.org, and the Leadership Network web site www.leadnet.org among others.

Numerous church consultants also offer online information about their work. The Hartford Institute web site has a long list of congregational consultants at http://hirr.hartsem.edu/leadership/consultants.html




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