What the Marketing Surveys May Not Be Telling Us!

Few books have had such an impact on me as the one I recently completed, Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. It is her reflection on the findings of the National Study on Youth and Religion. I will say more about the book during my address at Biennial Conference 2010 in San Antonio; for the purposes of this Commons entry I would like to focus on one element of those findings and its implications are for Episcopal schools.

As a result of the interviews of young people conducted in the NSYR survey (of which Professor Dean was a part), one conclusion of the study was that there seems to be what the survey refers to as a pervasive “inarticulateness” among young people on matters of faith and religion. Many young people are simply not adept at being able to express a sense of their own beliefs, whatever those beliefs might be, however powerful they might be.

Perhaps it is a lack of context. It may also be the heavy emphasis today on spirituality, as opposed to religion, which tends more toward the inward feeling rather than any outward and tangible expression of those feelings. Without a community to help put language to the feelings of religious experiences, it is pretty difficult to come up with words that aptly describe in any way one’s sentiments. Admittedly, religious belief is an attempt to express what is, in the end, inexpressible; it just seems to be even more inexpressible these days for our nation’s youth.

However, the study also points out that the religious inclinations of our young people are very much a reflection of their parents. This is not a generation theologically at odds with their elders; the study confirms that there is great correlation between parental belief and their children’s belief. Hence, the survey concludes, this “inarticulateness” is an outgrowth of parental lack of words and language to express the state of their own beliefs. Like their children, a great many American adults are “tongue-tied” when it comes to explaining their beliefs.

Many adults today are quite aware of the difficulty they are having with attempting to put into words what they believe about God. What many do not realize is just how much company they have in that respect!

It made me reflect on a common scenario we encounter in our Episcopal school world.

A school board hires a marketing firm, and in their work with parents and other relevant stake holders questions are asked about what these adults see as the most valuable components of the education being received at the school. What is astonishing to some school people (heads, board members, vestry people), as they view the results, is the frequency with which being Episcopal seems not to be very high up on the list of those qualities most mentioned. Those listening to the results of the marketing survey are prone to assume, pretty quickly, that this means that the school’s “Episcopalness” is not valued that much. The conclusion is then reached that, in marketing efforts, the Episcopal identity of the school should be soft-peddled.

I do not take issue with the findings of such marketing surveys. What I do wish to challenge is the assumption that, when asked about the school being Episcopal, a great many of those who responded necessarily know exactly what that means. If we do have an adult population that struggles to find the words to express the presence (or absence) of belief, then how can we assume automatically that the word, “Episcopal,” is fully understood?

In the most recent edition of his school’s bulletin, Peter Barrett, Head of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School in Washington, D.C. refers to the results of one such survey of the St. Patrick’s school community. Those who completed the survey were offered thirteen different options on what was most valued at St. Patrick’s. Of the thirteen, the school’s affiliation with the Episcopal Church came in last place. But Peter looked at the other values that ended up higher on the list, and many of those were highly reflective of what it means to be an Episcopal school—the values he referred to as, “our Episcopal identity in action.” (see, “Striving to be Episcopal: The Work of St. Patrick’s,” in St. Patrick’s Press, Spring 2010).

All of this tells me that we need to take a second look at some of the conclusions we reach when we encounter such responses from our constituencies. As is the case with St. Patrick’s, the values we attach to being an Episcopal school might well be found somewhere other than in the word, “Episcopal.” At other times, we cannot assume that all adults have a clear grasp of what that word means in the first place!

This tells me we need to work more, not less, on giving words to our understanding of what it means to be an Episcopal school!