Thursday, August 7, 2008

Reactions to Dave Stewart's Announcement of New "Missiology" Journal

Dr. David Stewart from the Las Vegas area has once again come up with an innovative approach to the study of missionary work. He has started a new journal devoted to empirical research. The proposed Missiology Journal is slated to be launched in January 2009. The free online peer-reviewed electronic journal of LDS missiology (the study of missions)will be available to visitors to his Cumorah Project website. He is also offering a small payment of $500 for any article accepted with an additional $500 for the article he deems the best in each issue. He wants to promote research and offers grants of $2,000 to qualified researchers whom he selects.

Upon reflection of his scope and content document he has raised several questions in my mind as to whether he will fulfill his expectations for starting such a journal. I have never spoken to Dave Stewart however I know a lot about him second-hand since his father-in-law Dave Thomas worked for Uintah County's Information Technology Department and constantly suggested on several occasion when handling an IT issue in the County Library I directed that I should contact his son-in-law about our similar interest in missionary work. I emailed him a couple of times but never received a single response for unknown reasons.

I am sure that he has noble intents on why he is doing it and hopes that it will transform LDS missionary work. He has proably spent thousands of dollars without expectation of reward. It is possible he could receive some financial relief if he sets up a foundation with some tax benefits for studying something that resonnates with his interests. Even John Sorenson does the same thing with DNA and genealogy. Having observed him I don't think that drives him but I can't figure out if he is operating independently of the LDS Church or not. I suspect the latter but unless he can influence them it just makes for intellectual stimulation since theory must be set in to practice.

In the past I have admired the content that he has posted on his site dealing with missionary work. For a week I also waded through his musings in his book The Law of the Harvest. He had a few good ideas but for the most part I found it a bit long and repetitive. I didn't find his analysis of ideas from the LDS general authorities to be indepth or radically different other than his contention that there needs to be better retention of members and more thorough teaching by missionaries. I agreed with him on the first point and disagreed with him on the latter point. I admired his sacrifice in giving away the book and of offering it on his website in electronic form.

His father-in-law informed me that he had at least one conference call with the LDS Church authorities about some of his ideas. I never received information about the content of the meeting nor his presentation. I was however unduly impressed enough to suggest to one or two of the Brethren that Stewart might be a good candidate to try out a few of his ideas in the field. I noticed a disconnect between his theory and practice in the missionary field. It shows that he can generate some discussion with those over missionary work. It would be interesting to note whether anything he proposed was being implemented in any way anywhere in the world.

I can tell by reading his proposal for the journal that he comes from the "Classical Approach" to scholarship. This is hardly surprising for a medical doctor who has been trained in the empirical or scientific method. He himself validates my observation:

Missiologic articles published to date in LDS scholarly publications relating to missiology have been almost entirely descriptive, non-interventional studies without scientific study design or hypothesis testing. The discipline of LDS missiology, or the study of missions, has not received serious attention from the LDS scholarly community.

Official missionary department research is not released publicly. When research findings are disclosed at all, they are typically released as isolated conclusions stripped of the context and methodology that are essential to determining their quality, relevance, and applicability. Missionary department research continues to be conducted almost exclusively in English-speaking areas, and the token exposure to other languages comes primarily from Spanish-speaking companionships in North America. These slow-growth English-speaking areas with large established member bases poorly reflect the circumstances of missions in the developing world where most church growth is occurring, yet conclusions drawn from such research are extrapolated to the world as a whole. My surveys of missionaries and leaders in areas where research has been done demonstrates no randomization, no blinding, little or no controlling for confounding factors, few efforts to measure compliance, and a primary focus on short-term endpoints (i.e. baptisms) with little or no follow-up regarding convert retention or other outcomes after investigators are baptized. Whatever one may believe regarding the quality of such studies, even good research cannot make a difference when it is not communicated or disclosed.

Stewart raises several red flags or questions by his description of the scope and purpose for the new journal's perspective. The scientific approach believes that you can observe some phenomenon in field studies and come up with some generalizable observations. If he is hoping to study LDS missiology it will be very difficult come up with reliable and accurate information without the direct cooperation of the subjects. In every scientific study you must have the consent of the subjects being studied or you cannot report information obtained from them. Unless the LDS Church directs the missionaries to participate then his results will be skewed. In addition you will not be able to independently observe a phenonemon the very act of observing it will change it.

There are several factors that make potential future classical studies problematic. One problem is that each mission of the Church is institutionally specific even in the same countries, or even states. The missionaries themselves and the mission presidents have unique ways of doing things despite a common guide to missionary work. Even if you find transferrable characteristics or different approaches will the church leadership choose to institutionalize them. In a culture that is about individuality that includes revelation for stewardship I find it hard to image their following any program even if its results are favorable i.e. Hartman Rector, the San Diego Mission.

I will be exploring a few thoughts this week in posts about this subject. I will operate from a counterposition that missionary work is based on critical theory that is as Covey suggests Mormons start with the end and mind and work backwards rather try to observe what happens in a naturalistic evolutionary way that can be explained by a study and can't be transferred outside the group studied. When you explain human behavior it gets a bit messy.

That you can explain missionary work in sociological, psychological, or transactional ways is simply a way of making meaning of them. It should be interesting to see what type of things are explored in his journal. I don't doubt that you can come up with ways of perceiving but whether such exploration will influence leadership is an entirely different matter.

I am glad he is publishing his new journal since it will be fodder for future blogs. I wish him success in transforming LDS missionary work. The good thing of reading his future journal is that it has my mind reflecting on possible topics for future posts. I will not lack for more scholarly additions to my blog.

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