Preparing Reports

Guide to Local Religious Organizations
Link to Religious News
Class Mailing List


Most people know little about religious groups outside their own faith tradition. While it is possible to learn about other groups through readings and viewing video tapes, this course encourages learning through direct observation. For most students, the typical observation will consist of attendance at the regularly scheduled hour of worship of the group being observed. Most religious organizations, however, have various kinds of meetings during the week and these may also be the subject of observation.

The more observations you do, and the greater the diversity of those observations, the greater will be your learning experience.

I encourage you to do as many as you can. At minimum, you should plan to do an observation on the average of every other week of the term. If you put a lot of effort into this requirement, you'll probably want to count this assignment for maximum credit. But keep in mind that effort is not measured simply in terms of the number of observations. It is equally important that you develop observational skills, record your observations, and integrate your learning from observation with conceptual materials in the readings and lectures.

While I have consistently rejected student's requests to specify a minimum number of observations, for those who need a little more structure in their lives, I recommend that at minimum you plan to do observations on the average of every other week during the term (i.e., six to eight observations). That is the modal range of students who have previously been enrolled in this course.

Developing Observational Skills

Sociological observation involves more than sharing time and space with others who are engaged in some activity. One needs to develop a sensitivity to the environment and what is happening. Further, it is important that you record observations within a reasonably short time of each observation. Unless one sharpens one's observational skills and faithfully records what they have observed, the capacity to make meaningful comparisons at the end of the term will be very significantly diminished.

To provide you with a starting point for what you ought to be observing and recording, see the "Religious Service Observational Guide" below. [This observational protocol was developed by Roger Finke, Department of Sociology, Purdue University. My thanks to Mr. Finke for permitting us to use this guide for this class.]

The Guide is presented in outline form. You can download it and then edit it to meet your own needs. You can make multiple hard copies, or recopy each time you sit down to do field notes.

You are also encouraged to examine the comments and guidelines of several other professors regarding what do look for when you observe religious gatherings. Click here

Whether you use this observational protocol, one of the others available, or develop you own, it is essential that you develop a standardized set of questions that you seek to record information about each time. Without standardized information, your ability to make comparisons is seriously diminished. This doesn't mean that you can't record information that is not on your standardized instrument. Indeed, if you observe something that you have not previously noted, record it. Then try to recall whether this phenomenon may have been present before, or are you seeing something for the first time.

Guides to Personal Conduct

The most important rule of conduct for those doing field observations is to exercise common sense. Assuming common sense, you are very unlikely to encounter any problems. But there are a few explicit rules that you should always follow:

  1. Recognize that you may feel apprehensive at the onset. Most new experiences, whatever they may be, can make us feel a little nervous. This is perfectly natural. You'll get over it quickly. Some student's prefer to begin with a religious tradition similar to their own. Others report that the best way to get into this is to take the pluge and begin with a tradition that is very different from their own. Whether you begin close to your own tradition, or far away, the important things is to get started.

  2. Go with someone, preferably a member of the class. Having a companion will help reduce any apprehension you may have about entering an unfamiliar environment. More importantly, your companion(s) will provide you an opportunity to talk about what you observed and what you felt. It is certainly all right to attend with a friend, but someone who is taking this course will be accumulating the same body of knowledge, concepts and theories that you are learning. As a result, you interaction with someone in the course is likely to provide the opportunity for reflecting sociologically on each experience. It is perfectly all right for three or four to go together. If the number gets larger than four, consider where you are going. The larger the number of people in your party, the more conspicuous your group, especially if you are attending a small church.

  3. Dress appropriately-and recognize that you are a guest. Visitors usually have a special status, but they are also expected to respect the norms of the group they visit. In smaller gatherings you are almost certain to be recognized as a visitor and may be so identified to the group by the leader or someone else. Most groups welcome visitors and what them to feel comfortable. Introduce yourself whenever it is appropriate. Your visitor status requires that you be courteous and respectful to your hosts, but it also provides you an opportunity to ask questions that will enhance your understanding of what you observe. Your visitor status does not require that you engage in their rituals unless you feel comfortable about joining in. Caution should be taken to avoid participation in activities inappropriate for a visitor (e.g., some groups consider communion closed to non-members. In most cases, the religious leader will say so).

  4. If you are uncertain about attending a partiular religious function, call ahead . Identify yourself as a student taking a sociology course about religion and ask if it would be alright for you to attend. The overwhelming proportion of religious gatherings are public and welcome visitors.

  5. It is generally inappropriate to leave before a service is completed . "Mainline" church traditions usually operate within fairly fixed time schedules. The further you move from the mainstream, the more unpredictable the length of the service. Be aware of this ahead of time.

  6. If you are told you are not welcome, or something happens during the service that makes you feel very uncomfortable, leave as unobtrusively as possible .

Taking Field Notes

Remember, your field observation work is not done until you have recorded your observations.

The sooner you record your observations, the more detail you'll be able to recall. This is important when it comes time to prepare your paper. Let's assume for example, that you think you have noted a relationship between the social class of groups and how the professional leaders dress. You go to your notes and discover that you have recorded information about dress for some groups but not others. You may have failed to mention that Catholic priests wore robes because you are a Catholic and took that for granted. But what about the dress of the Presbyterian clergywoman? If you failed to mention that she wore a robe, can you infer that she did not?

The more time passes after observation, the more difficulty we have in recalling details. And, the mind is capable of imagining things that we really didn't observe. So keep good notes as you go along. Your capacity to make comparisons will greatly enhanced. And, you will write a better paper.

There is no "best" way to record filed observations, but it is clear that comprehensive notes are better than thin notes. You should be discrete in taking notes during a service. Remember, your note taking could be disruptive to the person beside you. Often a word or two now and then will be more than adequate to help you recall great details-providing you return to those notes when you leave the service.

Religious Service Observation Instrument


  1. Background
    1. Name of Observer:
    2. Name of Group:
    3. Date visited:
    4. Address:
    5. Time:
    6. Year group organized:
    7. Year church was built:
  2. Physical Setting
    1. Describe the surrounding neighborhood.
    2. Describe the cars driven by the members.
    3. List and describe the physical symbolism.
    4. Describe the worship area. How is it shaped? What is located in the area, e.g., pews, carpet, lectern, pulpit, etc.? Is the pulpit emphasized by being placed either at the very center of the chancel or in an elevated position that is higher even than the lectern from which scripture is read?
    5. What other facilities does the church have? For example, do they have a school, rectory, parsonage, gymnasium, kitchen, or classrooms.
    6. Describe the outward appearance of the church, e.g., architecture, sign, landscaping, etc.
  3. Membership
    1. How many people attend the service?
    2. Offer an age, gender, race, and family profile of the congregation.
    3. How do the members dress?
      1. Women
      2. Men
    4. When do people arrive and leave? For example, what percent arrive late, and do any leave early?
    5. What is the response of the members to the message or service? (engaged? disinterested? emotional?)
    6. Describe any spontaneous physical or verbal responses.
    7. Describe any ritual responses.
    8. Optional: do they place a strong emphasis on recruiting or converting new members? Explain.
  4. Social Interaction
    1. Describe the social interaction between members
      1. Before the service
      2. After the service
    2. Describe the interaction between the pastor and the congregation.
    3. Describe the social interaction between the various age groups.
    4. Do they have social activities during the week? If yes, explain.
    5. Is the church involved in social activities in the community? If yes, explain.
    6. Did they notice you were a visitor? If yes, what was their response?
  5. Leadership
    1. Were women involved in leadership roles? Describe.
    2. Excluding leadership activities, describe the involvement of women in the church.
    3. Was there an ordained clergyperson? If so, what did the pastor/priest/rabbi wear?
    4. How many people are involved in conducting the service?
    5. What appears to be the primary source of authority in this church? (scripture? reason? personalemotional experience? tradition? charismatic authority of the leader?)
  6. Activities
    1. Are books or pamphlets available? If yes, what type of books or pamphlets?
    2. What types of of activities, events or services do they sponsor?
    3. (If available, pick up a copy of their newsletter or pamphlets that might provide information about the church or the denomination.)
  7. Religious service
    1. How long was the service?
    2. Is this the only worship service for the week? If no, indicate time and nature of other services.
    3. Did they have music? If yes, offer a brief description of the type and amount used.
    4. Did they take an offering? If yes, did they explain the purpose of the offering? Explain.
    5. Were children present during the worship service? If no, describe the activities planned for children.
    6. Did they use a sacred text, e.g., Bible? How often?
    7. Was the sermon the climax of the service? If not, what was the climax? Describe.
    8. Which senses are the most stimulated in this service?
    9. Which senses are not stimulated as a method of creating a sacred mood and experiencing the holy?
    10. If available, attach a copy of the service bulletin or order of worship.

Preparing Reports

Field Notes

The "Religious Services Observational Guide" is the starting point for you to develop your own protocol for taking field notes. Modify as you like, but you should use the same protocol for the key notes each time you make an observation.

To make sure you get started on the right foot, you will be required to turn in your field notes for one or two obseervations at class time on September 19. This is a graded assignment and failure to complete the assignment will result in a grade of zero.

Criteria for evaluation will be as follows:

  1. Have you developed a comprehensive protocol for note taking?
  2. Is it organized in a logical order and laid out so that you'll be able to easily access information when you write your paper?
  3. Have you taken notes that would permit someone else to read and have a good idea about what happened at the event you observed?

Grades will be based on a five point scale as follows:

5 = outstanding
4 = good
3 = meets expectations
2 = fails to meet expectations
1 = unsatisfactory

This early reporting does not count a lot toward your final grade (5%) but it is an important milestone. If you begin by doing quality work, you're likely to continue doing so. If your work falls below the instructor's expectations, you'll know early rather than late when its too late to improve your work.

Interim Report

The Interim Report is due at the midpoint in the semester. By this time you should have completed approximately half of your observations and given some thought to your plans to round out your program of research. If you have completed three or less observations to this point, you need to consider whether you are really interested in this assignment, and perhaps, take certain action. If this is not something you are enjoying, better to drop the course than stick with something that doesn't really interest you.

Final Report

Your final reporting of your field research is due the last day of class and should consist of two separate parts:

  1. Observation notes portfolio
  2. Observation paper

Observation Notes
Your notes should be organized in the order of your observations. Field notes should be presented in a standardized and logical sequence. The reader of your notes should be able both to get a good idea of what happened at each observation and be able to skip through several observations with ease to locate parallel information.

The portfolio should also include information you gathered in conjunction with your observation. Some smaller churches may not have a church bulletin, but most will. In addition, many churches have special material about their denomination or local programs that are available to visitors. In preparation for your observation, you may want to check out the home page of the denomination. All of these materials are appropriate things to include in your observation note portfolio.

Observational Paper
There is no single format for a successful final paper. Some students have demonstrated how the key sociological concepts of the course come to life in the observations. On the other hand, some students have found the experience to be very personal and have shared their feelings as to how the observations helped them come to some deeper understanding of themselves, their families, or culture. Others have elected to focus on some theme, eg. Comparing the role of women in the gorups observed.

The best papers tell the story of what the student learned as a result of the observations. As individuals, we bring many things to this experience, so we would expect many different outcomes. Sometimes good papers are personal narratives that tell the story of a journey in which we are part scholar, part spiritual being. Other times good papers are highly analytical, demonstrating that the student learned how to "think sociologically." In short, there are many ways to write a good paper.

If there is one type of paper that is not particularly interesting to read, it is a purely descriptive account of the churches one attended. When I finish them there is seldom any doubt that the student was just going through the motions. You don't have to be a believer to be interested in religion. But if you know you're not interested in religion, don't put yourself through the experiment to prove it to yourself.

Stephen Warner is a very good sociologist of religion at the University of Illinois (Circle Campus). His students attend religious services all over the Chicago metropolitan area. The attached is a memorandum he wrote to his students about preparing their progress on field observations. While the references to specific readings and experiences, the general tone and orientation of the memorandum is instructive. I encourage you to read it early and then read it again later in the term. I think it will help you think about your task.