NCLS Research

Community Surveys

Canvass community members

If we really want to know about our local community we need to go out into it and talk with people. That’s obvious, and most of us would say that we do this, because this is where we live. However, it’s only natural that we might develop a particular ‘groove’ in which we move - going to the same places and talking with the same people about the same ‘safe’ subjects.

So it becomes helpful to occasionally make the effort to break out of that groove and go to different places to meet different people. Sometimes it’s enough just to sit and listen to what the people around you are talking about; sometimes it’s good to ask questions that encourage people to talk about the issues that concern them and those that give them hope.

Then there are more structured ways where we quite openly survey the people of the community because we really want to know what they think and where they’re coming from. There are many ways to do this and a few are contained here.

About Community Surveys

Survey research is probably the most common and widespread form of social research. A survey is a study in which people are asked questions about topics of interest to the surveyor. While this discussion does not attempt to provide you with a comprehensive plan which covers every aspect of conducting quality survey research, it highlights some issues that you may not have thought about.

To conduct survey research, you should address the following areas:

1. Research aim. Work out your aim or goal for this research.
2. Method. What method will you use to collect information? What instruments will you use?
3. Analysis. How will you analyse your information?
4. Reporting. What will you do with the results? Who will hear and how?

Aim of Survey Research

It may well take a significant investment of time, effort, and perhaps money, on the part of those conducting the research as well as the respondents. Church leadership and any team involved in a survey research project in their community should take the time to develop clear and owned goals.

Survey Method

What survey instruments or tools will you use?

Survey questions can be asked orally in an interview or in writing on a questionnaire. The format of questions might be open-ended, where the respondent can offer a free, unstructured response. Or the questions may be closed-ended, with a limited set of answers to choose from.

There are a range of survey tools provided here that you may use. Some suggestions for open-ended interviews are made in the following pages. The NCLS Research team has also designed a two page closed-ended survey instrument. You may choose to use a combination of these tools.

A 2 page community survey tool is provided in the NCLS Community Connections Workbook for Churches.
To order a Workbook, click here.

What is your sample?

You will need to decide who to survey- ie. which people in your community will be the survey ‘sample’. You may want to conduct a ‘straw poll’ where the opinions of only a handful of people are canvassed. This sort of exercise is valuable as it creates an opportunity for church attenders to connect with even a few people in the community. It will still be a good learning exercise for those involved. However, you will need to be careful not to generalise any anecdotal findings.

The most effective survey will be representative of your whole community, which will need a large enough number of people so that the survey will have some credibility. This may become quite an extensive exercise for your church.

If you want to take another approach, then it is still worth thinking about who you will aim at. Do you wish to target particular groupings? How will you connect with people? Door-to-door? Face-to-face in other public places? Make sure there are no restrictions to such activities in your area.

Be ready for a high rejection rate. You may only get 5% of people willing to do your survey. This type of surveying is best done in pairs.

Contacting your local council may be wise. You may arrange to leave written surveys with people and pick them up at a later time.

How will interviewers be prepared?

People who are interviewers will be going out under the banner of the local church. As such, all activities should be under the oversight of the church leadership. Leaders need to ensure that interviewers understand the goals and the process to be used. They should also be given guidelines for appropriate interviewing. (See following section on responsible and ethical research). It is advisable to have a clear process for dealing with any complaints that may come from community members. It is also useful to provide instructions about how to deal with further conversations to do with faith-sharing.

How will you record the responses?

Here are some ideas of how to record the responses. You can use more than one of these at the same time.

  • Take written notes while you conduct interviews.
  • Record the interview, making sure you have the permission of the respondent.
  • Prepare a series of categories and, as responses are made, match them to your categories.
  • Read out the options from a written survey and mark them on the survey sheet.
  • If you go door-to-door, keep a separate log book that records every house that was visited and every
  • one that resulted in an interview. This can be helpful if there is a complaint.
  • Keep a record of households where a language other than English is spoken, in case someone who speaks that language can visit at a later time.

As a Surveyor, your approach should be that of an interested listener; what you are hearing is of importance to the church, even though it may not immediately appear so. You should make sure respondents know what organisation is behind the survey, why you are doing the survey and what is going to happen with the results.

Get the consent of respondents before commencing the interviews or surveys and let your subjects know whether your research results will be anonymous or not. Finally, be careful not to pass judgments or provide answers to other people’s issues.

Community Surveys as evangelism tools?

A community survey is not an evangelism tool. It is one way to connect with your community – but should be seen as a means of gathering information – nothing more.

This relates to researcher integrity, which is an important ethical consideration. (See more about survey ethics later). Respondents have consented to being interviewed within certain parameters. If the interview is used as a chance to share faith, the respondent may feel tricked and view the experience negatively, in some cases, not until they reflect upon it later. By being respectful of the person, hopefully those being interviewed will be impressed that they were genuinely listened to and not misled or pressured. What if a respondent wants to talk about faith matters? Church leaders need to decide how they would like this scenario handled. For example, the interviewer can ask to conclude the formal interview first and then share about faith. Or they may ask to conclude the formal interview first and then arrange a time to return with others who may be particularly gifted in the area of evangelism.


You will need to have some effective and balanced ways to analyse the results. For the interviews, your analysis will involve looking for recurring themes. You may find it helpful to come up with a list of theme categories so that you can group or code the respondent’s answers. As people respond to the survey they may express thoughts on themes eg. raising children, financial issues, family relationships, stress, support services etc. Identifying these themes will help you look for patterns in what they’re saying.

If you recorded the interview (with the specific permission of the respondent) then you may want to type up a transcript. However, this is a long and tedious process, and it is often more effective to take notes during the interview and then to use the recording to check your notes or gather ‘quotable quotes’.

For the closed-ended surveys, you will need to get raw data into a form that you can manipulate. It will help you to get the data into a spreadsheet or a database. These are likely to have basic statistical functions.


When reporting your results be sure that you accurately represent what you observed or what you were told. Do not take interview responses out of context and do not discuss small parts of observations without putting them into the appropriate context. Graphs and tables may be useful ways of summarising findings.

Researchers should ensure that research findings are disseminated responsibly. Make sure that all the stakeholders receive information. While leadership teams may get an extended report, it will be helpful for church attenders to at least hear a summary of the results. You may commit to informing the survey respondents about the results. This could be a written summary, published in the local paper, or put on an accessible website.

Responsible and Ethical Conduct of Research

Any individual or organisation, such as a church, who wants to conduct human research needs to ensure they do this responsibly and ethically. The introduction of The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research says: “Responsible research is encouraged and guided by the research culture of the organisation. A strong research culture will demonstrate: honesty and integrity; respect for human research participants, animals and the environment; good stewardship of public resources used to conduct research; appropriate acknowledgment of the role of others in research; responsible communication of research results.” (p1.3, 2007, Australian Government).

These are excellent guidelines for any church organisation who wishes to survey their local community.

If a church uses the survey instruments and processes provided on this website, then they fall within the national guidelines. If you add or change the survey instruments, then you will need to take responsibility for ensuring that the project is ethically acceptable.

For more about conducting responsible and ethical survey research, go to ethical research

Two useful documents are:

The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct 1. of Research

The National Statement on Ethical Conduct in 2. Human Research

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