If you’ve ever been to a Westar meeting or Jesus Seminar on the Road (JSOR), you might know who we're talking about -- our beloved Westar Associate Members usually hail from Mainline Protestant denominations, with interests that start with the historical Jesus and early Christianity and extend to topics like Humanism and Religion and Science.
Our Associates are likely to have a favorable view of Westar, but that’s where the predictability ends—the role Westar has played in the Associates' spiritual or intellectual journey is anyone’s guess. While some respondents reported that Westar has enabled them to embrace Christianity, others report that Westar has empowered them to let go of Christianity and pursue alternate spiritual and/or intellectual paths.
In the fall of 2011, Westar Institute developed and administered an online survey of its members and friends. The objective was to gather information about respondents and their opinions of the organization to develop plans to better serve current members and attract new ones.
Survey invitations were sent via email to the 4,234 individuals in Westar’s database from the U.S. and Canada who had provided email addresses. This group represents about 25% of Westar’s total database. Of those individuals, 1,229 completed the survey, for a response rate of about 30%. This is considered very high, as 10%–20% is the norm for online surveys.
While the benefit of an online survey is its low administration cost, the drawback is that respondents disproportionately represent those who have access to email and the Internet, and who have the time and computer skills to complete an online survey. As a result, survey respondents may not be a representative sample of Westar members and friends overall.
In addition to answering multiple choice questions, respondents took the time to type in more than 4,000 comments about their interests, The Fourth R , meetings, what Westar could do to better serve its members, and much more.
Overall, the comments were very positive and showed strong support for Westar Institute, a passion for its work and its mission, a sense of gratitude, and a desire for the organization to grow and succeed. The most common re- quests were for more meetings in the respondent’s area (JSORs and semiannual meetings), and more resources— especially online resources—for study groups, worship, and religious education.
Many respondents expressed concern about the “graying” of Westar and a desire for programs that would en- gage a younger generation in Westar’s work. Respondents also expressed a desire for Westar to have a stronger voice in the media and to conduct more outreach to clergy who are attempting to integrate Westar scholarship into their churches.
Comments reflected a range of views on the direction of Westar’s scholarship. While some respondents said they would like the focus to remain on early Christianity, others felt that that ground had been covered and wanted Westar to expand its scholarship to include other religious traditions.
Opinions were also divided on what role Westar should play in the Christian church and the larger society. Some respondents felt Westar should be an agent for change and a stronger voice in the public discourse on reforming the church and on political or social justice issues. However, others felt that Westar should stay out of such matters and remain an academic organization.
About the Respondents You’ve likely already met Westar Associates; they'll be among the group who found its way to Westar through their church or clergy (20%) or through a friend or family member (16%). More than 150 respondents said they had first heard of the organization through Westar scholars, teachers, or books. Here are a few more findings about our Associates who also responded to the survey.
- About two-thirds (68%) of respondents were male; about one-third(32%) were female. The majority of respondents (65%) were in their sixties and seventies. (See figure 1.)
- 8% were in their eighties (or older).
- 29% were in their seventies.
- 36% were in their sixties.
- 18% were in their fifties.
- 7% were in their forties.
- 2% were in their thirties
- 1% were in their twenties (or younger).
- About half (55%) of respondents were not religious scholars or clergy. About one-fifth (20%) were clergy (active or retired). A slight majority of respondents (615, or about 54%) were affiliated with mainline Protestant churches. 1 (See figure 2.)
- About one-fifth were affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity
1 Mainline Protestant as defined by the Association of Religion Data Archives
Reflecting Westar’s roots in the Jesus Seminar, the interests chosen most frequently were the historical Jesus and Christianity, including Christian Origins, Progressive Christianity, and the Future of Christianity. Other popular topics (selected by more than 100 respondents) were Religion and Science, Nature of God, Comparative Religion, Religious Education, and Human- ism. (See figure 3.) Respondents’ comments ranged from “I’m interested in all of these” to suggestions including the Bible, mysticism, atheism, and the intersection of religion and politics, the environment, and social justice.
About Membership More than half (56%) of the survey respondents were Westar Associate Members. Membership tenure was fairly evenly distributed among those who had been members for fewer than 5 years, 6–10 years, and more than 11 years.
- About 17% of respondents had never been members, and about 15% were not currently members but had been members in the past.
- The top membership benefit chosen most frequently was receiving The Fourth R (nearly 80%).
- Other popular choices were supporting Westar’s work and mission (79%), being part of a community with similar interests (57%), and access to scholars (37%).
- Three-quarters of respondents felt the membership fee was about right. However, some respondents commented that the fee was unaffordable for students and retirees on a fixed income.
- Overall, respondents indicated that they were satisfied with the value they receive from Westar (60%).
The most common request was to hold more Seminars on the Road in the respondent’s area, and to host semiannual meetings in areas other than the West Coast.
The second most common request was for more re- sources, especially online resources: streaming events, pod- casts, videos, recommended reading lists, and materials for study groups, worship, and religious education.
- Just less than one-third of respondents reported having made a donation to Westar (with 10% unsure).
Members were more likely than non-members to have made a donation to Westar.
In addition to being chosen as the top membership benefit, The Fourth R enjoys very high readership rates, with nearly 70% of respondents reporting that they read all or almost all of every issue.
- Respondents were divided about receiving The Fourth R as an electronic publication, with roughly 40% in favor, 35% opposed, and 20% unsure. The percent- age of respondents interested in an electronic format decreased as age increased.
Respondents’ comments included:
- It is a wonderful resource for preaching and teaching.
- As retired clergy this is a very good way to keep up with current scholarship in the field of the Christian Scriptures and know about new books in the field.
- My wife and I usually read an article aloud to one another with our morning coffee.
Respondents also provided suggestions for including more articles written by Associate Members, and keeping content at an accessible reading level.
- I think the articles written in The Fourth R could be a bit less esoteric so that I could share them with congregational members. At times, I find them even a tad “over the top” for myself and I would like to think I’m a rather serious and well-read seminary graduate. It’s important to reach progressive theologians but it’s also important to reach the people in the pew who we hope to reach with “new” theology.
“The survey shows that there is strong interest in making The Fourth R available in electronic format, and this is certainly something we need to seriously explore,” said Bob Miller, editor of The Fourth R . “However, we believe it’s important to continue the print format, so that subscribers would have the choice of receiving it through the mail or accessing it online.”
“The results of the survey assure me that the mix of our articles is about right,” Miller said. “Most of our articles are written by scholars, but we also will continue to present some articles by articulate laypeople, a mix that reflects the unique blend of Fellows and Associates in Westar.”
On average, our Associate members are more likely to have attended a Jesus Seminar on the Road (JSOR) than a Spring or Fall Meeting.
- More than half the respondents had attended a JSOR.
- More than 80% of overall respondents felt the cost of JSORs was about right. This increased to 90% of those who had attended a meeting.
- About one-third of respondents had attended a Spring or Fall Meeting. The percentage was a bit higher (40%) for respondents who were members.
- More than half of overall respondents felt the cost of Spring and Fall meetings was about right. This increased to nearly three-quarters (71%) of those who had attended a meeting.
- The top reason for NOT attending a JSOR or Spring or Fall Meeting was inconvenient location. Unaffordable cost was the second most common reason for not attending a Spring or Fall Meeting, possibly due to the additional costs of travel and lodging.
Book topics that interested respondents were closely aligned with the general interests expressed in a previous question. The most popular topics were the historical Jesus and other topics related to Christianity, with sizeable groups expressing interest in Religion and Science, Nature of God, Letters of Paul, Reforming the Christian Church, and Comparative Religion.
The survey also asked about how respondents liked to read books.
- More than one-third of respondents overall said they were interested in electronic books (ebooks).
- More than one-third of respondents overall said they owned or used an ebook reader.
- While e-reader use was most prevalent among younger respondents, at least one-third of respondents from each age group owned or used an ebook reader, except the oldest respondents (born in the 1920s or be- fore), 25% of whom owned or used an ebook reader.
“It was great to confirm that there is so much interest in ebooks among members of all ages,” said Larry Alexander, publisher of Polebridge Press. “Polebridge was one of the first small publishers to provide ebooks for our readers, and we’re committed to publishing ebooks using the latest technology for all ebook platforms."
The last question on the survey was optional, asking respondents to comment on how Westar has contributed to their spiritual journeys. While a handful of people bristled at the phrase “spiritual journey,” more than 700 people— more than half the respondents—took time to comment on the impact Westar has had on their spiritual and/or intellectual growth.
Responses were overwhelmingly positive and full of gratitude.
- I think the world is a safer place and that there is more potential for peace in the world because of the work that Westar does. Thank you!
- Westar has been the guiding light of the last fifteen years of my quest for understanding.
- You are the only hope for Christianity’s future.
Westar has given respondents “permission” to ask questions.
- [Westar Founder] Bob Funk said once that Westar gives people permission to think, permission to ask difficult questions. I have always liked that idea.
- [Westar] has given me both permission and knowledge to pursue a faith based on fact as well as myth, for which I am profoundly grateful.
- [Westar] has given me permission to question, even to doubt. That has been a great relief.
Westar has been a supportive community to those who had felt alone in their views.
- Westar has made me feel my questions and my faith journey are not wrong or sinful. And it has made me feel I am not alone in my journey. Attending JSOR makes me feel like I am part of a breathing, thinking community instead of a lone heretic
[Westar] let me know there are other intelligent people with progressive notions about inherited belief and perhaps even questioning the divinity of Jesus. [It has been] reassuring to discover such a vibrant community.
Westar has been a source of spiritual enlightenment for some, and a source of intellectual stimulation for others.
- It has become my spiritual “home” much more than any local church that I still occasionally attend.
- I don’t know if I have a spiritual journey, but Westar has certainly enriched my life and my understanding of Christianity and particularly Christian origins. For me it’s more of an intellectual pursuit.
Westar has enabled many respondents to deepen their experience of Christianity.
- It reaffirmed my commitment to the Christian path by allowing me to reconcile my faith with a modern intellectual understanding of the universe.
- It has provided a credible, scholarly alternative to traditional, orthodox Protestant theology and enabled me to remain within the Christian community while hoping and working for change, renewal and personal faith maturity.
- Without I probably would be completely out- side the church. Traditional doctrine is no longer of any interest. Westar/Jesus Seminar is my community of faith.
Westar has given many others the impetus to re-examine and change their beliefs.
- The Jesus Seminar on the Road I first went to about fifteen or twenty years ago was a real eye opener. I’m now post-Christian. And a Unitarian.
- It helped me decide that I no longer believed in God. It led me to a lot of literature written by theologians who had made the same journey. It introduced me to people in person who had made that same journey. It took me from a place of despair to an understanding of what may be possible. It helped me become functional again.
- In all these years I moved from liberal Christian to atheist who values a community of care, which I find in the UUA.
Clergy members have found Westar to be an important re- source in their ministry.
- Westar has been a wonderful support to me as a pas- tor. I often feel isolated in my community as one of the only progressive clergy in the area. Several years ago I attended a gathering in New York that featured some of Westar’s most notable speakers/authors.... It was a life-changing event.
- It has been a necessary resource in my professional ministry (teaching and preaching).... I owe whatever insights I have to the work of Westar. For me, the strength of Westar is the focus on religious literacy and presenting religious scholarship to non-professionals. Thank you!
Educators have also found great value in Westar’s resources.
- I picked up The Five Gospels soon after it was published and found it carefully argued and compelling. I attended a JSOR in Santa Barbara with Bob Funk and Greg Jenks. I loved the opportunity to listen to and question these great scholars and thinkers.... I teach comparative religion as a community college philosophy course and have relied heavily on Westar, Polebridge Press, and other scholars I first heard at a Westar Conference in preparing my lectures.
- Westar has helped me in great measure in my teaching career and my spiritual development. It often is mentioned in my teaching as a source that helps you to learn to think for yourself.
Many respondents were grateful for Westar’s reasoned approach to finding truth.
- When I first “met” Westar in the mid-nineties, I was overjoyed. Here were all these Biblical scholars actually speaking truth about Jesus. And they were even saying, in general, what I had long thought! Hooray! But to speak soberly: Westar, I think, gave me a spiritual journey. It was to learn anew, to care about Jesus again, to honor honesty, which I knew posed dangers for some Fellows.
- Westar is the voice of reason amongst the current Christian cacophony of theological salesmanship. It provides an intellectual foundation to evaluate traditional Christian theology and doctrine and the role of the church in Western Civilization. I am thankful for the spiritual nourishment Westar has provided in the vast wasteland of the contemporary shouting of Christian orthodoxy. There are precious few other resources for the interested layman.
- The focus of a scholarly group on the honest his- tory of Christianity and religion has offered a voice of reason in my wilderness of questions and doubts. The impact of Westar/Jesus Seminar scholars on the broad, cultural understanding of Christianity has impacted our society, though it is often hard to see it in the midst of evangelical mega-churches, televangelists, and supposed moral majorities. But the voice cries out to all who are searching for a more meaningful faith.
Now that the survey is complete, the data has been collected in a 75-page research report, and the challenge for the staff and Board of Directors is to determine next steps based on current priorities and available resources.
A new website is already in development, with a more fully featured bookstore, many more resources, and a discussion forum. Although it won’t have all the features respondents requested when it launches this fall, the foundation will be in place for future expansion.
“These survey results are a great opportunity for Westar to better know its members and supporters: both who they are and what they want from the organization,” said Bill Lehto, Chief Operating Officer of Westar. “This information will be invaluable over the coming year as we develop our new website and evaluate our outreach programs.” 4R
Lynn Tuttle Gunney (M.S., Northwestern University) is principal of Gunney Orchestrated Marketing Communications, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A Westar Associate Member and active Unitarian Universalist, she is the author of Meet Jesus: The Life and Lessons of a Beloved Teacher (2007), the only children’s book on the market that takes an historical approach to the Jesus story.
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