By Peter Meier | October 15, 2016
I’ve been fascinated with the polls in this election cycle. In elections, pollsters and candidates use numbers and demographics to get a sense of where the public is on the issues and candidates. They watch for movement among large and small population segments.
Commerce and industry use demographics to track consumer behavior and to help determine locations for new construction.
Demography is big business. It is an inseparable part of American life, touching every aspect of life – social, economic, educational, political and religious.
Numbers and statistical research have always played a role in the Kingdom of God.
Moses sent spies to scout out the Promised Land. They were to evaluate what they observed and return with a report. Jesus surveyed the multitudes and was moved with compassion by what he saw. Paul carefully observed the temples and altars in Athens, using his observations to share the message of Jesus. From the book of Numbers to the Roman Census which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, to the Good Shepherd who counted his sheep and noticed the absence of a single one, to the disciples who counted the number of people fed with bread and fish, to Luke recording how many people were saved and added to the church in the book of Acts, the Bible is filled with numbers, statistics, and examples of demographics used in Kingdom service.
The Scriptures view numbers and statistics as valuable tools which record, evaluate and enhance the work of God.
Demography is one of the sociological tools that is helpful for those considering new ministry options and new church multiplication. Missionaries can’t avoid it; in fact, they embrace it.
There are many useful demographic tools and online sites available to help in planning new mission work. They are also extremely useful for existing congregations to get to know their own neighborhood or community. See the “Resources” segment below for a solid list of these tools. Demographic information for a specific community can also be obtained from a local library, school district office, developers, city planner or chamber of commerce. Ask about population trends, direction of growth, issues of importance to the community, ethnic make-up, and major development plans for the future.
One of the more useful pieces of demographic information is found on the Center for United States Missions website. This page contains maps and demographic information which highlight the “unclaimed” population of every county in the United States. Often churched people think that their neighbors are also churched. They are shocked when they discover that in many cases, over 50% of their neighbors are unclaimed. These maps open our eyes to the harvest fields which, as Jesus said, are “white unto harvest” (John 4:35). Download, print and use them to show your church what great opportunities to reach these unclaimed exist right in your own county!
Combined with the Mission Insite demographic information (often available at no cost from LCMS District Lutheran Church Extension Fund Vice Presidents), these numbers play a vital role in discovering opportunities to share the Gospel.
While “hard” demographic information available from online sources gives a “big picture” fly over of a defined area, the real heart and soul of a community can only be discovered through “soft demographics” or ground level personal discovery.
Soft demographics are the work of the church planter, or neighborhood missionary. She or he wants to know Who are these people? What are the assets of this community? How can I connect their story with the story of Jesus? Here’s what you can do to discover the heart and soul of your community:
1) Define your “neighborhood” or “community.” Use a map to highlight your area.
2) Gather and review the “hard data” from online and community sources.
3) Map out “landmarks” such as City and Public Services, Social Services, Major Businesses, Medical, Libraries, Churches, Schools, Transportation, etc.
4) Map the location of families or households who are part of your church or mission, and those who have indicated interest.
5) Get out there! Go on a prayer walk. Ask God to open your eyes to see your community through His eyes.
6) Observe; take notes. What artifacts do you see? What do these tell you about the activities and values of the community? What language is used on signage and in shops? What are the sounds and smells you observe? Are homes for sale or rent? What organizations, resources, and potential partners might be there?
7) Eat and shop locally. Ask questions about the neighborhood.
8) Spend some time (at least an hour) in a waiting area (hospital/medical, courtroom, social services, city offices, etc). Take notes on what you observe.
9) Visit other churches and pastors in the area. Ask them to share their stories, ministries, successes and challenges. What are the local idols against which they have battled?
10) Look for evidence that God is at work in this community. What areas of community life need transformation? What assets are found which show God’s preparation and work?
By combining “hard” and “soft” demographics, you will have the beginning of an accurate picture of your mission field. Become skilled in this art and you’ll get a sense of what types of ministry are most needed and welcomed, who your allies and partners might be, and where a new church might be established.
What do the numbers say about your community?
Questions for Discussion
1. How have you used demographic tools in the past? What has challenged you when it comes to demographic data?
2. What are some cautions when it comes to gathering and using “hard” demographic information?
3. How would you use hard and soft demographic information to plan new mission outreach, whether a new gospel outreach ministry or a new church plant? What data will be most useful for your planning? Who can help you?
4. What will you do to begin gathering useful demographic information?
Resources You Can Use
Mission Insite Demographics are available from most LCMS District Lutheran Church Extension Fund Vice Presidents. Call your District Vice President to obtain a report for your designated area or potential mission site. Ask the LCEF VP to help you and your team interpret the demographic information they provide.
Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community. Ed Stetzer and David Putman, 2006. One size does not fit all, but there are cultural codes that must be broken for all churches to grow and remain effective in their specific mission context. Here is insight on church culture and church vision casting, plus case studies of successful missional churches impacting their communities.
The Church As Movement. JR Woodward and Dan White Jr. Excellent segment, “Coming NEAR Your Neighborhood,” pages 192-196, features excellent questions for reading a neighborhood, based on the acronym “NEAR” – Narrative (Neighborhood story), Ethics (contextual definition of success), Associations (organizations and institutions shaping identity and destiny) and Rituals (core practices shaping identity and sense of mission).
Study Your City, Alex Early. This article contains a fine list of questions to ask as you seek to learn and love and minister to your city.
Helpful demographic links for church planters and ministry leaders:
Mission Moments is the e-newsletter sent by the Center for U.S. Missions to bring information and encouragement to all who desire to share God's great love in Jesus Christ with others. Permission is given to copy this article for distribution within your congregation or organization. Please credit the author and the Center for United States Missions. For more information contact the Center at (952)-221-0362, or visit our website: www.c4usm.org
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