By Dennis Garcia
My first Easter as a lead pastor saw a standing room only crowd. We had to set up chairs in the foyer and leave the auditorium doors open to accommodate the number of people we had that Sunday.
The next year, we were better-prepared…sort of. We decided to do two services on Sunday morning because we were anticipating a similar, if not larger, crowd than the previous year.
This decision, while necessary, terrified me. I was so worried one of our services would be close to empty. To help ensure we had enough people in each service, we decided to rope off several sections of chairs for the first service.
Well, wouldn’t you know it, our early service was packed, and our late service was sparse.
At our next staff meeting, I asked the staff why things were so backward. They politely informed me we are in a rural community and rural folks are accustomed to getting up early on any given day.
I learned a valuable lesson that day, which many call “contextualization.” This was the first time I’d ever served a rural community. I hadn’t done my research to learn about the culture of my city. I’d assumed, based on previous experience, that things were going to be one way. I was wrong.
To Reach it, You Need to Know it
Any given week, church leaders are making decisions that will impact their ability to reach their community.
- What style of music do we use?
- How should we decorate the church?
- What time should our service(s) start?
- How should the pastor dress?
- What programs and ministries will best reach our community?
- Sunday School or small groups?
Our go-to source to help us answer such questions is usually what successful churches are doing in other communities with other pastors. But in doing this, we often fail to consider our own contexts.
When the same programs and ministries that work for mega-churches across the country don’t work for us, it leaves us feeling frustrated and defeated.
Learning from other churches and pastors is a great way to spur creativity, push us out of our comfort zone, and even motivate us to reach our communities. However, let’s not fall into the common trap of cutting and pasting ministries and programs from other churches into ours.
Understand God has planted your congregation in your community on purpose, and there’s not a one-size-fits-all guaranteed approach. You must learn to contextualize your ministries and programs to where God has strategically placed your congregation.
Getting to Know Your Community
In church planting, this is often called exegeting your community. Exegesis is the process by which people study and draw information out of a subject matter.
In preaching, we do this with a particular verse or passage. Exegeting your community is no different. It’s the intentional process of studying your community and drawing out truths about the people who live there.
Here are five tools to help you get to know your community.
1. Demographic Reports
From reports from the U.S. Census or similar sources, you can learn vital statistics about your community. These reports give you information like age trends, household size, socio-economic information, and the ethnic make up of your community.
Other demographic sources, such as MissionInsite.com, can provide additional information on religious and social topics that help you discern felt needs and even best communication mediums.
For Southern Baptist Churches, you can request a free demographic report from the North American Mission Board (NAMB). Your state convention is also an excellent resource for this type of information.
2. Talk to City Leaders
At my last church, one of the first calls I made was to the mayor to set up a meeting. I asked two simple questions, “What do you see as the greatest needs of our community?” and “What are your dreams for our community?”
These two questions led to a great conversation and a wealth of information. Before I left the meeting, I told him our church wanted to be a partner in serving and shaping the future of our city. I asked him to let us know as opportunities arise.
3. Connect with the Schools
Teachers, principals, and district administrators probably have the best understanding of the needs and opportunities within the community. Plan a meeting with teachers from your congregation or sit down with the local principals to help get your finger on the pulse of the people in your area.
4. Community Surveys
Community surveys are a great way to get to know your neighbors. A good survey will consist of 3-5 questions such as…
- What are the greatest needs of people in this community?
- Why do you think most people don’t attend church?
- If you were looking for a church to attend, what things would be important to you?
- If a local church wanted to serve this community, what advice would you give them?
These surveys can be done formally, door-to-door, or informally as you meet people around town. NAMB provides several sample surveys here: https://www.namb.net/pdf/door-to-door-survey/.
5. Prayer Walking
When Jesus sent out the 72 disciples in Luke 10, he instructed them to look for persons of peace. One effective approach in finding such persons in a community is through prayer walking.
This practice allows you to pray over the community while seeking conversations with people as God brings you across their path. These conversations not only help you get to know people within your community, it may also lead to gospel conversations with individuals and families in whose lives God is actively at work.
Dennis Garcia (@dennislgarcia) is the husband of Toni, father of Miranda and Kephas, and church planting catalyst serving in Southern New Mexico for the North American Mission Board.