Missional Planning for Congregations: Who Are Your Neighbors?

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When a congregation develops a missional plan, what it’s really doing is discerning and putting into writing how it will fulfill Jesus’ command, “Love your neighbor.”

Ultimately, a congregational missional plan is only as sound as the congregation’s knowledge of its neighbors and neighborhoods. That’s why developing a congregational missional plan should involve a thorough analysis of the congregation’s missional context — the qualities, needs, strengths, and aspirations of your communities. Identifying this information can help you discern the mission that God may already have in store for your neighborhood and congregation, and make sure you’re moving in the right direction.

Essentially, this analysis comes down to two vital questions: What is my neighborhood, and who is my neighbor?

Question 1: What Is Your Neighborhood?

The first step is to define the realistic geographic boundaries of your neighborhood. There are two ways to do this: 1) Determine your congregation’s area of greatest influence and attraction, from which people are most likely to first visit your congregation (we call this area a MissionWeb), and 2) determine the practical extent of the area from which your membership is likely to come.

Area of Greatest Influence and Attraction (MissionWeb). Research has shown that the vast majority of people will explore the congregation closest to them before they visit others. In marketing terms, you could think of this as your “low-hanging fruit” — the people who are most likely to visit your congregation first. This means your congregation’s MissionWeb is the area bounded by equidistant drive times between your faith community and the nearest faith communities of your denomination (or similar liturgical style).

Area of Likely Membership (15-Minute DriveTime). Research has demonstrated that about 70 percent of the regular attendees (the functional equivalent of members) will come from within a 15-minute drive time of the church’s location.

Once you have defined your congregation’s realistic geographic boundaries, you need to start asking questions about this area, such as:

  • How large is your MissionWeb (based on geography and population) compared to your 15-Minute DriveTime? If your MissionWeb is smaller than your DriveTime, it suggests you may need to broaden your focus beyond your lowest hanging fruit. If larger, it suggests you may need to narrow your focus.
  • How many other congregations of your denomination are located within your congregation’s 15-Minute DriveTime? Research suggests that these will be your strongest competitors. The more that exist, the more competition you have for the same finite population.
  • How many congregations have you spoken or collaborated with regarding the neighborhoods you share? These congregations are likely trying to engage the same neighborhoods and people as your congregation. If you aren’t collaborating in serving these neighborhoods and people, you are competing for them. At the very least, your congregations should have a discussion about the neighborhoods you share — or, even better, reach an agreement about how you can engage these neighborhoods and people collaboratively (e.g., combined youth groups, joint rotations at the neighborhood nursing home, etc.).
  • How much do other congregations’ DriveTimes overlap with yours? The greater the overlap, the greater the competition, and the more you need to move toward formal collaboration, team ministry, or even merger. If you overlap more than 50 percent with any congregation, you should consider coordinating or collaborating in your efforts to reach the neighborhoods and people you share. If you overlap more than 80 percent, you should be considering organizing a formal team ministry agreement or merger.

Question 2: Who Are Your Neighbors?

The next step is find out as much as you can about the characteristics of the people who live in your neighborhoods. Marketing research shows that there are definable subgroups within the general population that share similar demographic characteristics, values, and behaviors. There are several kinds of data you can study to develop a clear picture of the people in your neighborhoods.

Lifestyle (Marketing) Data. As you study the demographic and lifestyle characteristics of the groups that make up your neighborhoods, you will want to interpret implications for your congregation’s ministry and outreach by asking questions like:

  • What media channels do they watch, listen to, or read?
  • If they visit you, what kinds of hospitality will make them feel welcome?
  • What kinds of education resources, facilities, and teacher qualities will you need to accommodate age distribution, family composition, language, and culture?
  • What kinds of skills are they likely to bring with them?
  • What kinds of needs are they likely to have?

These are the kinds of questions we answer in our Missional Context Reports, which analyze lifestyle and marketing data for its practical congregational implications.

Demographic Data. Once you have a snapshot of your neighborhoods’ lifestyle demographics, you can begin to dig deeper into various population characteristics, including: generational predominance (e.g., Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, etc.), average educational level, population growth trends, income, and more.

Data Regarding Local Issues. With a clear picture of the characteristics of the people who make up your neighborhoods, you can dig deeper to determine the kinds of issues they face. You will want to look at things like crime rate, poverty rate, diversity-related issues, health-related issues, and more.

Data Regarding Local Resources
Finally, continuing to paint the picture of your neighborhoods, you can begin to more deeply examine institutional and organizational resources the community can bring to bear on the issues people are facing, including such resources as: hospitals, public and private schools, colleges and universities, recreation centers, various senior resources, and more.

The data about your communities doesn’t only teach you about your neighborhoods and the people. Analyzing community trends against congregational trends can tell you a lot about the vitality and sustainability of your congregation. The results can help you understand how to help your community thrive in ways that may also help your congregation thrive along with it.

Need help discovering and interpreting the data about your neighborhood and neighbors? Datastory can help you dig into the right data and develop strategic insights to help your faith community make more informed planning decisions. Contact us to learn more.

Originally posted on Faith eXperimental by the Rev. Ken Howard, Executive Director and Principal Consultant for The FaithX Project. Ken serves as Datastory’s subject matter expert for faith communities, helping faith communities incorporate Datastory’s work into their strategic missional planning.