By Micah Fries
I pastor an 89-year-old congregation in what the American Bible Society deems the most “Bible-minded city” in America. We’ve grown in exciting ways in recent years, but to effectively continue reaching our city with the gospel, we know we’ll need help.
Some of that help will come from other established local churches. More will come from new churches.
Because of that, we’re partnering with a local church to plant an autonomous congregation in our city, and we’re also planting additional campuses of our own church. In doing so, we’ve had to develop ways to pinpoint where to plant in our city.
Lifeway Research shows new churches are more effective than established ones at reaching the unchurched. Even the most Bible-saturated cities in America need new churches. But what do we do? Is there a blueprint for determining when and where to add a church?
We used a combination of exercises that may help you as you think about leading your own congregation to plant other churches or to simply reach your community more effectively.
1. Know the social makeup of your community.
I’m often amazed at how few pastors and church leaders know the history and cultural/social demographics of their communities. Pastors should view themselves as missionaries—and so should the people who make up the congregations.
Learning about your community is simple. While it’s possible to spend a fair amount of money for detailed demographic reports, you can also learn valuable information while spending next to nothing.
Begin with the U.S. Census Bureau website. Use its free tools to identify what is happening in the immediate areas around your church and in the larger area that makes up your community.
Then assemble a focus group from within your church, making sure to include people of both genders and multiple generations and races. Ask them questions that get at the heart of your community, such as:
- What are the biggest social challenges in our community?
- What are the most appealing elements of our community?
- In what ways has our community changed in the past 10 years?
Use the Census Bureau’s demographic data and a summary of your focus group to create a profile of your community.
2. Know the religious makeup of your community.
It seems when pastors and church leaders survey the religious makeup of their communities, they find something surprising.
For example, last year Barna Research found my city, Chattanooga, Tennessee, to be the most churched city in America. But when I recently dug into the religious data about my community, I discovered 70 percent of my county’s population has no religious affiliation (Christian or otherwise). That’s a surprising and important data point to keep in mind when considering whether to plant a church.
TheARDA.com is a useful tool that allows you to research the religious affiliation of your area based on city name, zip code and other search parameters.
Knowing the religious makeup of your community and the characteristics of those who live there is vital in determining not only the need for new churches but also the type of church you ought to plant.
3. Map the members of your church.
Where do your members live? With a database of your members’ addresses, you can match pockets of your members with underserved areas of your community. These pockets of members can potentially serve as the core group for the launch of a new church.
Missiologist Keelan Cook has made mapping a fairly simple process. His mapping tool uses Google Maps to let you quickly identify the geographic makeup of your congregation. You can access his tool here.
Once you have uploaded your membership database into the tool, it will produce a digital map that will allow you to identify your members’ areas of concentration.
4. Map the churches in your community.
It may require a bit more time to accomplish this task, as you will need to enter the addresses of every local church into a database. Then you can upload them into the tool mentioned above and produce a digital map pinpointing every church in your community.
Too often churches overlook this step. They simply look to identify pockets of need without carefully considering who else might already be working in those areas. We need to recognize we are partners, not competitors, with other like-minded congregations and plant churches accordingly.
5. Identify growth areas.
The final step is setting priorities based on growth projections. Population movement is significant in evaluating the need for a church plant. Expanding areas need more churches, and congregations in those areas have greater potential to grow.
If migration patterns and growth areas are not easy to identify, this information can often be found by contacting your city manager or chamber of commerce.
These steps will help you develop a database of target areas and a methodology of church planting. But the value of studying your community goes beyond knowing where you should plant a church and what kind of church to plant.
As you go through these steps, your own congregation will likely gain a renewed approach to missional living. You’re leading your church well by helping your congregation to think intentionally, strategically, and missionally about the community. As you train them to think about a church plant, you’re also training them to think like missionaries about their own neighborhoods.
Church planting is hard. Leading a congregation to plant other churches is hard. However, the commitment to plant another church matters—not just for the growth of God’s kingdom but also for the growth of the congregation you lead. It’s worth the risk.
Micah is the Director of Engagement at Glocal.net and the Director of Programs at the Multi-Faith Neighbor’s Network. He has served as a pastor in the United States and as a Christian minister in Burkina Faso, West Africa.