10 Ways to Read Your Community

I have the privilege of hanging out with missionaries, men and women who have learned how to exegete their communities in order to proclaim the gospel in contextualized and relevant ways. I also hang out with local church leaders, though, who often know far too little about the communities they serve. Here are ten ways to “read” your community:

  1. Do a demographic study. I doubt this option is surprising, but I’m amazed by the high percentage of church leaders who don’t know current data about the people in their ministry area. As a church consultant, I often quiz leaders based on our company’s demographic findings – and seldom have I met leaders who know their community well.
  2. Talk to public school officials and teachers. Few people in a community see the reality of life like teachers do. Some daily see the products of crippling poverty, broken homes, and poor choices. Others work with students whose successful families have little need for God. Let these teachers give you a glimpse into the lives around you.
  3. Get to know local government officials. Even if you disagree politically with the leaders, develop friendships with them; you need to know these influencers in your community. They can be reservoirs of information about past community struggles, current needs, and future plans. Plus, they will likely need a pastor at some point in their own lives.
  4. Intentionally spend one day per week in the community. Eat in the restaurants. Visit the local stores. Read in the library. Study at the coffee shop. Volunteer in the school system. Prayerwalk the downtown area. Get out of your office into the community, and what may sound like a wasted day can become pivotal in your ministry.
  5. Talk with other church leaders. Church leaders often offer years of community experience and knowledge, but too many local church shepherds never get to know each other. Competition, distrust, and “lone ranger” mentalities keep us disconnected. Push against those tendencies, and invite a veteran pastor to lunch. Find out what obstacles other churches are facing in reaching your community.
  6. Read your community’s history. Even if no one has written a full history, many communities have published at least a brief record of their story. Learning that story will not only help you understand the history better, but it will also show others your interest in being a genuine part of the community.
  7. Ride with a police officer. Officers who have been in the community for some time will know the streets well. They may not use this language, but they know the sin strongholds in a region. Hang out with an officer for even one shift, and you may see more of your community than you have ever seen.
  8. Interview people. Walk the streets, and interview people about the community’s needs. Question them about their own spiritual walk. Discover how they define “success.” Ask how churches might make a difference in the community. Just talk to people with intentionality – while you listen and learn.
  9. Map your faith community. As a church leader, you should know the area where your church folks live. Using a paper map or a computerized process, map the homes of your regular attenders. See where God has already placed believers, and build on that foundation. Find the “holes” where your church has no testimony, and go there. Pray. Look for ministry opportunities. Extend your witness.
  10. “Prayer-drive” the community. Begin to use your driving time to see the area with God’s eyes. Pray for Christian congregations that meet in buildings you pass. Watch for places of worship for other world faiths, and pray others will hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. Be alert for, and pray for, people caught in addictive bondages, abusive relationships, and sinful lifestyles. Watch and pray more intentionally as you drive, and your burden for your community will grow.

What other ways to “read” your community do you recommend?


  • Mark says:

    Go talk to the police dept. and /or hospital chaplain(s).

    Go volunteer in an or the emergency room one entire weekend or at least during their busy period (7 pm to 7 am).

    Talk to inner city pastors. They can tell you a lot.

    Talk to the catholic bishop. They tend to know a lot about their diocese and which priest is doing what. They can direct you to their ministry leaders.

    If the city is big enough, go on grate patrol one morning wih people who do that. For those who have never heard of this, volunteers take food to those who slept overnight on the steam grates in the sidewalk and make sure they are alive. It is in big cities in the winter.

  • Brian Ledford says:

    I am bi-vocational, working as a substitute teacher. I have learned a lot about my community by spending time with students and hearing their struggles. Amazing the things you can hear when you actually listen to students. This also allows me to spend time with teachers and administrators at the schools where I sub.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      While I served as a pastor, Brian, I also taught in a public school for a semester. It was there I learned just how out of touch I was with our community. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • GCaruso says:

    In our work with churches we often use http://www.perceptgroup.com. Good detail at a reasonable price.

  • This definitely has validity when it comes to serving your community, but I wonder how much it has when it comes to reaching your community. At least from my experience the driving force determining the congregation that you associate with seems to have a lot more to do with denominational association and different preferences than it does with locality. A congregation that I was part of in the east end of Pittsburgh did happen to draw a lot from the immediate neighborhood, as the neighborhood it was located in had a lot of people that depended on foot travel and the bus lines. The storefront location also attracted a lot of foot traffic. On the other hand, the prior congregation that I was with was suburban, and pulled from all over the place. I was personally traveling up to an hour for Sunday services (though it was much closer to my work during the week), and it was drawing people from multiple small cities and towns in the area, and probably over a dozen different school districts. This isn’t even some mega-church, generally had a Sunday attendance around 250-300.

    You make the comparison with a missionary, it is important for a missionary to learn as much as possible about the culture that they are going to insert themselves into, but it is even more important for them to be moving to raise up local leadership who are actually part of the culture. We can do a lot to integrate ourselves into a community, but ultimately there is always going to be a little bit that is lost in translation when we are outsiders. You even see this to a degree with some of the SBC guys from the south that are planting in the northern states. There isn’t a lot of difference culturally, at least that matters a whole lot, but there is still the notion that they are the outsider trying to inject themselves into an existing culture… it’s helpful if you are empowering “natives” to lead alongside you.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Thanks, Dallas, for your thoughts. I agree with you that regional churches face different issues simply because of the size of the ministry area. We do, though, still need to know the area. I also agree that all of us must be raising up leaders.

  • Colin McGahey says:

    Thank you Drs Ranier and Lawless- This is a great article, especially for planters, and one more reason why multi-siters ought to consider turning loose of the video feeds and let the local expressions exegete and speak to their micro-cultures.

    For those who are uninitiated, start here with demographics: http://onthemap.ces.census.gov/.

    You can map the major employers and ingress/egress from your area of reach. For instance, you can discover whether all your people commute out of your community to work, how many jobs are available and in what industries, median income, ethnicity and education level. This will help you decide how effective (or how brutal) weekday-night programs might be for your people, or how to address gaps in care for the city during the workday, how to meet needs between the school let-out and the parent commute, etc. If you dig deeper, you can analyze the places from where people are moving into your community, or what TYPES of industry your local EDC is wooing, the targeted home price of proposed residential developments, and then be able to anticipate cultural shifts in the community and church ahead of the curve.

    • I have to admit that my kneejerk is to hate these satelite, video screen setups, but I have often wondered if being freed from preparing a Sunday message might give the staff pastors at these locations more of an opportunity to do more ground level pastoral work within their congregations. I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t work that way, but that would be my hope on the brightside.

      • Chuck Lawless says:

        I’ve seen a number of multisites where the local campus pastor is indeed a genuine shepherd for the people. Thanks, Dallas.

      • Colin mcgahey says:

        Dallas- I would never argue that a multi site pastor couldn’t be a good shepherd. I know one in particular that is wonderful. However, at the risk of sounding passé, I still argue that a campus pastor doing regular and frequent preaching (perhaps being the primary preacher) allows him to fulfill the full range of responsibilities charged to the NT shepherd. I believe a preaching shepherd will always be a better shepherd, and a local church/site more healthy for it.

        • Believe me, it really is against type for me to think that their might be value in the format. I am starting to view the sermon more as just a form of teaching. That with satellite campuses, and one main message on Sundays, that it might open up opportunities for the campus pastors to explore other avenues of teaching or equipping.

          As someone who has listened to hundreds of not thousands of hours of sermons over a relatively short period of time, it’s not that I am completely against the format, I’ve just been more open to other methods of late.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Thanks, Colin, for the suggestions.

  • Reading not only your community but also the county and the region is critical. I was involved in music ministry in three church plants—one in the 1980s and two in opening decade of this century. It is important to know what radio stations are in your community, county, and region, what kind of music they play, and who listens to them. What kinds of music are people streaming off the Internet and who is listening to it. What kinds of concerts are sell-outs? What kinds of concerts draw light attendance? What kinds of musical programs are offered in the schools? What is the percent of student participation? What kinds of musical resources are available in the community, the county, and the region? Does the area have a university or community college with a music department? Does it have a community choir or chorus? What musicians live in the area? What kinds of instruments do they play? Do they have students or any kind of following? What kind of music is used in the local churches and how is this impacting their growth. Here it is useful to keep in mind Thom’s research showing that the quality of the music not so much the particular style is what the recently unchurched reported as an important factor in their decision to attend a particular church. If churches are using hymns, what hymns are they using and to what tunes are they singing them. To what kind of accompaniment are they sung? Are they sung without accompaniment?

    The first church plant in which I was involved used a denominational hymnal that did not use the hymn tunes used in most North American hymnals at that time. The county in which we were located was experiencing explosive growth with new families from a variety of denominational backgrounds or with no denominational background moving into the county. Rather than focus on reaching the small number of families who were from the same denominational background as our church and who might know the tunes in our hymnal, we chose to cast our nets wider and use the most-widely used tunes in North America. Rather than limiting ourselves to the single narrow collection of a hymnal, we also used a selection of popular worship songs as well as a number of newer hymns not in the hymnal. We received high ratings from newcomers for the enthusiastic congregational singing, the eclectic blend of traditional and contemporary music, and the genuine friendliness of the congregation and the warm welcome extended to visitors.

    This experience taught me the importance of sizing up the music tastes and preferences of the community, the county, and the region. Specializing in classical music in an area whose tastes run to country-western, blue grass and other regional forms of folk music, and gospel may be the death knell for a church.

    It is important to know not only what music connects with the community, the county, and the region but also what music has connections with these entities. I live in western Kentucky which is Southern Harmony country. A number of Church of Christ congregations sing unaccompanied and use shape-note hymnals. Benton, Kentucky is the site of the annual Big Sing to which Southern Harmony enthusiasts flock each year from around the Commonwealth, the South, and the country. If an area church chooses to sing traditional hymns in its worship, its worship planners should give serious thought to the use of tunes from Southern Harmony .

    It is also important to take note of the special events in the life of a community, the county, and the region. What do its people celebrate? This knowledge may also help a church to connect with the community, the county, and the region.

    Periodically doing a community needs survey is also important. Community needs do change. New needs may surface as the community changes. Before Hope Church was planted in Waldheim, Louisiana, Lane Corley, the pastor who planted the church, conducted a survey of the needs of that rural community. This type of survey helps a church planter identify ways of connecting with the community. Among the needs that survey identified was the need for recreational opportunities for children living in the community. Hope Church would seek to address this need.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Thanks, Robin. Given the mobile nature of our society and the interconnectedness of communities, I agree that knowing a region is important.

  • Shell Osbon says:

    These are all great ideas of how churches/pastors can become more aware of their communities. I would also offer that churches/pastors consider developing partnerships with other organizations in their communities which provide them with opportunities for direct involvement and service. We’ve been doing this for the past 11 years and it has become the primary means by which God is opening doors to people with whom we may not otherwise be able to interact. More can be learned about our Community Partnerships here http://www.mylifechurchsmyrna.com/ministries#Partners and here http://www.mylifechurchsmyrna.com/partners. I would also be honored to share more details with anyone who is interested. My email address is Pastor@MyLifeChurchSmyrna.com

  • Fr. Richard says:

    There are many great suggestions here. One thing that we are doing is going every week to the murder sites in our city and praying. We do spiritual warfare at each site and often see many opportunities to minister to the families of murder victims, as well as people in the neighborhood. Many are frightened and our presence is comforting to them. The good news is tha we have seen a 40% reduction in murders.

  • Good friend of mine goes door to door Sunday afternoons in groups of 2 or 3. They speak the Gospel to 3-5 people each time out…muslims, mechanics, doctors, etc.

    Don’t know of a much better way.

  • Ann says:

    I love the idea of being out in the local community – the stores, restaurants, or just out walking around, etc. This gives you a flavor of your local community. I also agree with identifying the local businesses or employers; this will likely give you an idea of your local residents. I was once in a church that really wanted to do inner-city ministry, which is a noble and wonderful ministry. However, the church was in the suburbs, 10+ miles from the inner city; the church leadership totally missed the fact that within a 3 mile radius of the church were several colleges and hospitals, and mulitple professional businesses/organizations. Thus, the local area residents were largely professionals who worked at these organizations – professionals (single and married with or without families), single parents, etc. Despite their higher socioeconomic class, they still have personal and spiritual needs…. The church was able to help with some inner city feeding programs, etc. but did very little for the people right around the church. I wholly support serving the underserved, but a church in the suburbs has local spiritual needs that also can be addressed.

    • Ann says:

      PS: We have since started attending a church that is very committed to the local community. Not only does this suburban church support an inner-city feeding program, the church has an outreach to the nearby public elementary school by “adopting” the teachers, does occasional services at a retirement/assisted living facility, and is really aware of the local community. What a difference.

  • Scott howell says:

    One of the most effective ways of learning our community has been visiting the homes of the children we minister to at our mid-week service. First, it gives an opening to introduce ourselves to their parents/guardians. Second, we have the opportunity to see the needs personally. Third, they now have a face to put with “the church down the street”. We have seen an increase from 15-20 in our mid-week service to 120-130 in a 2 year period. As always, what works here may not work everywhere, but an idea.

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