Discovering Your Community’s Needs:

The Doorways to the Delivering the Good News.

An old proverb says, “No one cares what you know until they know you care.” Jesus lived out this saying when met the woman at the well in John 4:1-26. He knew her desperate need for his forgiveness and lordship. He began with her more basic needs: her need for water which touched her outcast status and allowed him entrance into her broken relationships. Only then, having entered through her physical and social needs did he address her ultimate spiritual hunger to be rescued from her sin and restored to true obedience to God.

In the same way, we reflect Jesus (as true apprentices of him) when we enter the lives of those around us at their felt point of need. This can grow best through one-on-one relationships where we truly come to know the needs of individuals among us. Especially in a small group approach to outreach such individualized approaches can grow into a broader understanding of the needs of the community. This is a longer path and until we befriend enough people outside the congregation, it does not give us a sense of what needs touch the most people in our community and what needs may be going unmet.

Don’we already know this? Perhaps. If your congregation truly reflects your community the struggles of your members may truly inform you on how to enter people’s lives with the Good News of Jesus. There are several reasons to question whether this is true.

  1. Churches often become ingrown and develop a culture all their own. This can be especially true if your congregation has not added many new converts to your rolls. If all of your members are “people like us” then you will not know the needs of “people like them.”
  2. Following Jesus cures many problems. Christians are still sinners and bad things still happen in churches and the households of members. On the other hand, as we follow Jesus faithfully, by the power of the Spirit, we grow more to reflect Jesus. We would expect many of the problems out in the world to be at least less severe and less prevalent. This does not alway hold. Yet, where it does we become distanced and desensitized to the everyday struggles of others.
  3. When our neighborhoods change, the problems change, even when ours don’t. Neighborhood change can often leave us baffled. New people, often with new cultures and sometimes even new languages, throw us off-balance. They may, indeed, have very similar needs to ours, the same struggles, hopes, dreams and problems. Yet the social and cultural distance between us can make it difficult to know.

So what do we do?

Demographics can be useful if you know how to use them. The census bureau provides free data on their website. However, these are very user-unfriendly, built for professionals to use. Churches generally turn to two specific professional groups for help.

  1. Percept is a secular marketing group which does provide detailed analysis of the population around your church.
  2. Christians from the Percept group left and formed MissionInsite This group focuses in on the demographic needs of churches in particular.

Both of these will break down the population into various groups and at higher prices present detailed analysis of the particular hopes, needs and desires of these groups. For those used to using statistics these reports can give a good broad overview of the people in your area and may even present some surprises such as a population group you did not know existed in your area.

Consider one bit of cautionary advice: Unless someone in your congregation is familiar with and comfortable using statistical tables and charts, these reports may not be useful to you. MissionInsite does provide on-site training and church consulting for their products. I, too, am professionally trained in Geographic research and statistics and would be glad to assist you in interpreting these products.

Interviews can also be helpful. Pastor Rick Warren (of Purpose- Driven Life fame) planted his now-megachurch by walking around and asking people what would attract someone from their neighborhood to church. In doing this he aimed to find those need-oriented doorways to bring the Good News of Jesus to them. Today many people can be resistant (or suspicious) of such efforts. At the same time, when people conduct such interviews respectfully and without any ulterior motives (such as using it as an opportunity to evangelize or invite people to your church) people can be remarkably open. It can be especially helpful if you don't walk around with clipboards and if you start with neighbors who know you personally.

Others, such as school, hospital, law enforcement and city officials may provide fruitful insights. In the case of these officials, asking the right questions rather than open questions of “community needs” will be necessary. We all develop (eye glasses) based on our own profession and the circles we run in.

Walk around your town can also be very useful if you know what to look for. We often overlook people we don’t look for. The pastor of one church in a small town in Iowa challenged his members to reach out. They replied, “To who? Everybody in this town goes to church somewhere.” The pastor had them visit everyone in town. As it turned out the ethnic Greek owners of the only deli in town did not go to church. In fact, since they had come there years earlier, no one had ever bothered to ask them. They were invisible, even though people had been coming and going through their shop constantly.

I can help. Unless your city or neighborhood is no larger than a small Iowa town, you may need someone trained in researching your area to help you see what you miss. As a trained professional I would be willing to help you with any and all of these methods of finding the needs of your community. I can help you:

  1. Design and interpret demographic data and reports
  2. Design and train you to conduct neighborhood interviews
  3. Walk around your area helping you to analyze the needs of your area