By Chuck Lawless
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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?