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Who Is My Neighbour?
A new research guide can assist congregations in understanding their neighbourhoods and shaping their ministries accordingly.

Churches often want to understand their communities better but don’t know where to begin. A new resource exists for exactly this reason: to help churches conduct and interpret community research. The Community Research Guide is a “book of options,” according to its author James Watson. “It helps the leaders of a church build their own process to understand their community.”

The guide was produced by The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada in partnership with Outreach Canada. “Churches are asking how to be the church in a particular community,” says Watson, who works for Outreach Canada in Waterloo, Ontario. “This guide will help people open their eyes. It helps give passion and compassion for a church’s community.”

Reasons to research

Community research is a relatively new practice for churches. Pastors are trained to exegete Scripture but have not always been taught how to exegete their community. As Canada changes, community research is becoming an increasingly important skill for pastors and churches.

Lorne Hunter of Delta, British Columbia, is director of research for Outreach Canada, a ministry that helps to empower, equip and extend the Church in Canada. Years ago, he says, “when churches began, there were more people coming to the church. It used to be that if you built a church people would come.”

Today, things have changed. “More and more people are not coming to church. For the most part, you have to make a connection with people for them to want to come to church.”

Often, says Hunter, “urban areas have changed drastically. Sometimes a community has changed but the church hasn’t. Many of these churches now understand the need to get to know the community.”

James Watson agrees. “Our social contexts in Canada have become increasingly diverse. Learning some skills in exegeting our community has become more important. Ways of life are changing. It’s much more important to be intentional. We can’t assume things.”

Research is important even in areas where there does not appear to have been any significant change. It’s not only for areas where new houses are being built or where there has been an influx of immigrants.

“It’s easy to get into our own little group and not even realize whom the church is missing,” says Watson. “There are also cross-cultural issues that are easy to miss. Community research helps churches look at the difference between who they are and who the community is.”

New churches usually include community research as they plan their launch. But community research is not only a tool for new churches. “Many established churches are trying to be sensitive to what the community is like,” says Watson.

“They want to be relevant and make sense. They’re asking how to be the church in that particular community.”

Watson says the most important reason for doing research is obedience. “It’s what Jesus says about loving our neighbours.

Getting to know our neighbours is an important part of growing to love them. It can stir up missional initiatives within the community.”

The process

The place to begin is not with piles of information but with prayer. “Praying is the best first step,” says Watson. “Don’t make it a sociological thing; make it a God thing. Invite the Holy Spirit to guide and to make you aware of the people around you.”

The Community Research Guide provides interpretive grids that a church can use to make sense of the data.

After committing the process to God, churches should then take time to decide what type of information they need. “Look at the options and be discerning. Decide what type of information you want to gather, what kinds of things you need to learn. You need to think about interpretation before collecting data. This helps you decide what you’ll do with all the information.”

Once a church has prayed and discerned the type of information needed, members can begin to collect information. Watson says there are many options to choose from. “We can learn from the social sciences and look at what other churches and parachurch organizations have done. We then have to pick the options that are right for our church.”

One tool is demographic research – finding out common ages, professions, family sizes, income levels, religious affiliations, unemployment levels and the like among the neighbourhood population. Churches can collect data from Statistics Canada (much of it for free), municipalities, school boards and community organizations. Outreach Canada also provides community profiles based on the latest census.

The Community Research Guide provides interpretive grids that a church can use to make sense of the data. Watson compares these to lenses that give different perspectives on the community.

While demographic information is important, it is only a start. “Demographics provide us with an aerial survey,” says Hunter. “The information is very broad, very representative. It’s at a very low resolution compared with talking to someone over coffee. Demographics point us to the stories but don’t get us very far into the story.”

A church can then use other approaches to go deeper. “We need to think of other options. We need to be able to engage people in conversation so that we fill out the details that may be lost in the statistics.”

Watson cautions against a marketing mindset. “We don’t want to turn our neighbours into targets. We want our neighbours to be neighbours. We are trying to get to know them better rather than alienating them.”

When a church has collected enough information, it can begin to reflect on its role. “If there’s enough information, members can pray about what particular piece of the puzzle God wants them to address and where they fit in.”

Churches do not have to respond to every need. “They can ask for help,” says Watson. “There may be other churches or groups they can partner with. There are significant things they could be doing in the community. When you have enough information, it allows you to be discerning.”

Hunter says: “Overall, it’s not that difficult. People make it seem more difficult than it is. Take the time to collect the information. Pray over that information and ask for wisdom to be able to understand. It’s not that hard.”

The Community Research Guide also helps make sure it’s “not that hard.” It will help “churches and pastors sift through this stuff,” says Hunter. “It gives them guidelines as to where to get information and how to synthesize and work through the information. It’s kind of a how-to tool.”

The results

Glenn Smith, director of Christian Direction in Montreal, says churches change as they begin to understand their community. “It’s not a dramatic change at first. People begin to discover needs in their community they didn’t even know existed. They then begin to customize their work for the communities they’re in.

“…you can’t do one generic service and expect everyone to come…”

“What I hear most from people is ‘I didn’t even know that’s going on in my community.’ Most people experience an ‘aha’ moment.”

Watson says this process can help churches in the process of change. “Many churches have used this process as a stepping stone for vision renewal.”

Ellerslie Road Baptist Church in Edmonton is an example of a church that is adapting to its community. In response to their research, they have planted Mandarin and Generation X congregations within the church. “We have learned from trying to pay attention that you can’t do one generic service and expect everyone to come,” says Ed Stuckey, former lead pastor.

“Our vision has been to declare the wonders of God in the languages of the people,” says Stuckey. “Sometimes people speak English, but the languages of the heart are different. We need to be discerning what these languages are. In the past, churches continued to do what they always did, mainly for church people. Now we need to be talking to people in the area. It’s not an easy thing to do.” Stuckey says the church hopes to add more ministries and continue to adapt to the community.

“I think of this process as bringing light out of darkness,” says Hunter. “Research brings clarity. It helps congregations understand who lives in the neighbourhood around the church. It also helps evaluate existing programs so churches can be more strategic and connect with neighbours around the church.

“Churches may not experience huge growth in attendance numbers but there’s typically an increase in the ways churches impact the community. They usually end up having more of an outreach focus.

“I would encourage churches to do research on their community,” says Hunter. “Most people don’t even know who’s living in the house next door to the church. It’s hard to connect with people because people are so busy. For any church it’s important to get to know the neighbours and figure out how we as a body can impact the community. It’s not so much to bring them into the church but to love them.”

Darryl Dash is a pastor and freelance writer based in Etobicoke, Ontario.

Originally published in Faith Today, September/October 2008.




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