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Directions for Conducting a Community Study

Community Study:
Understand your context for ministry

Community analysis enables you to choose a ministry that is really needed, take best advantage of existing community resources, and convince your congregation and other friends that your program is worth supporting. In order to do that, you need to create as thorough and as balanced a profile of your community as you can. . . . God is already at work in your community. Your task is to find out where you can enter the picture. (Handbook for Urban Church Ministries, p. 13)

Why Study Your Community?

According to Ray Bakke, "Evangelicalism has had a theology of persons and programs, but it lacked a conscious theology of place." To develop effective holistic ministry, churches must learn to do "exegesis of environments." You must become a student of a neighborhood in order to become its servant. A community assessment has seven main goals:

  1. To guide strategic planning and the development of new ministries.

    Information improves a church's aim in making prudent, strategic investments with its ministry resources. Without an accurate assessment of the community's needs and strengths, ministry designs may be flawed. Identifying trends also helps the church to be proactive, beyond merely responding to crises.

  2. To help understand the forces that affect the lives of people in the community.

    Individuals are influenced by the demographic, cultural, and institutional forces around them. A community assessment reveals (sometimes hidden) dynamics that influence people's opportunities, choices, and perceptions of self-worth.

  3. To help understand community factors that influence ministry effectiveness.

    Ignorance of external influences on its ministries can lead a church to become discouraged, or to fight the wrong battles. Researching community assets allows a church to connect with other resources, to prevent the duplication of services, to identify potential allies, and to take the culture of the community into account

  4. To draw on stores of motivation and vision in the community.

    For people in the church and community to join together in working toward transformation, they must have a shared vision. A community study process that engages the input of the community, identifying people's passions and potential, can help generate momentum toward organized action.

  5. To build connections between the church and the community.

    A well-drawn portrait of its context can mobilize the church's yearning to see God's "kingdom come" in the community. The process of networking and listening also nourishes the congregation's sense of belonging in the community, and prepares the way for ministry partnerships.

  6. To help understand how the church itself is affected by the community.

    It is important to understand how your church's specific geographic and cultural setting has helped to shape its identity. To remain relevant and viable, churches must be willing to accept and adjust to changing environmental factors.

  7. To discern how your church is perceived by the community.

    Taking the pulse of the community gives you the opportunity to see your church from the community's perspective. Churches are sometimes woefully unaware of, or misled about, their local reputation. "Outsiders'" views of your church can represent a stepping stone-or a barrier-to building effective ministries.

Community Study Process

The community study can be undertaken by the Ministry Vision Team, or a small group of 3-4 persons commissioned to lead the community study. The best candidates for this group are observant people who are familiar with the community and feel that they have a stake in its well-being, but can be honest in describing it; who are good networkers and enjoy getting "out and about"; who have a knack at listening to people and pulling together various points of view; and who have time to commit to this project. As much as possible, invite members of the community who are not in your congregation to participate in the study group (this can be a key role of the Community Leadership Team). We recommend that this group read chapters 7 and 12 in Churches That Make a Difference.

The first step of a community study is to define your community of ministry so that you have identified a distinct geographical area or people group that your community study (and future ministry) will address. The next step is to gather information about your community, using a variety of methods.

The community study should be done alongside active networking with people and institutions in the community. A community study with the goal of transformation does not mean academic analysis or armchair observations. It entails seeking input from members of the community and cultivating relationships with persons and institutions. It entails an attitude of serving "with" and "alongside" the community, rather than just doing ministry "for" the community. Being inclusive and relational will allow you to get beyond raw data to the heart of the matter. You may be tempted to pass quick judgement on your ministry context, but to become a "student of the community," you must learn to listen!

Note that the community study takes into account the strengths and resources of the community, not just its needs and flaws. Christians must counter the impulse to believe that we hold all the answers, and that nothing good exists in the community apart from the church. Our understanding of common grace assures us that God is already at work in the community, that each person has God-given gifts to offer and capacities to develop, and that the church's role is to help build redemptive relationships that tap into this potential. A community study becomes a treasure hunt for the wheat of God's activity, hidden among the tares (Matt. 13:24-30). Ask the Lord to show you where His reign is already evident in the community.

A relational, asset-based approach to community study keeps a church from having a patronizing attitude and discourages the temptation to look for a "quick fix" for the community's problems. This approach will also provide a sturdy foundation as the church moves from analysis to action.

After completing the community study, the task group will write up their findings in a report. The community study guide provides a suggested outline which may be adapted for your purposes. Keep in mind that the goal is a brief overview of the key points, not a doctoral dissertation! Tool #35 suggests a few creative ways of supplementing the written report with more "right-brained" presentations. The report can then be delivered to the Ministry Vision Team or other appropriate leadership group to process its implications for ministry (see the community study reflection questions). The report should also be shared with those in the community who had input into its development. The information and insights from this study can then be incorporated into your process of vision discernment and planning.

For more on what and how to learn about your community, see Studying Congregations, chapter 2; Community Ministry, Part I; Churches That Make a Difference, chapters 7 and 12; Handbook for Urban Church Ministries, chapter 1; and Timothy Keller, Ministries of Mercy, pp. 145-153.