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The green grass across the fence - assessing your community’s needs

By Chuck Niedringhaus

SUMMARY: Over the past few months, we have looked at the process of developing a plan of action for your church. This process included last month's look at conducting a self-assessment of your church and its ministries using resources available through the General Board of Discipleship or by developing a custom research study. We wanted to determine what worked and did not work within your church with current members. Expecting newcomers to commit to a church that is not meeting the needs of members is unreasonable.

Now, the time has come to look outside of ourselves and examine our community and its needs.

Getting Started:
As a first step in this process, visit the Research Office of the General Board of Global Ministries. The agency has several free or low cost resources to give you a picture of your community using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and earlier church filings.

Start with a "Church and Community Summary". This free report provides ten years of information on your congregation, based on data submitted by the church. You will be able to see trends in membership, worship, Sunday school attendance, and giving.

Next, order the "Community Profile by Zip Code" report. This report, also at no cost, provides trends in population growth and household formation for an area around your church. Depending on the church's location or size, you may have to order for more than one zip code. You may be asked to make a small payment if you need information from many different areas. The Community Profile also provides information about growth in household income, length of residence, age distribution, and race and ethnicity.

Additional Demographic Information
GBGM's Research Office also has contracted with Claritas, the premiere demographics supplier, to offer access to low-cost demographic information, including Prizm™ lifestyle segmentation analysis, of church "service" areas. These segmentations can provide additional insight into factors that may influence how your church should approach different groups. The Research Office can provide a custom report for any study area you select.

Let me give you an example of the type of segmentation information that Prizm provides. Rural churches in the South might find that they serve an area with households described as "Shotguns and Pickups". In addition to data on income and ethnicity, Prizm would provide insight on what makes these households "tick", things related to the presence of children, educational levels, and lifestyle information related to magazine readership, car/truck ownership and preferred radio formats.

Looking At the Data
These three reports provide a wealth of information and can help you compare your church trends with developments at the local level. How fast is your area growing? Is your church keeping pace? Is your "service area" experiencing an influx of new families or individuals? Is the ethnic composition changing with new populations entering the area? Does your church reflect this demographic change? Does the age distribution of the community match the congregation? Are important age cohorts under-represented in your church? What lifestyle characteristics may affect the ways you want to communicate to them – or their receptivity to your message?

From personal experience, I have found that many churches underestimate the amount of demographic transformation going on around them. Comparing growth and age trends in the population and the church can provide some startling contrasts. When the rural church I attend began a community assessment, they found their preconceptions shattered. They had assumed for years that the population of the area it served was static with few newcomers entering the zip code. They were dumbfounded to find out over half of the households had lived in the area 5 years or less and that the population had grown almost 30% during the past decade.

Making Sense of Demographic Information
Demographic information can help you start making hypotheses of how your church can reach out to the community. If your area has many dual income households with children, does this provide an opportunity to help families with childcare or tutoring of "latchkey" children? If your area has a growing population of families caring for elderly parents, elder care becomes an important way to serve. Influxes of immigrant families often means whole populations of people with problems related to community assimilation. All of these scenarios, however, would provide you access to people who may expand their ties to your church because of its commitment to help them.

What's Right for Your Church?
Your demographic research may identify numerous ways your church might be able to serve. To determine which one is most important to your audience, you need to involve your prospects. One low cost approach is to develop a two or three question survey related to their needs. Does their household need assistance with services your church is willing and able to provide. You can set up this questionnaire as a postage-paid postcard. To make it easy and inexpensive to deliver, consider using a door hanger format where they can separate the postcard along a perforated line.

The combination of the church and community assessments provides the framework for making key decisions for the marketing of your church. This framework, which we will discuss next month, will help us decide to whom we will target our communications and how we want to be viewed.