If you’ve been in church planting for any amount of time, at some point you have dealt with demographics. As a pastor, I believe it is just as important to know my demographics. However, most pastors have no idea what to do with demographics or even how to read them effectively and apply them.
Demographics are important. But, let me be particularly clear: demographics will never replace the working power of the Holy Spirit. Demographics are a tool to understand culture, age, ethnicity, education, ideology, and religion(s) in any specified region.
Demographics & Exegeting Culture
Exegesis. Before my undergrad work, I thought I knew the Bible—then I was introduced to exegesis—everything changed. Biblical exegesis is a critical examination and explanation of a text, employing the original languages of Scripture.
If I am assessing a church or church plant, an imperative question is, do you know the demographics of your neighborhood, community, or city? While some pastors may be able to spout off percentages, reality comes when there’s a lack of application and comprehension. Similarly, if I can see Greek words, but have no idea what they mean, I cannot exegete a Bible passage—I’ll need help.
So, let me provide some help in which exegeting demographics can assist you to understand your culture and context.
Targeting. I won’t dive too far into targeting, but it can be highly effective. If you don’t know whom you are targeting and why (besides the gospel), you will never know how. With the ever increasing population shift of people groups through immigration, urbanization, and gentrification, church leaders must know who is in their community, the projected growth, and why they are there. People don’t just migrate somewhere for no reason.
Targeting specific people groups within my neighborhood is done when I notice a growing population shift within a specific grouping. Maybe there is a rise in a particular ethnicity, race, religious affiliation, or socio-economic status. Targeting will help leaders critically examine and explain what is occurring in their region, along with actually reaching them.
Community Needs. Every community has a need —when exegeting a community, you may uncover areas of plight, addiction, homelessness, or any myriad of social injustice and demand. The church should not only be serving these needs, but reaching the people affected by them, with the gospel. A comprehensive approach to help break the chains of poverty, despair, and bondage are fundamentals of the gospel.
Areas of Resurgence. Perhaps within your community an old box store was torn down, an old strip mall demolished, or restaurant closed? What’s replacing it? That’s the question you need to be asking. Municipalities must have tax revenue. Something will either be built in tis place, or your community is seeing a decline, both provide ample answers. We need to be observant and do a little homework. Is the old strip mall being torn down for some surge of economic growth? If a new restaurant is being built—what type is it? What does that tell me about the neighborhood? Should the church be revisiting its vision?
Areas of resurgence seem to occur within regions periodically, or cyclically. We once were geared up for the suburban sprawl, as people left cities. Now, people are leaving the ‘burbs and flocking to urban neighborhoods. Likewise, trends are showing that Wal-Mart and some of the bigger corporations, like Anheuser Busch, are in decline, as Millennials shift to more organic shops and craft brews. What does that tell us? It tells us that the church may be seeing a shift in mega-churches, possibly seeing future decline, while smaller more personal churches/church plants may be seeing growth.
Demographics & Spiritual Pulse
Spiritual Warfare. When I came to Richmond I wanted to know a little more about where I was engaging gospel ministry. It was revealed that Richmond, Virginia was one of the few cities along the eastern seaboard that was not affected during the Great Awakening. As well, there was a notable revival among African-Americans just prior to the Civil War, but the war squashed the Spirit’s zeal. Why is that important? History tells me what occurred within my community.
I know that some may not be advocates of prayer-walking, but there is most definitely a spiritual warfare taking place behind the scenes of your church. Do your homework and know your history.
Assessing Culture. While the Apostle Paul walked around Athens he was assessing the culture (Acts 17:14–31). With demographics in hand, what should I be looking for? I think if we are wise stewards of this information, we try to assess who lives within our community, city, and region. We want to know which religions are here because they’re not the same, nor can they all be approached in the same manner. Likewise, ethnic groups are not the same and bring with them a culture, perhaps, much different than our own.
If I want to engage the culture, I need to get out and view the community (walk it, ride it, experience it) and then read the demographics. For instance, our church has an inner city Liberian church plant. In questioning their pastor, he expressed that he wanted to reach his neighborhood more. I took one glance at the demographics and assessed that he should engage the culture with diverse arts projects (graffiti & folk art), music, celebrate recovery, and helping homelessness. Did all of that come from one look at the demographics? No, it came from experiencing the neighborhood and then reading the demographics.
Demographics & Sermon Delivery
Contextualization. I’ll use the same passage from Acts 17:14–31 regarding the Apostle Paul. When Paul was in Athens, he wandered around the marketplace (17:19) and assessed the culture, what they bought, how they talked, what they talked about, and how they worshipped.
Paul was examining how he was going to deliver the gospel to the Athenian people. While he was exegeting the people, he must have witnessed or understood much about their culture because he utilized an Epicurean philosopher and a Greek Stoic to explain the gospel (17:28–29). This is so important.
As a pastor I need to know the education level of my audience. If I’m constantly utilizing twenty-dollar theological terms with a congregation of people that have not graduated high school then I will have a hard time contextualizing the gospel to them. This is true if I am reaching a different ethnic group, or socio-economic group, as well.
There’s no reason to spend countless hours studying and preparing a message that no one understands. Demographics will help you understand who are the people within your region and help you reach and teach them the gospel.
The term “planting pregnant” may sound a little weird, but the premise is solid. It’s starting a new church while, at the same time, training potential church planters within your starting church team to plant.
Hence, the beginning church expects to birth another church—soon.
If the main goal of church planting is to gather and develop reproducible disciple-makers for the mission of God, then a key factor is the aspect of reproducibility.
Many times, I hear church planters with grandiose visions and mission statements. Yet, rarely do I hear of planters that desire to infuse a reproducible DNA from the beginning.
When I read the descriptions in the book of Acts of Paul’s church planting journeys, I tend to see him working with teams (Acts 13:1, 13; 14:21–28; 20:4). Seldomly do I read of Paul working as a Lone Ranger or “parachuting” (Acts 17:16–21). I also understand that the book of Acts is descriptive and not prescriptive—however—I can glean some good applicational insight.
One of the ways that Story Church will be planting pregnant is to start with the intentional ethos of reproducibility. This means that I will plant with guys that are apprenticing to plant and will eventually start a new church within the next few years—not a campus church—but an autonomous body of reproducible disciple-makers. These men will be able to watch, learn, and live out what it looks like and what it takes to plant a church.
While I am chronologically recording every move I make, I realize that every plant is unique and must be adaptable to culture. However, the principles and procedures for initial start-up, systems placement, and community exegesis will be eerily similar.
There is no cookie cutter approach to church planting, but by beginning to plant with the “pregnant” mindset and groundwork, the DNA of the mother church plant takes on an identity of reproducibility. And what that means is Story Church is not about building an empire but launching a multiplicative gospel movement.
For me, church planting pregnant is vital. However, I can plant pregnant because this is not my first time around and because I have put the time in to watch, learn, train, and be a part of other plant/planters. So, as I am planting Story Church, I will be apprenticing other potential planting candidates.
I realize that planting pregnant may not be the norm and I praise God for any and every church planter, but it is a means to birthing a gospel movement.
It’s no secret that my desire is to reach, equip, and care for service men and women, their families, and the communities that support them by living out God’s story of life, freedom, and community. Actually, that’s the specific vision of Story Church—the beginning of a church planting movement near military installations.
As my family and I have prayed through and been called to our specific task, I think about a Navy SEAL’s saying: SEALs don’t overcome a situation by rising to it, but by falling back on their training.
Over the years, I’ve been blessed to serve as a trainer, catalyst, and director of church planting. As well, I’ve been able to study the early church and the journeys of Paul within my doctoral work. So, as my family and I engage on our mission to reach and care for military communities by living out God’s story, I cannot help but to “fall back” on all of my training.
Much of that training is steeped in understanding biblical church planting strategies. Lately, I’ve been focusing on Paul’s church planting journeying—where he went, how he got there, and what he did when he was there.
To state that the Apostle Paul had connections and contact with the Roman military is an understatement. I believe Ephesians 6 and the armor of God is but one good example.
But, whether Paul, like many Roman citizens of the first century, used the Roman military roads for easier travel, safety, or convenience, or for the purposes of the spreading of the gospel within the military could be somewhat subjective.
However, we do know that Paul chose towns, villages, and cities that had a great Roman military presence. For instance, looking at Paul’s escape from Iconium to Lystra, the notable book of Acts scholar John Polhill observed that the small Roman colony of Lystra was connected to Pisidian Antioch by a Roman military road, “located in the hill country surrounded by mountains” employed and equipped “as a Roman military post.”
Reaching the military of any country is significant in the way that they are deployed throughout other countries—it resembles diapsora mission. The military as mission way of life takes on a two-fold meaning— (1) dutifully serving the mission of the country, and (2) living out God’s missional story of life, redemption, and restoration.
Eckhard Schnabel validates how Paul broadly reached the Roman military, “In Caesarea Paul had contact with Roman Soldiers, centurions and tribunes (Acts 21:32, 37)”We’ve also read the words of Paul, written to the Philippian church regarding how he witnessed and proclaimed the gospel to whole “Praetorian guard.” (Phil. 1:13). Regardless of arrest, imprisonment, or journey, Paul had much engagement with the Roman military.
Story Church’s vision is not only to care for service men and women, their families, and the communities that support them, but to see true gospel love, transformation power, enrichment, restoration, and reproducible disciple-making sending.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that Jesus was an extrovert—an outgoing expressive person. Always among the crowds—always followed, speaking, and feeding. But I bet his extroversion was misperceived, at times.
If we utilize today’s definition of introvert, Jesus would have been perceived as one because of his frequent need to withdraw to desolate places to be alone (Mt. 14:13; Mk. 1:35, 6:31; Lk. 4:42, 5:16). Often, Jesus walked away from the crowds, or downright blasted the religious elite.
Extroverts are perceived as happy, outgoing, and energetic people. So, why did Jesus remove himself?
More than likely, Jesus found his strength, discernment, clarity, rest, and rejuvenation during his alone times. If he took the gifting and profile tests we currently endure, he might be labeled as an introvert. In fact, some would say that because Jesus found “recharging” via isolation that he would be the true definition of an introverted person (i.e. demanding seclusion).
But, Jesus’ moments and need for withdrawal to be alone should not define him as an introvert (or an Extrovert-Introvert). There’s an interesting dynamic within apostolic leadership that I’ve observed (among my own behaviors)—along with naturally extroverted people.
Here’s two observations.
Extroversion Demands Introversion
Jesus directed the Apostles to “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while” (Mk. 6:31). Naturally, we all need rest. Without rest, burnout is sure to come. The extrovert is no exception to the rule—they are indeed, the needfor the rule.
But with naturally outgoing people—true extroversion—their daily draw to be around people and interact is where they thrive. It’s their “ignition zone” and fire for living.
For the apostolically gifted extrovert, they are such thriving, energetic, and network-driven people that they will find themselves recharging—not in the crowds, but in seclusion. For this reason, they must be aware of utilizing seclusion as a spiritual discipline.
For the naturally extroverted person that engages people and groups daily, filling their schedules with meetings, gatherings, and socials, they will need to unplug and morph into a hermit—perhaps an hour or so, each day. This hermitage is a necessity to prevent burnout and keep the joy of living within community, strong.
But, on the other end, if you place an extrovert in isolation for too long—depression will sit in. While extroverts demand introversion for recharging, they must be aware of what may be causing the need for the introversion. Is it hard-work, crowds, or something else?
Why Extroverts may be Perceived as Introverts
—The “something else.”
One of my observations of extroverted crowd loving people—is that they may not “like” everyone in those crowds (think Jesus and the Pharisees/Sadducees). For the extrovert, judgmental and negative people turn them off—quickly—and in like manner, they may receive the extrovert’s “off-switch.” To silence an outgoing, naturally communicative person—may not be a good thing.
Because extroverts need interacting, conversing, and living among people, they tend to pick up rather quickly on human behaviors and negative people. Basically, they can see through fake people in an instant. As a result, extroverts will tend to immediately withdraw from negativism.
The extrovert’s withdraw may be perceived as introversion— (i.e. “they always want to be alone when I see them; they never want to gather with us.”). Extroverts thrive off of positive feedback.
What’s the Answer?
As a naturally gifted (apostolic) extrovert, I have realized that people will seriously misperceive my behaviors. To some, I will seem way too outgoing—usually the ones that see me working within my daily giftedness. I’ve had people tell me that I “wear my heart on my sleeve.”
But to others—those who see me in my off-time or around negative people—they may perceive me to be a recluse. When you’re off, all that you want to do is be alone. Or, why don’t you talk with such and such people? I realize that I shut out negativity—indeed—it’s a hard door slam!
So, what’s the answer?
We have to learn to cultivate our natural gifting. I’ve learned to give my time to where it is most utilized and most needed. As well, I’ve learned that if I do not have those times of “desolate” recharging that my life is off-kilter. And, if I’m surrounded by prolonged negativity it squashes my innovative, outward, and outgoing personality.
I’ve learned to be “slow to speak and quick to listen” (James 1:19). And so, I’ve learned to navigate the daily rhythms of life, with Jesus.
“Pastor, I need to speak with you a moment.” Of course—this is usually right before service.
“I’m just feeling like God is leading us to another church—something that offers much more.”
I’ve heard this “revelation” before, but I’ve come to an understanding. They’ll return at some point for pastoral care. That’s not an arrogant or boastful statement, but an observation made from time.
All the bells, but no whistles
I’ve seen church members go to larger congregations with thousands. They love the feel of vibrant worship, gads of opportunities for their children, and the overall mega-environment.
Who can disagree—the church I pastor doesn’t have a coffee shop?
Don’t get me wrong, I wish we did! And, I’m not a disgruntled small church pastor. I love Christ’s church—big or small. And some of my pastor friends of larger congregations get this—not everyone will want to “plug-in.”
I think, for the most part, small church people move to large churches in search of the bells and whistles. However, they don’t understand the small group concepts of missional living. The result is they’re left with some bells, but no whistles.
When major life tragedies occur—a death in the family, hospital visitation, prayer covering, spousal failure or infidelity, or a traumatic family addiction—there’s no pastoral care and support. There may be vibrant worship in the larger church they’re attending, but there’s no “perceived” fruitful care.
A bell and a pomegranate
The priest would come before the Lord on behalf of the people—and upon the hem of his robe were “a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate” (Exodus 28:34). I’ve always thought this was a fascinating verse.
I’ve often wondered, why a bell and a pomegranate? In my humble opinion, I believe there must be evidential worship and fruitful nourishment—both—not one, or the other.
The emblematic bell and pomegranate—like modern day emojis—expressed to Israel how the Lord’s “kingdom of priests” were to serve. It is imperative for God’s people to have outwardly expressed lives of worship and nourishing soul care.
When a believer leaves a small church for a much larger one—not understanding the missional DNA of small group—they may perceive that “pastoral care” will be like the small church. Hence, in due time, the believer will return to the small church for pastoral “pomegranate support.”
Can we be frank?
I don’t enjoy church bashing—that’s not me. Big church or small church—God should be glorified. But the reality and perceptions of pastoral care in the two entities are vastly different. The larger church pastor is more administrative than soul care. He may be available for tragedies, but rarely for visitation, counseling, or hospital care.
The larger the church, the more difficult it is to “tend the flock.”
Regardless, I have witnessed believers return to the small church after age, sickness, or tragedy occurs—they’re seeking pastoral care that they presumed would be available.
The only way for larger churches to provide the bells and pomegranates are communal groups. Yet, the majority of the transfer growth that “exoduses” the small church will not engage life groups. The statistic is true: Only 20 percent of Christian adults are involved in any form of discipleship activity.
However, I also fear that “transfer growth” Christians, pursuing larger churches, are more likely seeking to slip-in-and-out unnoticed and prefer it that way. Until calamity strikes.
I don’t know of a formidable solution—maybe you have one?
But, here’s what I do know. When a member leaves for a larger church, the small church pastor feels neglected, hurt, and deserted. While they may understand that the person will eventually return for pastoral care—they feel used.
Perhaps those feelings are wrong? Perhaps. But pastors are people, too. They’re not immune to emotions. While the small church pastor struggles to get by on a “pint-sized” income with no benefits, they know in their heart that the deserting member is supporting another pastor.
Serving God is not about money, but there should be family and love.
David Kinnaman, “New Research On the State of Discipleship,” Barna Group, https://www.barna.org/research/leaders-pastors/research-release/new-research-state-of- descipleship#.VqDcJFJQmDU.