Why Demographics Matter

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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.

 

Tools for How to find demographics:

Mapping: www.peoplegroups.org; www.census.gov; www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/00

Community facts: www.factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml

Race/Ethnicity: www.factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/searchresults.xhtml?ref=addr&refresh=t

Psychographics (lifestyles, values): www.neilsen.com/us

Religious Data: www.thearda.com; www.religions.pewforum.org

 

5 Elements for Church Growth

I realize that there are myriads of models, programs, and books for church growth—believe me; I’ve read many of them. However, rarely do these address the core of the issue—disciple-making—yet, we cannot make disciples if we can’t reach people.

As a former church planter, current planting mentor, and a pastor of a revitalized church, making disciples not only fulfills the great Commission (Matt. 28:19), but it grows families of God.

Here are five observations that growing disciple-making churches have in common.

Listening to the Holy Spirit

The early church intensely listened to the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Peter calls the Holy Spirit, “God” (Acts 5:4). Twice, the Scriptures warn the Church not to grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19).

Jesus commanded his disciples not to move without the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4). He leads. He teaches. He opens eyes. No one comes to salvation without the Holy Spirit. If churches desire to grow and make disciples, it cannot be done without the Holy Spirit.

Discerning Culture

When Paul arrived in Athens, he went for a walk (Acts 17:16, 22–23). He discerned the Athenian culture.

Today, we learn to exegete Scripture. This means we can critically examine the Greek and Hebrew texts: the verbs, nouns, and imperatives. We can even interpret the Word and provide great application.

Meanwhile, we have no idea how to exegete a culture. What are people worshipping? How do they live? Where do they eat? What do they watch? What does the culture look like (ethnicity, economic, etc.)?

We cannot reach a people we do not know.

Bridging the Gap

Once in the gym, I used the movie Platoon to share the gospel with a guy. He had never been to church, didn’t know Jesus, or God. But he was going through numerous problems. Since he saw the movie, I explained a scene with Charlie Sheen and Willem Dafoe.

The young private, Sheen, was about to go into his first night’s “fire fight.” However, the private overloaded his pack. Dafoe, the veteran sergeant, saw him struggling—stopped him, unloaded the pack—pulling out all of the items weighing him down. Not only that, Dafoe sacrificially carried Sheen’s items throughout the night.

This is what Jesus does for us. He meets us struggling in our sin. Removes our sin. Takes it upon Himself. And then walks with us through the darkness.

The term “bridging the gap” is called, contextualization. After discerning the culture, we use it to reach people for Christ. [Read Acts 17:22-28 to see how Paul used contextualization]

Gospel-centered

The word gospel comes from “the Anglo-Saxon godspell denoting ‘glad tidings’ or ‘good news.’”[1] In a world of suffering, pain, and anguish there is a great need for good news.

However, There is no good news without Jesus. A church that is gospel-centered is Christ-centered. They bring good news to a sin-laden and broken community.

But, some churches replace the gospel with entertainment, programs, or works. The gospel doesn’t need any of these. Churches that rely on the grace, truth, and sufficiency of the gospel will inevitably show it. How?

As Peter declared, if you have tasted the goodness of God, you will have a craving for God and a love for others (1 Peter 1:1-3).

Incarnation

The Word of God put on flesh and dwelt in community with humanity (John 1:14). Community is important. God created us to be relational and intimate. Believers are called to share the good news with others.

Sharing your life with others is discipleship. Jesus said, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done” (John 13:15).

When a church is incarnational, it fleshes out what it means to be Jesus. Loving. Praying. Touching. Crying. Eating. —all of these are fleshing out Jesus within community.

Church growth is about discipleship. The command by Christ was to “go and make disciples” (Matt 28:19) —not—to put people in seats. Incarnational churches will make disciples because they live, eat, cry, and pray as Jesus did—with others. By default, incarnational churches disciple people.

 

 

[1] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 892.

The Ugly Truth About The Church & Church Planting

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I’ll say it … someone has to speak up. We should be ashamed at the actions of the Western Church.

For years I have been involved in church planting. However, it wasn’t until I became involved in finding financial support for planters and developing a collaborative initiative for church planting that I saw the ugly truth.

Before I begin, I want to shed light on some reality. Sometimes I feel like I’m beating a dead horse with these numbers—and while numbers are data, they reveal the truth. With 80–85% of all American churches either plateauing or in decline, and only 10–15% of pastors equipped to turn around churches, we need to admit there’s a huge problem. An elephant in the room.

Only 26% of America is evangelical (I realize that some don’t like that terminology) and a staggering 71% of Americans are either nominal in their faith or have no religious affiliation at all. 96% of Americans have heard the name Jesus Christ, placing us in a post-Christendom society. Lastly, just to maintain the 26% evangelical rate (to keep up with population growth), we would need to plant 3–5,000 church per year![1]

But it’s never going to happen and I’ll tell you several reasons why.

No Collaboration

Approximately one year ago I founded a collaborative initiative in Richmond, Virginia, called, Planting RVA. While I’m not promoting it, I’m using it as analogy. I believed (and still do) that if any city is to be saturated with the gospel, it must be a collaborative effort of gospel-centered churches, associations, and denominations. Biblical students understand that reaching cities (like Paul; Rom 15:20) is imperative for saturation. So, while many different associations were initially intrigued at the idea, the reality of collaboration became a farce.

Organizations, denominations, and associations will only get involved if there’s an asset for them or perhaps to find out what someone else is doing, but not for support. Don’t fool yourself. I quickly found out one truth—the American church is very self-centered.

One local Baptist seminary (President) advised me that they are only involved in events and programs that benefit them. I humbly asked if they’d like to help sponsor a collaborative church planting conference, if they had any students that may be interested in church planting, or professors—I was shot down:

“We basically ‘sponsor’ the events, programs and worthy causes which arrise out of our own work, ministry and budget” (cut and pasted).

I asked for a one on one meeting to discuss the fact that Planting RVA works with their “primary denominational partners: the BGAV …”

I was shot down again. Even from sharing coffee! (The blasphemy!)

Anyway, what I find abhorrent about the response is the revelation as to why certain churches in our area decline to help collaboratively plant churches and to see kingdom growth—because they’re taught to be empire builders—to align only with theological and doctrinal presuppositions. How do I know that? His last email response:

“As I am sure you know, even though we live in a postdenominational age[,] most connect with the church planting enterprise through denominational networks of one kind or another.  This is primarily true because one’s theological perspective and church starting methods must be compatible. Consequently, as the seminary has needs for church starting expertise we will seek those resources through our partner organizations.”

This leads into the next point….

Lack of Unified Love

Lack of unity, self-centeredness, and greed will never help grow Christ’s kingdom. This ‘every man for himself’ mentality is not Christian love, nor can it reach an unchurched, unreached, and starving culture.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that seminaries should indeed teach theology, doctrine, and align themselves with the agencies that support them—but to what extent? I love hearing about Together For the Gospel and these types of conferences, but when it comes to the actual aspects of working together—we’re all going down in separate ships because of our self-centered way of doing things.

Let me give you an example. Ever see a McDonalds? I bet next to it you’ll see a Burger King, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, or other food dive. But, drive five miles out of town; do you see a McD’s, Chick-fil-A, or one of those grab-and-go places? No, you don’t. Why is it that they all stack up on top of each other? Why don’t they build in small town USA, the projects, crack allies, or low-rent districts—that’s easy—it’s called revenue. It’s business 101. You go where the money is and don’t allow your competitor to reap all the profits. Don’t allow them to be the only game in town.

However, with this same model that denominations (and even non-denominations) desire to plant churches with and how they view the Christian faith. It’s a business—it’s greed and it’s also arrogance—it’s the mentality that we do it better, more hip, more missional, more liturgical, more traditional, more conservative, more blah, blah, blah.

Let me ask you this: Do you think starving people care about where they get a meal? Oh, but why don’t you make sure they get the fat steak cooked perfectly, right?

Read on …

Forget The Empire—Think Kingdom

Recently, I was invited to speak about church planting at a local conference. While I already knew how things behind the curtains of church denominations and associations worked, one message rang loud and clear—the American church is empire building. The motto: How can your church grow and become large?

I agree. Churches need revitalization. Here’s a secret about church planting. When churches plant churches the kingdom grows. If a church is in decline, one sure-fire way to grow is to plant or support a church plant. Why do I have the idea that you’re scratching your head?

Here’s the deal, if a church plateaus at 200 people (average church in US) and they plant another church, as they grow to 200 people, the mother/sending church has doubled in size. And, as the next generation (3rd church plant) is sent out, there is a potential of growing the kingdom even larger, to 600. This is first-century church growth.

But, that stands against the current model of empire building—of, I want ‘my’ church to be large (*as if it were yours!*). I hope this is convicting someone? But I bet it’s only angered some to justify their positions.

The reality: As long as the American church desires to “go it alone” and not work together, we will never see a Jesus movement occur and gospel saturation happen. We’re too busy with our own agendas.

I leave you with this to think about; the words of Jesus when the Disciples confront him:

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward” (Mark 9:38-41 ESV).

 

[1] This number varies depending upon the data. Mainly due to the addition of 1,800 churches closing per year—this adds to numerical figure, from 3,000 to approximately 5,000.

Why Churches Must Plant Churches That Plant Churches (Part II)

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This is the second part of a three part series (here’s the first article)

I have listed three reasons why churches must plant churches that plant churches. The first part was gospel passion. Churches must have an intentional reality for outwardly making God known. Why? Because …

The Harvest Is Ripe

Jesus declared, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road” (Luke 10:2-4).

This verse is sometimes misconstrued. Some pastors will exegete this passage as a call to prayer, but the context is Jesus sending out His disciples. He sends them out with nothing, other than His authority. Jesus was indeed telling these disciples to pray, but He ordered them to “Go.”

When I rephrased this to my pastor friend, he didn’t understand that intrinsically church planters are disciple makers. This is why I am so passionate about planting churches that plant churches—it is fulfilling Christ’s command. We cannot plant churches without making disciples—it’s nearly impossible (unless you pay people or draw them in with false benefits, but that won’t last).

3 Reasons Why Clergy Can Halt Church Planting Movements

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The greatest church planting movements in history were accomplished without clergy hierarchy. Ok, stick with me—I’m not bashing pastoral work—I am one. I don’t want you to get the impression that pastors and leadership are not vital—they are—but in a different degree than you think.

In examining church planting movements, there are definite similarities and common killers. Let’s address three.

The Simpler, the Better

Everyone knows that the simpler something is, the easier it is to reproduce. Jesus made it really simple to plant the gospel. In actuality, Jesus does all the work for us and even gives us a “helper” (John 16:7).

The problem comes when we make the gospel complicated. We’re good at complication. We complicate things by halting movements of God. Think about it. God adds people into His Church (Acts 2:47). Once they get in, they’re told they need to be trained before they can be sent out. Example, a believer feels the call of God on his life. He asks the pastor for advice. What advice does he give?

Go to seminary and get trained. But is this simple, or complex?

When Mao Tse-tung became supreme leader of China, he executed the indigenous pastors, kicked out the missionaries, seized church property, and imprisoned the remaining leadership structure. There was an estimated 2 million Christians. When the curtain was lifted after his death, do you know how many believers were found? Over 60 million!

Imagine a church movement that grew without pastoral hierarchy and buildings. I know, you’re probably thinking—but there’s got to be heresy involved, right? Actually, that’s been studied. In the research, it was found that only 5% drifted into heresy—they were isolated from the others. Basically, the church policed itself.

Only 15% were with doctrinal errors, and a whopping 80% were orthodox! If you measure that model to America, guess what you’ll find—almost 35% heretical, yet we have seminaries and clergy, and more than 60% doctrinal errors. It seems simpler is better.

Distinctions Halt Initiative

The Methodist movement was one of the greatest discipleship movements in history. John Wesley had designed a “method” (while I may not adhere to prevenient grace, I do recognize the results) to discipleship by creating small groups with accountability. And so, Methodism was growing at staggering numbers, across the United States.

Men called to the gospel from one church got on horseback and became itinerant preachers—or circuit riders. And the churches remained strong. With no real headship (other than Christ), due to their discipleship groups, they exponentially grew. However, the movement began to plateau in 1850. By 1860, Methodism began to decline, never returning to its reproducibility years. Why?

According to one researcher (Alan Hirsch), this is when the Methodists were ridiculed for not have seminaries and not being “educated.” They were mocked by other denominations as being poor and illiterate, having circuit riders that were uneducated. And so, what did Methodism do? They built seminaries to make better pastors and ceased the discipleship model—hence killing the Jesus movement.

When the Church makes distinctions between clergy and laity, there is a class system that can evolve. This creates complexity (i.e. only a pastor can teach, pray, or make visits—he’s God’s anointed). Don’t get me wrong, I am a pastor, but I admit to our brokenness and failure. The power of God must revert back into the church bodies (the people) to reproduce, disciple, and send believers.

Pastor As Dynamic Leader

Unfortunately, the Western Church has created a model that requires a seminary trained dynamic leader to preach really well, in the hopes of entertaining, or even “teaching” people, by speaking at them for 45 minutes (at least that’s how long I preach). This dynamic model, however, is a broken and unsustainable model.

If 2,900 new churches must be planted within the U.S. every year, just to maintain a 26% evangelicalism rate, then you can see that the dynamic leader model will take hundreds of years. There is no way to start a Jesus movement without bi-vocational or volunteer church planters. Too often, seminaries can be costly. Once again, don’t hear me incorrectly, God uses seminaries and I happen to be a doctoral student of a fantastic one.

My point? Seminary trained people can become catalysts and apostolic leaders. But if we are honest, a Jesus movement will not occur with “occupational” leadership as the head speaker, prayer, discipler, and visitor. There is a five-fold ministry within the Church (Eph. 4:11–12).

The greatest church planting movements in history all managed to occur without dynamic pastors. Twelve ordinary disciples turned the world upside down by discipling people with a simple message of redemption, serving the body as a whole, and thought of themselves as slaves of Christ.

What are your thoughts?

The Shot Across The Bow: 3 Ways the Church is Killing Itself

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“The world is a dangerous place. Not because of the people who are evil; but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” —Albert Einstein

Complacency is the art of doing nothing. And the Western Church has become good at it. “For lack of wood the fire goes out” (Pro 26:20a).

We live among a consumer-driven society. Christians want to be entertained, demand programs, and show up when they choose. It is a slow death. Here’s three reasons why complacency is killing Christianity.

Complacency Kills The Church

There’s nothing biblical about complacency.

In all the wonderful examples of men and women who have stepped out in faith, from Abraham to Rahab (Heb. 11), to Peter and Paul, lack of drive is never an attribute.

Complacency is killing the Western Church. There are many reasons: laziness, a lack of love for Christ, a flawed understanding of grace, clergy-driven churches, and a countless amount of others, but mainly, it boils down to complacency.

Christ is the head of the Church (Eph. 5:23). A failure to be obedient to the Great Command (Matt. 28:19; John 20:20-21) is a failure to heed orders from the Commander in Chief. The command is to “go and make,” not stay and do nothing.

Complacency says, “I don’t need to do anything.” Christ says if you love me, you will keep my commands (John 14:15). But the Western Church does not obey commands.

Here’s a sobering statement, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). When the Church fails to be on mission, it fails Christ.

Complacency Kills the Work of the Spirit

Christians are warned not to “quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19), not to “put out” the flame of God. How quickly a fire burns out when its embers are not stoked.

Complacent “Christians” are those who desire the gift of salvation without understanding the call to follow Christ. They expect others to “stoke” their fire—to listen to messages from speakers, preachers, and practitioners—yet they fail to be led by the Spirit.

Jesus stated, “You must be born again. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8).

If you are born of the Spirit, you listen and obey the Spirit. The work of the Spirit of God is quenched and killed by complacent Christians.

Complacency Kills The Gospel

If complacency kills the church along with the work of the Holy Spirit then naturally, complacency kills the gospel. There is no good news if no one is bringing it! As Paul clarified:

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel … ” (Romans 10:14-16a)

There are millions of people who live their lives without the gospel. Yet, churches fail to follow the Great Commission and send people, or to plant new churches. The loud voices, “It’s not my job” by the myriads of “believers” is deafening. Maybe we should call it, “Couch Christianity.”

They fail to gather as the church and when they do, they lack ears, hearts, and passion. They lack an understanding that discipleship is about submission and intentionality. No. They’re dead men, living with bones and skin. They may say they believe, but they do not do; hence, their fruit is evident in not following Christ’s commands.

The shot across the bow from Christ:

“The servant who knows what his master wants and ignores it, or insolently does whatever he pleases, will be thoroughly thrashed. But if he does a poor job through ignorance, he’ll get off with a slap on the hand. Great gifts mean great responsibilities; greater gifts, greater responsibilities!”[1]

It is impossible to love Christ and not love His Church and not do what He said.

Complacency is the silent serial killer of Christianity.


[1] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005), Lk 12:47–48.