You Can’t Love a City if You Don’t Know a City, Part 5

I’ve been slowly working through this series about how to understand our cities so we can better reach them with the gospel.

In today’s post, which I co-wrote with Philip Nation, we want to focus in on how to get a study started and what might be the result from one in your own city.

The groups that meet together for the sake of the city face a formidable challenge. How does a group move from simply understanding the state of their city to acting on what they know? For the church, simply understanding the make-up of a city is helpful, but never enough. Our task is to turn the city upside down because we’ve proclaimed that there is a King whose name is Jesus (see Acts 17:1-7).

But, since beginning this series, many have asked how to start such a process and what they can expect from it. Let us give a few answers to those questions.

Where to start?

We find that in many cities the group is already there. It has normally taken on the form of the prayer gatherings of pastors and other believers. It is often a transdenominational group that is active in praying and occasionally mobilizing for certain evangelistic efforts such as a large crusade. Such groups can make the decision that combining their current efforts (of prayer and evangelistic efforts) with an in-depth knowledge of the city can mobilize churches in greater ways. So, if you are a part of such a group, the foundation is already being laid for a greater impact on your city.

But, if you’re reading this and are unaware of any such group in the city, don’t let that dissuade you. It is certainly possible that a few church leaders could simply decide that reaching deeper into their city is a necessary step and a greater understanding is needed.

What else is there to know?

Sometimes I encounter people who are certain that they have a full grasp on the nature of their city. From a demographic standpoint, that is possible. After all, there is a certain amount of information you can glean from a quick Google search. But, knowing the ethnic diversity (or lack thereof), spread of age ranges, and the like can only tell you so much.

In our City Studies, one of our major goals is to identify the affinity groups in each city. The affinity groups that you readily think about can be found through surface level demographic surveys (generational groups, ethnicities, education levels, etc.). But there are unofficial “tribes” that exist in a city that can only be discovered through a robust research process. In one city we studied, with approximately 2 million residents, we found 140 tribes that included everything from pockets of ethnic families to swimmers to woodworkers. By doing a survey of the residents of the city, we were able to not only identify these affinity groups but the percentage of believers among them. In fact, in this particular city, swimmers were the tribe with the least percentage of believers among them. A demographic study could never show give you that kind of information. But what it means is… well, read on.

Actionable information

So what do you do when you discover that the tribe in your city with the greatest percentage of lost people is swimmers? The issue that gives me the greatest hope is that now the church will begin to see the bridges they have into the community where the lost reside.

If I’m a pastor in that town, I start asking who in my church swims regularly. As a group of churches seeking to reach the city, we inform our intercessors to begin praying regularly at the times when people are most likely coming and going from swimming for believers to have evangelistic conversations with their friends. A group of churches might even join together to begin sponsoring the swim meets and finding other ways to serve that tribe.

But that is just one example. Other insights can be gleaned from these studies as to the ethnic make-up of a region in the city, educational level of sections of the city, and even the societal needs that are present. Each affinity group that is discovered is a potential place where the gospel can be introduced and compassion can be shown. Whereas demographics are often just a smattering of factoids in a presentation, our hope is to give a group of churches actionable information that will lead to gospel engagement.

Mobilizing churches

The information gleaned about your city should lead to doing something about it. But too often, a bit of knowledge hits the church and rather than feeling ready, they can feel overwhelmed. Recently, the well-known actress and activist Ashley Judd spoke about the tragedy of child sex trafficking in Atlanta, Georgia. It is a heart-wrenching presentation worth your time. And, for a typical church in America that averages 80-100 in attendance, it may seem like an overwhelming issue to tackle.

But imagine the work that ten or twenty or fifty churches could accomplish if they joined arms for the sake of the gospel; proclaiming the good news to every man, woman, and child; saving spiritual and physical lives; and caring for the hurting in their city. Congregations working together for the good of the city are a powerful force in the hands of Christ.

I can see believers emboldened by the joint work with brothers and sisters in Christ to assault the darkness in their city and shine the light of Christ in places where He has not been known. We’re not just talking about pastors gathering once a month to pray for one another – though that is a very good work. Now believers across a city are getting to know one another, provoking one another to love and good deeds, presenting Christ to new tribes in the city, and caring for the hurting in His name.

The actionable knowledge that comes from researching a city can lead churches to leverage their resources into the areas where Christ has not been made known. It will help to understand where new churches should be planted and established churches need to be revitalized. It is a work that will help you to know more and, I hope, act more.

Read other posts in this series here: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 6.

Read more from Ed here.

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Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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