Contemplating Demographics

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Demographics is the study of population groups. Church planters are critically focused on demographics when selecting locations for a new church plant. I expect that they want to answer questions like, are there enough people in the neighborhood to sustain a church plant.

Why is it that churches once planted and doing OK – start to (and ultimately completely) ignore demographics. That is, until the numbers start to drop.

Why can’t church leaders continue to be focused on being proactive in the community where the church is located?

Why should churches care about demographics anyway? Lets start with that. In the “Great Commission”, Jesus Himself commanded the apostles to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations in Jerusalem, Judea, and even to the ends of the Earth.” So Jerusalem is the immediate vicinity of the first church, and it is the first place they were commanded to make disciples (produce fruit). If I take this command to heart, then my first outreach should be in my direct physical community (outside the walls of the church). I think, in the communities that our church members live in.

So if I read this scripture, God Himself has commanded us to produce fruit by making disciples in our closest community – FIRST. What that says to me is this – if I spend more time and resources on foreign missions or church planting than community outreach than I am out of balance.

So how specifically do I reach my community? How do I make disciples? For starters, I need to understand who lives in my community. That is why demographics is important. If my community is ethnically diverse – then I need to reach out to different ethnic groups – even if we (our church) is not so diverse. If my community is undergoing some form of transition, then there are new families moving in that may not even know that our church exists.

The fact is, communities change. For the last 60+ years in metropolitan america, populations have been moving from urban neighborhoods to sub-urban communities to near-rural communities. Churches formed in city neighborhoods have often moved with their membership – from city to suburb to farm field. Yet the urban neighborhoods are still there – just different people live there. The suburbs that formed after WWII are still there, but the generations that built and moved into them are now passing away. Our suburbs are all in different states of generational transition, as the last of the original owners are gone or about to go. Now the younger generations are living in the city again, and collar suburbs are becoming ethnically diverse.

These transitions are opportunities for churches. Opportunities to decide – do we stay here while our membership moves further out, or back toward city neighborhoods. Do we continue to reach our demographically changing community or do we isolate ourselves or do we move to re-center around our membership? There are no simple answers, only we must consider the fruitfulness of our ministry, our mission, as our priority. Without this, our decision can be somewhat self serving – something that ministry should not become.

One thing I have noticed – as neighborhoods change through generations, those communities that have diversified, tend to become more stable over time, and churches that learn to minister effectively in ethnically diverse communities benefit from the diversity and the stability. Maybe this is what God intended – Maybe as the global community becomes increasingly more mobile and transient – the ends of the the earth will start to come to us. Especially if we don’t take our eyes off of our community as our first mission field.

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