The outward-facing church
Demographics and other tools can help congregations rediscover their call to care for those around them
A few years ago, members of First Presbyterian Church in Tiffin, Ohio, began worrying about their church’s future.
The 183-year-old congregation had much in its favor: strong connections to a relatively stable community, a well-maintained church building and financial health despite the recent economic downturn. At the same time, the congregation faced critical challenges, including an aging and declining membership. And First Presbyterian’s remaining members were not content with just getting by.
Today, thanks to tools provided by a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) program called New Beginnings, First Church members have found an exciting new vision for ministry focused on engagement with their community. Faced with the hard reality that getting by would really mean winding down, they have rediscovered what it means to be a missional church.
The story of this congregation’s transformation is nowhere near completion, but the pastor, Katie Treadway, says there is more energy among the parishioners than she has seen in quite a while.
A focus on the community
A healthy congregation focuses on caring for and working to transform the community around it by offering service, advocacy, spiritual guidance and worship. Many congregations have lost a connection to their community, often without realizing it. In a fall 2005 interview with the George Fox Journal, futurist and author Leonard Sweet says, “A missional church faces outward toward the world. … For too long, churches have faced inward, offering religion as a benefits package—something that ‘meets my needs’ or offers good outcomes.”
Sweet tells churches to look at their mission statement. “Is your mission statement based on how to get people to go into the world, or how to get more people to come to church?” He and others who are pushing congregations to be more missional say, “The church is measured, not by its seating capacity, but by its sending capacity.”
Much of the work of the PC(USA)’s Church Growth office concerns helping congregations face outward once again and rediscover their passion for caring for those around them. This means not just trying to get people to come to church, but truly being there for them, offering the good news of the gospel to all corners of their community.
Many churches ask, “How can we get more young people involved?” That is the wrong question; it is an inward-facing question. A better question is, “What are the hurts and hopes of our community and how can we respond to them?”
One way to begin to get to know a community is through the use of demographics (see “Get to know your community,” page 27). Helpful information to gather includes current-year and five-year projections for population, as well as data on age, income, ethnicity, family structure, housing types and education levels. To help assimilate the information, church members can ask such questions as:
• What in this data surprises us?
• What in this data confirms what we already knew?
• What insights can this data give us about the community around us?
• What possible ministry needs do we see reflected in the data?
Of course, demographic information provides only one piece of the puzzle. To truly connect with their neighborhood, church members must move from looking at data on a page to listening to people in the community. They must get out and talk to the people who live around the church. Engaging in prayer walks, hanging out in coffee shops and hosting activities beyond the church walls are all good ways to begin conversations that can lead to real relationships.
Sometimes the demographic information itself inspires a congregation to make connections with people in the community. For example, the assessment tools provided by New Beginnings helped members of First Church, Tiffin, match their longings and gifts with some of the needs of those around them. They discovered that nearly a quarter of the households in the community had incomes of less than $24,999. They also found that roughly 20 percent of the population was under 18, and 40 percent of that group was early elementary age. The data showed that while almost half of community residents considered themselves “spiritual,” only 16 percent thought it was important to attend religious services. Church members also realized that since their congregation was predominantly older, reaching the seniors in town could be a good way to serve.
The congregation ultimately identified five potential new ways to serve the community: addressing the causes of poverty, supporting children and teens through involvement in the schools, encouraging spiritual development, meeting the needs of seniors and reaching the unchurched. Small groups have formed around each area for further research and community conversations.
The mayor of Tiffin, a member of First Church, is involved in the group dealing with poverty. Members of the group focusing on young people invited a school principal to talk with them about the issues her school is facing, many of which stem from the dynamics of poverty in the lives of the students.
A hopeful future
Another congregation that has benefited from a New Beginnings assessment is Glencliff Presbyterian Church, in Nashville, Tenn. A demographic study showed that nearly 40 percent of the population in the area around the church was Latin American. After looking at such data, the mostly white congregation has decided to allocate a percentage of its resources to help develop a new Hispanic congregation.
“We were in decline,” says the pastor, Michael Davis, who is also associate presbyter of congregational development for the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee. “God used New Beginnings to help our congregation understand that our future as a Presbyterian church in this community would be through ministry to a different culture and generation of people.”
For six weeks, Glencliff members met in small groups to discuss strategies for moving into the future. “One of the options discussed was to continue to use up all of our resources on ourselves, and then close the church,” says Davis. “But they didn’t want to do that—they wanted to do ministry in their community.”
Eventually all three small groups recommended joining the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee, the Synod of Living Waters and the PC(USA)’s Church Growth office in supporting a Hispanic new church development. Church member Corky Hartman says, “New Beginnings showed us how we could be part of bringing hope to our changing neighborhood.”
Demographic tools and other resources in programs such as New Beginnings are designed to help congregations envision a new and hope-filled future. But a congregation’s planning and discernment cannot happen in a vacuum, apart from its community. And sometimes moving into the future means taking risks.
“It’s absolutely joyful, but scary, too,” says Davis, describing the changes underway at Glencliff Presbyterian. “We don’t know the details of how it’s going to work out, but we know God is leading us on this journey.”
Ann Philbrick is associate for church growth and transformation and Paul Seebeck is associate for mission communications for the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
GET TO KNOW your community
Where to start:
Basic demographic information on just about any U.S. community can be found by looking at U.S. Census data. If you do a web search for “2010 Census data (your town and state here),” you will find links to numerous sites with information, including “Quick Facts from the U.S. Census Bureau.”
Research Services of the PC(USA) offers a link to free demographic information for the community around your church based on U.S. Census data, including information on population growth, family structure, age groups, housing types, education levels, income and culture/ethnicity. Go to www.pcusa.org/research and select “demographics” from the menu on the left.
MissionInsite, used by the PC(USA) office of Church Growth and a number of presbyteries, is one of various vendors offering information on charitable giving, religious practices, lifestyles and characteristics of the community beyond U.S. Census data: www.missioninsite.com
Association of Religion and Data Archives (ARDA), source of the most current free religious data available: www.thearda.com
Starting New Initiatives, a booklet describing a prayer and discernment process to help congregations decide how they can best minister in their particular contexts. Available free from the PC(USA)’s Church Growth office: www.pcusa.org/churchgrowth; (800) 728-7228, x5247; email@example.com
New Beginnings, a programto help congregations make decisions about their future: http://whatisourfuturestory.com
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