Every community, from the smallest village to the largest city, has a character all its own. One of the most important things a pastor or ministry leader can do is understand that character. It will tell you what ministries are needed and how your church could go about initiating them. And with so many United Methodist pastors settling into their new appointments, I thought this would be a good time to share 6 things to help you learn about your community. (For the record, you can be in year twenty of your ministry at a church and still benefit from these.)
As a point of citation, the points (in bold) are the work of Michael Mata, and the questions are the work of Michael Frost, who is a professor of Missiology and my additions.
So here are six things you should look at to understand your community:
Structure – What do the buildings tell you about your community? Are the homes and businesses well kept? Or are they a little (or very) run down? Who built them and why?
If you have run down/dilapidated buildings, you could potentially try to do renovation as an outreach ministry (after all, what community doesn’t want to be more beautiful?) It’s possible that the buildings indicate a lack of funds to keep up, or a general sense of apathy about the community.
Signs – What billboards, graffiti, public art, or community bulletin boards are around? What are they advertising? Who can post there?
The things that people advertise are things that people care about. Are there a lot of small business fliers in the post office? That means you have a community of entrepreneurs. Are there fliers for lessons/tutors? You have a community of educators.
Space – Are there open spaces? What are they used for? Who can use them? Are they public or private? Are they safe and well maintained? Are there “3rd spaces” (community gathering spaces) around? Who goes there and why?
My village has two baseball fields and a park that are all fairly well maintained. The park is maintained by the village, but the ball fields are taken care of by parents who want to make sure that the children of the village have a space to be kids. It’s a fairly telling ‘space’ about the communities desire to support children.
Social Interactions – Who is hanging out with who? What groups or cliques are there? What kind of interaction do they do?
Every time I go to the local diner, there are the same groups of people sitting together. What’s more, there is minimal interaction from group to group. Some people have the ability to table hop, and talk to every body, but not many. Just like a lot of small towns, mine has some fairly strong social boundaries.
Spiritual Life – Are there other religious/spiritual communities in your community? Who leads them? Are there a lot of de/formerly churched people or ‘nones’?
I’ve got the only church in town (though there are two within five miles). That means that I have the spiritual center of the community. There had been three different churches within the town limits a few years ago. Then two. Now those other two have merged with the church that I currently pastor. That fact shows the gradual state of spiritual decline of the community at large. Not surprisingly, I have a community full of people who are formerly churched.
Story – What is the story of your community? Who founded it and why? How long ago was that? What are the big businesses? What keeps people there?
The story of your community gives you a common language to speak. You can connect their story to the story of God with your preaching, but only if you know the story of the community. There could be a trend or theme from even a decade ago that could be the inspiration for revitalizing the community or church. You won’t know that until you know the story of your community.
My recommendation would be to spend a day walking and driving (do both), going around the community around the church. Have a form with space for each one of these items to be addressed. Most importantly, give yourself time to talk to the locals about the history of the town.
There you go. Six things to help you get to know your community.
I love y’all, and there’s nothing you can do about it.