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You Can't Love a City if You Don't Know a City, Part 7: The Big Rocks

Co-authored with Philip Nation

This is part 7 of a series on city research. You can read the earlier installments here.

In the last installment, Glenn Barth talked about doing qualitative face-to-face interviews. We’ll focus here on doing quantitative research. Both are helpful. For example, when we do extensive research on churches, we go back and forth from quantitative to qualitative and back again (see Transformational Church for an example).

As a reminder, qualitative research is focused on discovering the range of potential attitudes, behaviors, or perceptions. On the other hand, quantitative research is focused on determining how frequently or in what quantity those needs, behaviors, or perceptions exist. Not only are the purposes of qualitative and quantitative research different, they also utilize different methodologies. Only quantitative research can be used to describe a larger population.

When working in city research, you have to consider what to include. Many important things can and should be studied: language, immigration, poverty, church plants, church closures, parachurch presence, crime, etc. All of these are helpful, but I will try to share what a very basic project could involve on the quantitative side. (In the next installment, I will continue to draw from an example in the church planting study I referenced earlier. And, thanks to several comments in the last post and a few emails, I will also give you examples of other things that some groups study.)

Let me remind you that such research tends to be a multidenominational, regional effort. In most cases, no one denomination is well-suited to undertake the task. Unless you are the Assemblies of God and doing the study in Springfield, MO (where they have their headquarters and two, count ’em, TWO Bible colleges).

It is not just that doing this research needs multiple denominations, but it can also actually help build unity among churches and their focus on a common mission. Research is an area where churches can naturally partner without many theological concerns (unlike in church planting, for example).

We have found this works best when a city has a coalition or roundtable of pastors and churches working together, desiring to learn, and looking to develop a strategic plan. The importance of this group is seen in:

  1. Praying together for your city.
  2. Working together to utilize the data and to share it with all the churches in the city.
  3. Mobilizing individual believers, small groups, individual churches and churches for working together to meet needs and share Jesus Christ since it is a task larger than just a few churches’ work.
  4. Funding the research – this is the equivalent of doing two national studies, only they are being focused on your city. Examples of ways to fund the research:
  • Shared equally by the coalition of churches
  • Shared by an expanded group of churches
  • Donors passionate about the city

City research is designed to give insights into the churches and the residents that is otherwise difficult to obtain. But it is also the opportunity to for us to create a benchmark survey of the churches and residents as well. A benchmark study enables us to see if we really are making progress as we reach and serve our community.

The benchmark study is important because many city strategies are filled with enthusiasm about what they think they are doing, but often it is just enthusiasm without impact. They see people doing things, but they have no way to tell if they are making a difference. The study creates a tool to utilize and by tracking things every few years, we can see if progress is being made.

Though city studies can be done in a multitude of ways, we focus on two areas: the church census and the resident survey.

The church census can be mailed to all Christian churches in the metro area and asks questions about who the church is reaching (number of new commitments to Jesus Christ and the age, education, ethnicity, and income of attendees), involvement of attendees in ministry, and how the church is seeking to reach people in their community. This provides a reading on the vitality of the churches in that metro area.

One way to do a resident survey is through a “random digit dial” phone survey. By capturing information from at least 1,000 residents, it provides a statistically validated report of the residents of a city. In the survey, the residents are asked about their interests, hobbies, attitudes about local Christian churches, political affiliation, religious preferences, church attendance, beliefs, and specifically their attitude about Christ. Residents also identify their age, ethnicity, income, and education. This survey provides a reading on the receptivity of people to the Gospel and their affinity groups, or as we described in part 5, their “tribes.”

The affinity groups provide tangible entry points that individual believers, small groups, or churches could seek to reach residents (more on that later). Since around 100 affinities are identified, the churches are able to discover many avenues to motivate and mobilize believers to reach the lost right around them.

The end result is to get Christians, pastors, and churches thinking about their context more discerningly. We have found that the research PROCESS actually helps motivate churches for mission PROGRESS. And, to do it together.

It is fascinating to me to see how little churches communicate. By surveying the churches, you learn more about who is already at work. Studies like this enable them to learn who are their co-laborers in the harvest AND what that harvest field looks like.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is the Dean of Talbot School of Theology at Biola Univeristy and Scholar in Residence & Teaching Pastor at Mariners Church. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches; trained pastors and church planters on six continents; earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates; and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the Editor-in-Chief of Outreach Magazine, and regularly writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Dr. Stetzer is the host of "The Stetzer ChurchLeaders Podcast," and his national radio show, "Ed Stetzer Live," airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates.