This is my first post in a new blog using MissionInsite for community research and church development, available exclusively to ACST and MissionInsite subscribers. I hope you will regularly join as we explore how churches can become really relevant to the people within their reach.
A Microscope on the Community
The MissionInsite website is much like the student microscope we used in High School and University Science Labs. Each microscope had two key adjustable features: magnification and filters.
Once you draw a search area (i.e. place a specific slice of reality on a slide and place it under the lens), you can study it in varying degrees of detail. For example, when you upload your household membership and adherent list into the system to create a “People Plot,” you can see the distribution of member households across the region. Think of this as adding a colored dye to the slide under your microscope since all the member households appear as little colored dots in the search area.
- Draw your search area to include at least 85% of member households. This reveals the current geographic “reach” of your church. One way to grow a church is to reach further and expand the region influenced by your church. You can zoom out to get the big picture of all the publics in a community within, say, a 30-mile drive of the church building. This is particularly helpful, for example, to track trends in population and transportation to see who is moving in, who is moving out, and where they will live.
- Another way to grow your church is to go deeper to explore the neighborhoods where you have the greatest population density of current members. You can zoom in to get a micro-picture of particular publics within, say, a 10-minute walk to the church building. This reveals where you already have volunteer resources to be trained and mobilized to invite neighbors to worship or lead local programs that are most relevant to publics under-represented in the church.
Rural churches, regional churches, and multi-site churches often zoom out to do their strategic planning. Urban churches, new church developments, and “Fresh Expressions” teams often zoom in to do their strategic planning. Whichever way you do it, MissionInsite automatically “shades” those areas of highest member household density so that you can see where your church is “hot”…and where it is not!
The second feature of a microscope is that it allows you to place particular filters in front of the lens to highlight particular features of the object under examination. There are three basic “filters” you can access in MissionInsite.
You can view facts and trends for age, race, language, income, occupation, marriage and family status, homeownership, etc. This data often comes from the US Census, and in the 1960s and early ’70s, this was the only research available to churches.
A “lifestyle segment” is a grouping of people based on similar attitudes, behavior patterns, spending habits, recreational priorities, media preferences, and habits of daily living. They tend to gather geographically, participate in similar activities, and follow predictable routines. This data comes from companies like Experian who track the digital “footprint” of individuals and households associated with a physical address.
Religion and Spirituality
You can explore participation in religious organizations, social and moral perspectives, religious beliefs, and spiritual needs often associated with specific lifestyle segments. This data comes from research by MissionInsite (“Quadrennium”) and the observation and practical experience of church consultants and theologians.
Each filter provides a unique view of the search area isolated on the “slide” of the “microscope.” These can be color-coded in a thematic map to reveal population densities for groups that share similar demographics, behaviors, or perspectives. This allows a church to target specific neighborhoods or regions, focus its mission and message, and customize relevant programs.
Probabilities, Likelihoods, and Reality Testing
Demographic and lifestyle research is more about probabilities rather than certainties. The facts and trends you explore indicate what is most likely true, not what is unquestionably true. In other words, there is no substitute for “boots on the ground.” Instead, you should step away from the computer and “reality test” your insights with real people.
For example, I once did two simultaneous consultations in different parts of the country and found myself studying lifestyle expectations for ministry among Q64 Town Elders. This lifestyle segment is one of the most commonly over-represented groups in established churches today. They are often decision-makers well represented on church administrative and trustee boards. I discovered, however, that Q64 Town Elders in eastern Tennessee do not necessarily have the same ministry expectations as Q64 Town Elders in northern California. Their lifestyles are very similar. They all prefer ecclesiastical-looking facilities, pledge generously to church operations, prefer printed resources, enjoy adult Sunday school classes, love children’s stories in worship, eagerly seek to involve young families, and drink coffee perked served in large steel urns. However…
Town Elders in Tennessee
Town Elders in the eastern Tennessee zip code I studied tended to have multi-generational roots in the community, preferred “caregiving” clergy, worship styles shaped by local traditions, large gender-based fellowship groups with elected leaders, and outreach focused on survival (e.g., food pantries, used clothing, and rummage sales raising money for local charities).
Town Elders in California
Town elders in the northern California zip code I studied tended to have lived in residence only about forty years and preferred “enabling” clergy who facilitated committees but rarely dropped in unannounced to visit people at home. They tended to prefer worship styles shaped by denominational traditions, small midweek groups with rotated leaders, and outreach focused on community safety and holistic health.
Same basic demographic, with similar church expectations, but demanding nuances to ministries that were very different. Yet church growth does not depend on generic programs but on getting the nuances right!
3 Ways Churches Test Their Demographic & Lifestyle Research
There are three basic ways churches “reality test” their demographic and lifestyle research:
You can do surveys in print, phone, or online, in table groups, and in town meetings. Remember to focus a survey on one idea or program at a time; keep them short and rely on multiple choice answers rather than personal comments (which are difficult to interpret and collate). They are more effective for internal than external use, and the drawback is that more and more lifestyle segments hate surveys.
Always do at least three focus groups with no more than 10 people or 5 households represented; diversify by key demographic categories (age, gender, language, location, etc.); offer groups at different times both inside and outside the church building, and use 2 group leaders so one can facilitate and the other takes notes. Be sure to rein in the extroverts and empower the introverts. The drawback is that people often say what they want others to think they believe.
Delegate teams to interview selected non-profit (social service, health care, emergency leaders), for-profit (retail, real estate, etc.), and government (municipal planners, city council representatives, etc.) leaders. Give them a QuickInsite Report or thematic map from MissionInsite on the research area and summarize your tentative insights. Make appointments, prepare questions, and take notes.
The best way to reality test your research is to use all three techniques over about four weeks. People are often skeptical of computerized research, but now you can also ground your conclusions and recommendations on local experience.
What is a “Lifestyle Segment” and Why Should I Care?
I vividly remember the first time I was introduced to the concept of “lifestyle segments.” In about 2003, I met the founders of MissionInsite in a hotel meeting room at Houston airport. Until that time, all I knew about demographics was that it involved enormous amounts of abstract statistics that were nearly impossible to interpret, much less apply, to rapidly changing communities and church ministries.
Then, for the first time, I saw the “Lifestyle Portraits” created by companies like Experian to aid strategic planners for all kinds of institutions (schools, hospitals, shopping malls, real estate developers, emergency and social services, and more). It was like the sun came out from behind the clouds!
A good portrait by a skilled artist captures the heart and mind–the very “essence” of an individual. Looking at a great portrait, you can look into their soul and readily imagine how they spoke, moved, and behaved. A “Lifestyle Portrait” does the same thing for a group of people. The digital tracking that emerged with the internet…a world of credit and debit…allows companies to compile data associated with any given person’s physical address. This is compared with the behavior of others, filtered through categories of age, income, occupation, race, etc., to create a visual and virtual “picture” of groups of people with similar attitudes, habits, and goals. Looking at the description of a “Lifestyle Segment,” you can see into the heart and mind, the very essence, of a group of people.
These “lifestyle portraits” were designed for use by secular institutions and agencies. With my very first glimpse in that Houston meeting room, however, I realized that the same data could be used to anticipate ministry expectations and interpret the spiritual journeys of distinct groups of people. It could also explain why some adaptive changes for church growth were more stressful than others and why some clergy succeeded in one church and struggled in another.
When I discovered the concept of “Lifestyle Portraits,” Experian had defined 40 distinct “lifestyle segments” in America. (They were doing the same in other countries. For example, Canada had about 43). Today there are 71 segments, and the interaction between segments can be further explained by 19 “Lifestyle Groups.” Soon there will be a new iteration of lifestyle segments by Experian that will likely define even more diversity.
Lifestyle segmentation rendered obsolete the old generalizations based on age, gender, race, education, marriage and family status, etc. We used to talk about “youth groups,” assuming that “youth” all thought alike, behaved alike, and viewed religion and the church alike. We know that there are about 45 lifestyle segments that include high proportions of youth between 12 and 18. Each thinks, behaves, and believes differently…and some “youth” don’t get along with other “youth.” The Sunday night “Youth Group” era has come to an end, and the era of multiple affinity-based small groups for youth has emerged!
The same diversity…with the same impact on ministries…can be said about gender, family, educated adults, occupations, and so on. “Women’s” and “Men’s” Groups, “traditional” or “contemporary” worship services, unified stewardship programs, and so many other one-size-fits-all ministries are of the past. Church leaders used to speak glibly about the “black” church and “Hispanic” or “Latino” experience. Today there are over 30 distinct lifestyle segments that include high proportions of African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans…and each has subtly different social and religious attitudes, personal and family goals, and expectations of as well as frustrations with the church. We have entered a “multi-choice” world!
The Impact of Lifestyle Segmentation
The impact of lifestyle segmentation on the church is not just about style, technology, formal or informal dress, musical taste, and so on. It goes deeper than that. The “portrait” reveals the soul. With a combination of research, listening, and prayer, church leaders, can connect with different spiritual yearnings. Preachers can better focus their sermons. Musicians can better choose relevant music. Educators can develop more effective methods and identify hot topics. Fundraisers can diversify financial appeals.
Each lifestyle segment seeks to experience God’s grace in different ways. Some gravitate toward Christ, the healer. Others seek Christ, the teacher, guide, vindicator, rescuer, promise keeper, personal and social transformer. Similarly, clergy can personify God’s grace in different ways…and are therefore more effective in distinct communities. Some clergy are born teachers; others advocate for justice; still others are mentors, visionaries, disciples, or healers. The essence of a lifestyle segment connects with the essence of the spiritual leader.
This is what diversity in ministry is all about. It’s about different kinds of blessings for different kinds of seekers, facilitated by the right spiritual leaders in relevant ways. MissionInsite helps you navigate this new world.
How to Use Pre-Defined Reports for Strategic Thinking
For years demographic research for churches has been packaged in “pre-defined reports.” Define a search area, press a button, and get a report. The categories of information are pre-selected, and the content in each category is data relevant to your particular search area.
Since that is what we are used to, most congregational and regional church leaders download “Pre-Defined Reports” in MissionInsite. But how do you decide which one to use?
The QuickInsite report is ten pages and provides a snapshot of community change, along with key trends in:
- Population and family
- Educational attainment
- Racial and ethnic diversity
- Lifestyle representation, and income
Clergy often distribute the first page widely across the congregation. It’s called “Storyview” because it describes how significant changes in these categories are for planners. The other pages are usually distributed among ministry teams for education, hospitality, outreach, and stewardship. In addition, regional leaders (i.e., district, presbytery, classis, diocese, etc.) often refer to this report in annual oversight meetings.
The ExecutiveInsite report is 16 pages and provides more detailed information in the same categories as the QuickInsite report, plus additional information about:
- Households with children
- Marital status
- Program preferences
Clergy often review this in board meetings, training sessions, and leadership retreats. And regional leaders often include them in the files they keep for every church under their oversight. In addition, they give it to incoming clergy and use it in conflict resolution concerning program change.
The FullInsite report is 33 pages and provides detailed information on everything in the first two reports, plus trends and projections for the next 5-10 years. It also provides details about:
- Seasonal and transient
- Phase of life,
- School enrollment,
- Income brackets,
- Spending patterns,
- Family and child poverty,
- Country of origin and primary languages,
- Lifestyle segment, and
- Group diversity, workforce, and other information
Large and multi-site churches use this with their staff and board, and regional leaders often refer to this when planting or merging churches.
The ReligiousInsite and ReligiousInsite Priorities reports are often used together. This is specialized research gathered every four years by MissionInsite. The first report captures the variety and popularity of views in the search area about God, Jesus, and Social and Moral Values; it compares these with national averages and tracks changes over the past five years.
Local and regional church leaders often refer to this for evangelism and outreach purposes, and Christian educators refer to this when designing courses and choosing curricula. (The second report provides the same data in rank order of importance and reveals five-year trends in religious involvement.)
ReligiousInsite also breaks down percentages of involvement in religious traditions and denominational affiliations. This is useful to churches and non-profit agencies as they seek partners with compatible values systems.
The MinistryInsite and MinistryInsite Priorities reports are also often used together. The first captures the variety and urgency of life concerns; it compares these with national averages and tracks changes over the past five years. It also identifies the critical reasons for non-participation in a church among both outsiders and members.
The second report places this information in rank order. Local clergy use this information in planning retreats and refer to it for staff development and continuing education. Regional leaders use this to prioritize financial support and program development.
Perhaps the most useful pre-defined report is the ComparativeInsite Report. However, it is only useful if the congregation has uploaded the member database to complete a “People Plot.” The report compares membership to the mission field. Thriving churches try to mirror the demographic and lifestyle diversity of the community…but most churches do not. This report lets you see what groups are under- and over-represented in the church (by age, income, family type, ethnicity, education, occupation, and lifestyle segment. It also provides an accurate figure for the overall financial potential for the church.
This report helps you make adaptive changes in ministries, volunteers, and staff to expand or deepen the influence of the church. It explains why the church culture, and all its ministry preferences and leadership expectations, are what they are…why one church culture is different from another…why churches are more or less welcoming to different groups of people. More than this, it helps leaders anticipate the nature, degree, and origins of stress when any ministry is changed.
When you use the right report, with the right people, at the right time, your strategic planning will be more effective. Unfortunately, I estimate that boards and vision teams never implement at least 80% of strategic planning recommendations because people don’t have the right information. Now you do.
I welcome any and all questions about using MissionInsite for ministry planning and leadership development. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see other related blogs by Tom Bandy, please visit Church Growth.