Clint Ritchie serves Arkansas Baptists as Community Missions Strategist and is the assistant team leader on the Missions Team at the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.
One of the first principles taught in speech class was also reiterated in preaching lab: “Know your audience!” When someone failed to connect with their audience, they were reminded of this principle, yet it was not as critical in pastoral leadership or evangelism courses. Just as missionaries devote significant time and resources to learn customs, language, and culture, a church finds it difficult to minister to its community if it does not know its audience.
The better a church knows its community, the more strategic it can be in its ministries. For instance, if you know your community has a higher percentage of millennials or single-parent households or those struggling with addiction, you can match relevant ministries.
How can you learn about your community?
1. Do a demographic study. These reports give you information like age trends, household size, marital status, socio-economic information, and the ethnic composition of your community, along with some religious information. You can request a free demographic study from the ABSC Missions Team (firstname.lastname@example.org).
2. Walk your community. This is easier done in smaller communities, but in larger areas you can divide the area and still walk the community. You can drive the community if walking is not an option, but walking is slower and allows you to really see and learn your community. You will see people outside and will have opportunities for conversation. More than just walking, prayerwalking takes the time to another level and will further open your eyes to the needs that exist. Ask for wisdom from the Lord about specific ways you can serve those around you.
3. Connect with school leaders. Schools are faced with financial shortages, not enough teachers, low morale, and many other needs. Having a relationship with school leaders can possibly lead to adopting a school, but these leaders can also help you understand the needs of children and families.
4. Ride with a police officer. If you want to really see your community, riding on a shift with an officer will show you parts of the community you will not see otherwise. Listening to a long-tenured officer can teach you about areas where a Gospel witness is needed.
5. Be a chaplain. Chaplaincy comes in many varieties, but it is simply being a presence for Christ in public spaces and is regularly welcomed by those in leadership of organizations, institutions, and places of employment.
6. Spend time in local establishments. Prior to the opening of coffee shops with expensive coffee, most communities had a place where the locals met every morning for cheap coffee and lots of talking. I know many pastors that found great friendships from those places, along with many ministry opportunities. Going to a coffee shop, restaurant, park, or a local ballpark allows you the opportunity to engage with those in your community.
7. Interview people. Whether formally or informally, take time to interview the key influencers in the community as well, such as the mayor and city council members, but also ask the random person you encounter. And take time to listen, for you will often find insight into the community as you listen to people’s stories.
While each community is unique, they are all the same in that they have spiritual needs and churches that can meet the needs as they make disciples. Knowing your community helps churches be the most effective in its ministry.