Here’s one of the most important communications lessons I’ve ever learned…

Know your audience.

Whether you’re writing a novel, composing an email, answering a question, or delivering a speech, it’s of utmost importance to answer your question.

A novel written for military history buffs will be dramatically different from a romance novel intended for young adults.

You can truthfully answer the question, “Where do babies come from?” in a variety of ways, but your approach will largely be dictated by the age of your audience.

It’s great to be an expert in your field, but it might be just as important to be an expert in understanding your audience.

It’s not just your content; it’s about understanding the hopes, dreams, fears, beliefs, and style of the people hearing your content. The better you know them, the better you can connect.

This is true for pastors and church leaders, too.

For those of us in the Church with life-changing messages, programs that should reach people, and ministries intended to meet people where they are, we need to make sure we have “good stuff.”

But we also need to make sure that our messages, ministries, and programs truly connect with the needs of our community. We don’t just need to know our mission—we need to know our mission field. We don’t just need to run our programs—we need to understand the people who need them.

Too many churches forge ahead with programs and ministries, sermons and messages, without taking the time to really study the makeup of the people they are trying to reach.

That’s not good stewardship. Plowing ahead with programs and ministries without knowing whether or not we’re working in sandy, rocky, or good soil isn’t great faith or great leadership. It’s a missed opportunity.

The Importance of Knowing and Matching

When missionaries enter the mission field, they should devote significant time to learning customs, language, and culture. Most realize that they need more than passion and vision to thrive. They must connect with the culture and community.

Anna Wishart writes this about missionaries:

“People in different places think and see the world differently than we do. We are going to another culture, another language, another people group. They are human beings, real people with intelligence, history, feelings, thoughts, customs, and minds; and like the uneducated surgeon, our good intentions alone will not be able to enter into their world to help them.”

Stefani Varner adds this:

“Crossing cultures can help us learn valuable lessons in principles such as honor, respect, relationships, love, discipline, work ethic, and more. We have an opportunity for personal and corporate growth as we learn from each other. As we cross cultures for the purpose of bringing the life-giving message of the gospel to the nations, we must do so with humility. Having the mindset of a learner and gaining trust is critical so we can focus on building relationships and pointing them to the truth of the gospel.”

Learning culture is an important topic for missionaries, but it is just as important for pastors and church leaders. You’re a missionary in your own community. There might not be a language barrier, but there’s still an opportunity.

Many pastors know their mission statement backward and forward but have not put in the time and energy to get to know the mission field.

That’s a huge risk.

But where there is great risk, there is great opportunity.

The better you know your community (and congregation), the better you can match your programs, ministries, and communication.

Knowing more can help you be more effective.

  • If you know your community or congregation consists of people likely to have a marriage in need, then you could offer ministries and programs to reach this group of people.
  • If you know your community has an aversion to technology, you can stop asking them to download the app and take the survey and just hand out paper and pens to get their feedback.
  • If you know your community has a higher percentage of millennials or single-parent households or those struggling with addiction, you can match relevant programs.

How Can You Know?

You think you know your community, but what do you really know?

Do you just have stories or observations? Or is there some hard data?

There’s value in both, but if you can get data and insights, you’ll be able to make better ministry decisions.

Here are two places you can get the kind of data, statistics, and insights we’re talking about.

First, take a look at the Know Your Community report courtesy of Gloo Insights.

Once you create a free account and put in your church address, you can download a report containing a wealth of information about the people living in your area.

This information is anonymized, meaning you can’t see individuals. But an aggregate look at your community is well worth your time.

When you run your own report, you can dive into:

  • Demographic data about your community, including the generational mix, length of residence, and ethnicity
  • Family makeup including relationship status, children present, and the possibility of a marriage at risk
  • Financial situations included the estimated household income, discretionary income, and debt levels
  • Spiritual style and religious affiliation
  • Behavioral, physical, and emotional health patterns

This type of “third-party data” is a valuable snapshot of your community. It can provide some fresh insight into your mission field. It may confirm some suspicions or shed light on why your people respond the way they do.

When you run your report, talk about it with some other leaders in your church. Did you see anything that surprised you? What do you make of the spiritual style section? Do your current programs and ministries match who lives in your community?

Second, gather information through surveys and assessments.

You can learn a lot from your congregation by asking them questions. This “first-party” information comes directly from your people.

Like a shepherd knowing the condition of the flock, pastors can use surveys and assessments to better understand the condition of the congregation. By asking questions, you can know rather than guess.

In recent months, we’ve seen churches make great ministry decisions after listening to the congregation. Here are just some of the options.

  • You could run a congregational check-in like Barna’s Church Pulse.
  • You could survey your people before you head into a sermon series planning retreat.
  • You could run a leadership assessment to identify potential leaders who are not yet serving in the church.
  • You could run a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey with small group leaders or volunteers.
  • You could run a parent check-in to see how parents and families are doing during COVID.
  • You could set up a guest follow-up survey to get valuable feedback from first-time guests.
  • You could offer a couples check-in before a married small group or couple’s retreat.

Surveys and assessments are more valuable than overreliance on the most recent story you’ve heard or the loudest voice in the room. They allow you to move from “people are saying” to more concrete evidence of perceptions and beliefs.

Taken together, insights on your community and answers from your congregation can give you a deeper understanding of the people you are trying to reach and the people you are serving.

New Insight for New Times

Even if you feel like you have a decent pulse on this, the actual information can inform your ministry decision making.

Now more than ever, it’s important to know and match.

It’s likely your community has changed over the last ten years. In fact, things probably look radically different today than just one year ago. That’s why you should search out this type of information, even if you feel like you have a baseline understanding of your community.

Don’t let familiarity with your environment lead you to miss out on important changes or trends.

Things change.

People change.

Communities change.

And because the mission of the church is permanent, pastors and church leaders are often resistant to cultural changes. We’re comfortable doing what worked in the past and are sometimes conditioned to ignore the changes around us.

Many churches are designed to meet the needs of a community that existed 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

Let’s be clear: Your purpose should not change.

The calling to “go and make disciples” should be the foundation for everything you do. The changing needs of culture do not alter the purpose of the church.

But your strategies and tactics should be informed by the audience you’re trying to reach.

When you take time to understand your community and get to know your congregation at a deeper level, you can be more effective in ministry.

Take the Next Step

Do you want to dive a little deeper into this topic? Our newest course, Data Fueled Church, is a free resource that will help you process many of the ideas in this article. We’ll guide you through how to get things set up and help you take action with some of the information available to you.

This premium course is 100% free and includes videos and resources for you and your team.