August 17, 2021

The Importance of Good Research for Church Planting

Research is a key component in any kind of church ministry. It doesn’t matter whether you are in a settled congregation, renewing a dying work, or planting from scratch; we need to do our research.

This is particularly important for church planters. From the off, the question needs to be: “What kind of church do we want to be?” If we are going to answer this question with any degree of certainty, then we have to understand the people around us that we’re trying to reach with the good news of Jesus. If I were to ask you right now to write 300 words on the makeup of your local community, could you honestly do it with a good degree of accuracy?

Many of us think we know the people around us, but we don’t. Not really. Far too many people, for instance, make too many assumptions about those who live in schemes and council estates. They particularly make false assumptions about their intellect and their spiritual state (‘non-readers’ and ‘hostile to the gospel’). Poor planning, poor research, and lazy assumptions can kill a ministry before it even gets off the ground.

Listen

Most planters are fine with getting facts and figures off the internet, and spouting them to anybody who will listen, in an effort to look like they know what they’re doing. But the hard work is done on the ground, among the community, by talking to people and, more importantly, listening to what they have to say. How will I know how people relate to one another unless I see them in action? How will I know where the‘hot spots’are—in terms of where people gather—unless I am there? No textbook on the planet will tell you what is in the mind of a person or what they think about God or spiritual things better than a real, live person in front of you.

I was told six years ago not to come to Edinburgh because it was a ‘spiritual graveyard’ or, as one person put it, the centre of ‘post-Christian Europe’. Yet, my experience has been the complete opposite. The problems of Niddrie Community Church are not to get people to talk about Christ and admit their sinful condition; that’s the easy part (in the main). The problem is a discipleship one. People just will not pay the price and bow the knee in humble submission to King Jesus. As we all know, that proud stance knows no socio-economic and/or class boundaries! The point being, when I arrived, assumptions had been made about a worldview that may be true in ‘middle-class world’, but had absolutely no bearing in the housing-scheme culture. Those mistakes can only ever be avoided by working in the trenches and doing solid research.

If we want to understand any ‘people group’ (or any single individual for that matter) we must be looking to build the bridge between their worldview and the gospel. There are certain areas we can probe:

1. What are their ambitions and hopes?

If they have none (sadly, 95% of the people I work with will say ‘nothing’) then I will change tack. What do you think the biggest problem in the scheme is? What do you think is stopping it getting better? How would you make it better? What would you fix first? Is there anything in your life you would like to fix? The last question is the question you want, but it is important to get there slowly and to not make it sound like a job interview. These questions do not have to come out rapid fire and/or all in one meeting. Wisdom and discernment people!

2. How do they see the world? What is their creation story?

(Don’t use that language, but that is where you are going). Ultimately, we are trying to discern a worldview.

3. Who runs the scheme?

Who are the main players? Who runs the show? (These are dangerous questions and need a good prior relationship and serious trust. However, drug addicts usually talk all day, but be aware that their information is often suspect).

4. What do they think about spiritual things?

What do they think about religion? (These are the two winners. Guaranteed conversation will flow easily from these questions). What do they believe about life and death, and God and the church? Do not feel like you have to dump the ‘four spiritual laws’ straight onto them. On the other hand, do not bottle it. Go for a full gospel in simple, clear, and understandable language when the opportunity presents itself. However, please, please, please do not leave it as an open and shut case. Leave what I call ‘wiggle room’ for further, ongoing relationship.

This sort of information gathering (if I can put it like that without sounding too creepy!) is good either at a community level—if you do it in a formal questionnaire type of way (which I never do—not to say it’s not a legitimate tool) or at an individual level in terms of building up a profile. At the end of the day, we are trying to work out how we can build a gospel community that is biblically, theologically, and doctrinally Reformed (in my case!) and engages with the community in ways which are understandable to them.

Know that I am not bothered if they are offended by what I teach; only if they fail to understand it. If they have understood the gospel, they will either be terrified of it and bow the knee, or they will be upset by it and become hostile. I have to say that I prefer the former every time!

If I have done my homework well, I will be able to understand the functional idols of my community and bring the gospel to bear upon them. Don’t get me wrong, the Holy Spirit will move within individuals, draw them to Christ, bring them to repentance, and enable them to live a life of faithful obedience. But I do have some responsibility in bringing a contextualised message that relates specifically to my hearers and their view of the world.

Here are three tips to help us in these areas as we approach ministry within our contexts:

1. Think of at least four different types of individuals you would like to reach out to in your community. Who are they, and how can you get yourself into their lives so that you can apply the principles noted above?

2. How do they differ culturally from one another and from your church (if you currently have one) and your own cultural background?

3. How can this help you plan your ministry outreach and/or philosophy in order to try to engage better with these people?

This is often a long and arduous process, but let me encourage you that it is a worthwhile one. Nothing beats good preparation and knowing the people you are trying to call back from the brink of hell. Bottom line is that we should use any and all means that will make us more effective gospel communicators as long as we never tinker with the truth.