Getting Outside the Building: Missional Context Analysis

The third in a series of blog posts on Vision-Guided Experimentation for faith communities

Click here to read the previous post

By Ken Howard

Vision Guided Experimentation (or VGE) is an emergent learning process which faith-based communities and organizations can use to help them quickly and effective adapt to rapid change while remaining sharply focused on their overarching vision: the seminal organizational belief out which all other organizational beliefs and values flow, which we called Minimum Viable Belief. In the last two posts we discussed the first step in VGE: discerning your congregation’s MVB. In this post, we turn to the next step in the process of Vision Guided Experimentation, which we call Missional Context Analysis.

Missional Context Analysis is about discerning the qualities, needs, strengths, and aspirations of the communities you are called to serve. I use the term “communities” rather than “congregations” as a reminder that faith communities are not just called to serve the people who show up for worship (the community inside the building), but also to serve their neighborhoods around them, and perhaps even the world as a while (the community outside the building). I use the term “missional” as a reminder that God is already at work in the world around us, and that a large part of our discernment is about learning the mission that God may already have in store for us with respect to our neighborhoods.

Speaking to business entrepreneurs, Steve Blanks once said, “No facts exist inside the building – only opinions… so get the hell outside.”[i]

In other words, it’s natural to trust our own assumptions, but we cannot make products our customers want and need unless we “get outside the building” and test our assumptions about what our customers want and need by actually asking or observing them.

Faith-based communities and organizations face the same dilemma, intensified by our tendency toward traditions. We stay inside our worship centers and offices, creating programs we believe our inner and outer communities want, without ever going out and asking.  So our next step is to “get outside the worship center” both figuratively and literally: deriving hypotheses from our MVB, refining those hypotheses against neighborhood demographic and lifestyle data, and then testing those refined hypotheses via direct interaction with the real people behind the numbers.

Essentially, there are three sets of questions we want to ask about our neighborhoods:

  1. Who are the people who make up the community? (Cue the “Sesame Street” theme)
  2. What are the issues the community is facing?
  3. What resources does the community have to deal with those issues?

Missional Context Analysis is crucially important, because the quality of the answers we get when we test your hypotheses depends the clarity and specificity of the hypotheses themselves. We begin by Getting Outside the Worship Center figuratively, exploring how to clarify implications for worship services, spiritual formation programs, congregational and community engagement, and administration. Then we work on Getting Outside the Worship Center literally, mapping out the populations, needs, and assets of the communities we serve, both inside and outside of our organization.

In the language of many Christian (and other) faith traditions, the practice of Missional Context Analysis is related to the idea of “call,” or the particular mission God has in store for a particular faith-based community or organization. While call can be independent of and preliminary to needs of those who we serve, understanding their need can help to refine a faith community’s sense of call. Getting outside the building can help the community inside the building get a clearer idea how God is already at work in the community outside the building, and how their sense of call relates to the ways that God is already at work there.

In future posts we will dig deeper into how to actually conduct a Missional Context Analysis and the tools that are available to do it, including our own soon-to-be released online missional context analysis tool, which we call Datastory for Faith Communities.                                                                                                                                        

[i] Steven G. Blank, Four Steps to the Epiphany (Raleigh, NC:, 2006), 7.