Missional Planning for Congregations: What Is Our Neighborhood?

by Ken Howard

The second post in a multi-part series on Missional Planning.
Click here to read the previous post.

Now that we’ve clarified what “being missional” means in theory, we can move on to what it means to be missional in practice: specifically, how to develop a missional plan. We will walk through the process of developing a congregational missional plan.

When a congregation develops a missional plan, what it is really doing is discerning and then putting in writing how they as a faith community will fulfill Jesus’ command “Love your neighbor” in the larger community in which God has planted them. We can’t do this unless we can answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And we cannot do either unless we first get to know our neighbor.

Ultimately, a congregational mission plan is only as sound as the congregation’s knowledge of its neighbors…and its neighborhoods. Which is why half of the steps in developing a congregational mission plan involve conducting a thorough analysis of the congregations missional context. Missional Context analysis is about discerning the qualities, needs, strengths, and aspirations of the communities we are called by God to engage. We 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 the neighborhoods around them, and perhaps even the world as a whole (the community outside the building). We use the term “missional” as a reminder that God is already at work in that community, 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. We simply cannot stay inside our worship centers and offices, creating programs we believe our communities want and need, without ever going out and asking.

Step 1: What is our neighborhood?

The first step is to define the realistic geographic boundaries of your neighborhood. There are two ways to do this: the first is to determine the area from which people are most likely to visit your congregation first (we call this area a MissionWeb), and the second is to determine the practical extent of the area from which your membership is likely to come.

Area of Likely Visitation (MissionWeb). Research has shown that the vast majority of people will explore the congregation closest to them before they visit others. You might think of this area as containing your lowest hanging fruit in terms of marketing: the people who are most likely to visit your congregation first. Which means your congregation’s MissionWeb is the area bounded by equidistant drive times between your faith community and the nearest faith communities of your denomination (or similar liturgical style).

Area of Likely Membership (15-Minute Drive Time). Research has demonstrated that about 70% of the regular attendees (the functional equivalent of members) will come from within a 15-minute DriveTime of the church’s location.

Once you have defined your congregation’s realistic geographic boundaries, you need to start asking questions about this area. Questions like:

  • How large is your MissionWeb (geography and population) compared to your 15-Minute DriveTime? If your MissionWeb is smaller than your DriveTime, it suggests you may need to broaden your focus beyond your lowest hanging fruit. If larger, it suggests you may need to narrow your focus.
  • How many other congregations of your denomination are located within your congregation’s 15-minute DriveTime? Research suggests that these will be your strongest competitors. The more you have, the more competition you have for the same finite population (in marketing lingo, this phenomenon is called cannibalization).
  • With how many of these congregations have you spoken about the neighborhoods you share? Or worked out a collaborative relationship? These congregations are reaching out to engage some of the same neighborhoods and people as your congregation. If you are not collaborating in serving these neighborhoods and people, you are competing for them. At the very least, your congregational leadership should be in discussion with theirs about the neighborhoods you share. Better would be reaching informal agreement on how you and they could engage these neighborhoods and people collaboratively (e.g., shared Shrove Tuesday pancake supper, combined youth groups, joint rotations at the neighborhood nursing home, etc.). Even better would be a more formal relationship involving joint outreach planning. Turning competition into collaboration can counteract cannibalization to some degree.
  • How much do their DriveTimes Overlap with yours? The greater the overlap, the greater the cannibalization, and the more you need to move toward formal collaboration, team ministry, or even merger. If you overlap more than 50% with any congregation, you should consider coordinating or collaborating in your efforts to reach the neighborhoods and people you share. If you overlap more than 80%, you should be considering organizing a formal team ministry agreement or merger.

Here’s an example:

The above illustration displays the 15-minute DriveTimes of four Pensacola Parishes – St. Cyprian’s, Christ Church, St. Christopher’s, and Holy Cross – overlaid with their MissionWebs outlines. The DriveTimes of St. Cyprian’s, Christ Church, and St. Christopher’s are 80-90% overlapping. In terms of the neighborhoods and people they share, they are essentially the same parish. They need to begin exploring ways of acting as though they were. And Holy Cross, which is 60-70% overlapped with the others, at the very least, needs to be begin exploring ways of coordinating/collaborating with the other three.

Stay Tuned! Next week we will cover steps 2 through 5, starting with “Who Are Our Neighbors?”