Measuring Missional Opportunity


By The Rev. Ken Howard

Click here for last week’s post on Measuring Vitality and Sustainability

Last week we discussed how we approach assessing the vitality of congregations based on key parochial report trends and their sustainability based on key demographic projections. We described how we transform those trends and projections into a Congregational Vitality Index and Congregational Sustainability Index and how dioceses other judicatories can use these indexes to perform a system-wide triage of their congregations in their current form and location.

This week we turn from how to assess our current congregational resources to how to predict and discover emerging missional opportunities in the communities around us.

Quantum physicist Niels Bohr famously said, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.”

But discovering emerging missional opportunities wasn’t as difficult as it might sound. Or more accurately, once we did the hard work of correlational research necessary to assess congregational sustainability, it wasn’t so hard to take the next step into the predictive analytics of missional opportunity.

Basically, it required taking our existing diagnostic algorithms for sustainability (population growth, diversity growth, generational predominance, and “qualified population”), and transforming them into positive markers in a new algorithm for missional opportunity.

Missional Opportunity (or M.O.) is a measure of community capacity independent of congregations. Rather than asking whether a particular community is capable of sustaining a particular congregation as it exists today, we are mapping the capacity of every community in a diocese to sustain a vital community, as faith communities are configured today.

As before, we combined these four ratings to produce a 6-point, 5-year Congregational Sustainability Index scale with a high of 12, a midpoint of 8, and low of 4 (see below).

Missional Opportunity Index Map Layer

As is the case in the diocesan Missional Opportunity Index map, large swaths of any diocese will show moderate M.O., from the high side of moderate to the low side. But as is also frequently the case, there are a few areas with very high M.O., and a few with very low M.O..

Now comes the creative part. We begin to explore creative ways to invest time, effort, and resources into areas of high M.O. We also have to explore creative ways of engaging areas of low M.O. Remember, low M.O. does not mean you can’t engage the people in these areas – very low M.O. is simply a red flag that the traditional congregational model will not work here.

Missional Opportunity Map with 15-minute Drive Times for All Congregations

Once we have identified the highest and lowest areas of M.O., we can begin the creative process by interrogating the data. In the map above we have done that by overlaying the 15-minute Drive Time areas for all congregations. (Why 15-minutes? Because research shows that 70% of the U.S. population will drive no longer that 15 minutes to worship). Immediately, we notice that one of the green areas is not within any congregation’s Drive Time. We note that the area is a fast growing suburb.

Area of High Missional Opportunity – No Congregation within 15-min. Drive

What does that mean?

It means that this is a perfect location to start a new congregation.

Area of High Missional Opportunity – 4 Congregations within 15-min. Drive

But not every area of high M.O. is good soil for planting a new congregation. In the map above, we see a bright green area of high M.O. surrounded by 4 congregations within a 15-min drive.

What does that mean?

It means that we have to find a way to engage the opportunities present in the high M.O. areas without starting a new congregation there.


Because it would lead to five congregations competing to serve the people of that area and draw members from it, which would make matters worse, not better.  Five congregations competing to serve will lead to competing and uncoordinated outreach efforts, which will in turn lead to confusion in the community (and in the congregations). Five congregations competing to draw members from the same population run the risk of dividing up the population of the community so much that the community, despite its M.O., may not have sufficient capacity to fill the congregations. What might be better options?

One would be to encourage the four congregations to develop a coordinated Team Ministry to engage the people of the high M.O. areas with each congregation’s outreach efforts. For example, while five congregations starting Spanish-language services might lead to the failure of all their efforts, one congregation starting a Spanish-language service might succeed. Meanwhile, another congregation could focus on attracting Millennials, another coordinate a teen ministry for all four congregations, another could provide a signed service for the deaf, each according to its unique charism and character.

A twist on the team ministry approach might be to coordinate worship services, educational programs, and outreach efforts, AND relocate one of the congregations (perhaps the closest) inside the high-M.O. area.

A similar approach might work in low-M.O. areas surrounded by several congregations. A single congregation near a low M.O. area might consider holding occasion services in homes or community centers in the area. Meanwhile, a congregation actually IN an area of low-M.O. might want to sell its building, worship in a school, and station their clergy in the local Starbucks, perhaps even using the proceeds of the sale to pay for a young, energetic, and outreach-oriented clergyperson to work full-time.

The possibilities are only limited by our imagination and creativity…


If you’d like learn more about how you can acquire the MapDash for Faith Communities tool or engage Ken Howard to help you identify and engage the Missional Opportunity in your diocese, to contact him at [email protected].