Earlier this year at a conference, I gave a presentation on Neighborhood Missional Intelligence Assessment. When the time came for Q&A, one of the participants posed this question:
“I can see how neighborhood missional assessment would be good for new start congregations and congregations looking to relocate, but how is it helpful for existing congregations that have been around long enough to form a deeper understanding of their neighborhood?”
I get this question (or variations thereof) more often than one might think.
My smarty-pants Anglican answer goes something like this:
“If you’re asking me if neighborhood missional assessment is most useful for new congregations or existing congregations, the answer is ‘Yes!’”
Neighborhood missional assessment is an essential part of the process of starting a new congregation. Such intelligence is essential both for selecting the best sites for planting and getting to know the people that live in those neighborhoods. It is one of the few things that you can do that can significantly reduce the generally high likelihood of a “failed” start (currently hovering around 70%). A good data-grounded missional assessment, guided by a knowledgeable missional consultant or coach, can increase the likelihood of “success” by as much at 50% (I put “success” and “failure” in quotes because we learn from both, and as Mother Theresa was fond of saying, “God doesn’t call us to be successful but faithful.”)
But it’s also essential for existing congregations, because of a faulty assumption hidden in the words of the above question. The reason that the assumption that congregations who have been around for a while don’t need help to know their neighborhoods is faulty, is that most have been learning about their neighborhoods by osmosis: trying to extrapolate knowledge of the neighborhood by the people who come to visit worship services. That used to work when neighborhoods changed over generations and tended to be more homogeneous even when the demographics shifted. But now neighborhoods change over years rather than generations, and most are becoming rapidly more diverse. And since human nature tends to make it easier to see neighbors who look like us and harder to notice those who don’t, the blind spots of long-standing congregations tend to be much larger than those who are just getting started. And since blind spots are by definition things you cannot see without help, long-standing congregations are more likely to need technological and consultative help to break through their data-blindness.
I have yet to encounter a congregation whose leadership did not encounter a “holy crap” moment during our work (often after a series of “No ways” and a drive around the neighborhood). And the missional assessment tool and process always drives them to the right question, which is “Why don’t we see them?” Sometimes it’s a generational thing, sometimes it’s a racial/ethnic/language thing, sometimes it’s a socio-economic thing. But its always there.
Which means neighborhood missional assessment is just as much a live-or-die thing for long-standing congregations as new ones. The only difference is that new start congregations die more quickly than older ones do. And because older congregations have more resources than new starts, they can hide the truth from themselves for much longer, running the risk of becoming “Zombie congregations” long before the finally “meet their maker.”
The good news is that more and more long-standing congregations are realizing that they need help opening their eyes to see God’s hands at work in the world about them.
Indeed, the vast majority (perhaps 80%) of our congregational clients are existing congregations (and the “oldest” was founded almost 200 years ago).
We would love to help your congregation see into it’s neighborhood blind spots.