Do you have any good websites I can visit for demographic data on my neighborhood?
If I’ve been asked that question once, I’ve received it a dozen times. And for what it is worth, it’s a good question. Nowadays, many pastors and church leaders understand (at least in a theoretical sense) the need for knowing their ministry context and contextualizing their mission strategy to engage their neighbors in a way that is meaningful.
This same crowd most likely knows that contextualizing a missions strategy has something to do with demographic data on their neighborhood, and they begin trying to find a way to capture the data. So, they turn to people like me and ask if I know where they can get easy, free, and accurate statistics that will somehow unlock the secrets of their neighborhood and community to them.
Demographic data are not magic bullets.
If you’re paying attention, you might notice the hint of sarcasm in the final line of the paragraph above. To put it bluntly, demographic data are not magic bullets to fix your church’s declining numbers or give you the secret sauce to planting your new church in an unchurched neighborhood.
Too often, I watch excited church planters armed with a spreadsheet about household income levels or racial indicators (which are notoriously strewn with problems) run off and build a whole strategy based on the number in an Excel field. Numbers easily conceal as much as they reveal. Unless data are interpreted correctly (and that does, in fact, take some careful examination), paired with the right statistics, and considered alongside other (more important) factors, then they could simply cloud the real story of the community.
Fact is, demographic data are at best a supplemental resource in exegeting a community, and they should always take a back seat to actual, face-to-face examination. The best source of information on your neighborhood is your neighbors, not the United States Census Bureau. And, you will get a lot further in sharing the gospel with that neighbor if you actually talk to them.
But demographic data are really important.
While demographics should always be seen as a supplemental resource in exegeting a community, they are nevertheless very important. Pastor or church leader, if you have not considered the demographic information around your church, there is a good chance you are missing some key information. Add the fact that this information is freely available and there is really little excuse for a local church not to evaluate the relevant data on their community. This is, of course, the impetus of the question I get asked all time: Where do we find this stuff online?
So, I’m listing here four online resources that can help you gather demographic data to begin your community research.
One more caveat: Don’t look at the data alone.
But first, I have one more caveat to consider. When a local church starts digging around for this information, they will find old, dated material and fresh research, and it is often hard to tell the difference. Furthermore, the kinds of information out there are seemingly endless. A demographic report will often return ethnic percentages, household income levels, age breakdowns, consumer patterns, education levels, buying practices, psychographics, and the list goes on and on.
To make it even more complicated, not all of this information is helpful, and something that matters in one location may mean very little in another. Demographic data are like any other information. They must be interpreted, and that is best done with others.
Specifically, I would suggest enlisting the aid of people trained to help with this kind of thing. This is one of the many reasons cooperating with denominations, associations, and church networks benefits the churches involved. Here at our association, we walk our churches through all of this information and are trained to help them weed through the piles of data out there to find the important pieces. This is simply another benefit of cooperation.
Four Online Resources:
The Association of Religion Data Archives is perhaps the easiest “one stop shop” for demographic and psychographic data for churches.
Navigate to the “Congregational Resource Center” for several helpful tools. Of special note is the “What does my community look like?” section, which allows a congregation to pinpoint their address and create a demographic report that provides many helpful indicators for their area.
Tip: Do not set your radius above two miles. One mile is preferable. This may be counterintuitive, but the larger the radius, the less accurate the picture becomes. It is better to run several smaller reports for a wider area than running one, wide report.
This is a simple look-up tool for finding the boundaries of zip codes. For a church trying to do demographic research on their area, it is important to know these boundaries.
Another site to grab a quick demographic fact sheet. Putting in a specific zip code provides a quick report of data concerning housing type, income levels, age range, etc.
This website is an excellent resource to understand the foreign-born populations in metro areas around the U.S. That said, not all cities have data listed. This is a crowd-sourced initiative and not only a source of information, but an initiative you could aid by helping collect information.
Hopefully, these four options can help you begin the search. Again, don’t do it alone. And if you’re one of our churches in Houston, feel free to contact me and I’m happy to help interpret what you find.
Keelan Cook serves as Senior Church Consultant for Union Baptist Association and Instructor of North American Missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His primary areas of ministry focus include urban missiology, church planting, church revitalization, and unreached people groups.