If you would be fishers of men, then first you must be dredgers of data-demographic data. That was the message sent by the Rev. Ryan Sim in a workshop on the importance of missional listening at The Missional Roadmap, the recent Vital Church Planting conference in Toronto.”You must know your target community,” said Sim, associate priest for entrepreneurial activity at Toronto’s St. Paul’s, Bloor Street. Sim is embarking on the research phase of a five-year plan to start a new church in Ajax, a dormitory suburb of Toronto and home to many young commuting families.
Good sources of hard data on the makeup of target communities include diocesan or denominational headquarters, real estate agencies, the websites of local organizations, municipal offices and Statistics Canada. “Sometimes you can even get a custom study done if you have the budget,” he said.
Ryan also recommends exploring the neighbourhood yourself-on foot or by car. “What you see on the streets can tell you a lot about the people there and their needs.” Are there signs of permanence or transience? Poverty or affluence? Safety or danger? Community involvement or isolation? What, if any, are the signs of faith?
Do people rush home after work carrying cartons of take-out and a bottle of alcohol tucked under their arm? Does the fast-food deliveryman show up at a lot of doors in the evenings? “What do you see, what do you hear, what do you smell? Take it all in,” he said.
No grist is too lowly for your demographic mill. Are there a lot of empty diaper boxes put out for garbage pickup? Are there holes in the garage doors of otherwise well-kept homes suggesting the presence of aspiring young slap shot masters? Which is bigger in the local bookstore: the kids’ section or the travel section? “The local bookstore is not going to stock a lot of kids’ books if there’s a lot of retired people in the community who are travelling,” Sim said.
After the observation phases, come the more interesting-and potentially riskier-phases of interpretation and evaluation. ‘You may be wrong about what you see,’ ” Sim said.
Be interactive in the observational phase. Hang out in the coffee shops and start up conversations. “And do some demographic work of your own,” stressed Sim, who was instrumental in starting Reconnect, a church community for young stressed-out professionals living in downtown Toronto.
He suggested conducting 30-second two-question street-corner community surveys in which passersby are asked two simple questions: What brings you to this neighbourhood (work, study, shopping, living, tourism)? And: What would most improve your quality of life? A veteran of such surveys, Sims said, “You get a lot of data this way. People talk a lot about money.”
A few interested respondents can be given longer, more specific questionnaires and may eventually become partners in your information gathering. Questions for this group might include: What are the problems in this community? How is the community shifting? How is Christianity perceived here? What is your dream for this community? How can we help?
“Ask them if you can put them on your emailing list so you can let them know if you use any of their ideas,” he said. “Ask, ‘Who else can you connect me with?’ This can lead to really fruitful partnerships that your church can be a part of.”
Gather a think tank and tease out trends and formulate ideas for helping people. “We saw patterns emerging. A lot of people said, ‘I want to reprioritize my time.’ There are opportunities there.”