How to Survey a City

Moving to a new area to plant a church can be a daunting experience. Where do you begin? Where do you meet? How do you get started?

Those are all questions that we asked over the last year as we sought where to plant a new church in the city of London. If you are a church-planting missionary, those are questions you will be asking as you seek to plant a new church as well.

We moved to London in August, and, took about a year to survey, do outreach, and try to find an open door for where God might want us to plant our first church.

This post first appeared on my blog last year at this time. It was written in response to the questions of some people who asked about our survey process involves and how we are going about it. This post is an attempt to answer those questions and be a help to those who may be in a similar situation.

First, what are the reasons to survey the city/area before planting a church?

  • Because we need to identify where there are already gospel-preaching churches. It would be a bit foolish to plant a new church right next to another good gospel-preaching church.
  • Because we need to identify where the needs are. Church-planting is not just about having a church. It is about trying to plant a church that can strategically reach an entire area with the gospel on consistent basis.
  • Because we want to learn as much as we can about an area before we decide where to plant a church. Regarding surveying the community, Elmer Towns says this in his book Getting a Church Started: “When the church planter has a knowledge of the area into which he is going, God is able to give him clearer leading and the church will grow more healthy because it will probably have fewer problems to overcome in its future.”

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Second, we did as much preliminary research as we could.

Once we decided on London, we put together a 54-page area study about the city that contained information such as the following:

  • Statistics on the city as a whole: history, population, population growth, population density, unemployment, income, main fields of employment, house prices, rent prices, religion, communication, ethnicity, transportation, universities, culture, government, geography, area, climate, family structure.
  • Statistics on the regions of the city. In London, this meant studying each of the 32 boroughs. For each of them, we researched: population, population density, population growth, poverty level, age structure, number of households, household size, crime rates, average home rent, average house cost, schools, ethnicity, transportation, administrative headquarters, universities, cultural landmarks, geography, history, and any other information we could find on each borough.

We are very blessed to have access to so much of this information online now. We accessed census reports, council websites, news articles, and a great deal of other information from the Internet before we even moved here.

Third, we mapped where all the churches are that “claim” to preach the gospel and where there are none.

  • Everyone will have a different definition of what constitutes a “good church.” Although there were many other factors to consider, we wanted to know where every church was that at least claimed to preach the gospel.
  • This was difficult to do, so we just did the best we could. We used the lists of fellowships of churches that claimed to be gospel-preaching or seemed to be from their websites.
  • Obviously before we plant a church in a particular area, we will try to find out more about the churches in that area. Also, there may be areas where there are churches that claim to be a particular kind of church, but we may find out that church is dying, has stopped preaching the gospel, or is unable to effectively reach the area where it is placed. In that case, we would consider planting there.
  • We also made special note where there are other kinds of churches or church-planters that would be very similar to us. With so much need all around us, there is no need for us to overlap our efforts.
  • We used google maps and an actual map to plot where all the churches were. In a large city like London, this has been a massive job because there is such a long history of Christianity here, there are so many church buildings here, and yet so many of them are no longer preaching the gospel.
  • As we plotted where there are gospel-preaching churches, we began to see areas that did not seem to have any gospel-preaching churches. Those are the areas where we are praying about planting a church.

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Fourth, we got on the road and began to survey.

  • We printed out a map and all the information that we complied about each area and then headed out in the car.
  • The purpose of our survey trips were:
    • To get a feel for the areas – wealthy/middle-class/poor, densely populated/rural, growing/declining, ethnically diverse/one predominate ethnic group, small town feel/city centre feel, family/retirement community/student/working professionals, etc.
    • To see where the churches are in the area – are they big/small, old/new, growing/declining, etc.
    • To see the areas where there are no churches – did we miss any churches?, do any of them seem like good areas to plant? were there any buildings we noticed that could be rented, etc.
    • To observe other things about the community – problems, opportunities, challenges, needs, etc.
  • For us here in London, this required hours and hours of time driving around a city that covers an area of over 600 square miles.
  • We tried not to take anything for granted or to make assumptions. We tried to see as much of the city as we could. Sometimes we were surprised by what we found. Some of the things we read on the Internet appeared differently on the ground. Other things that we read about  certain areas came alive as we drive through them.

Finally, we complied our research.

  • When we came back from driving through and observing an area, we did further research that we felt necessary and then complied reports on each area. You can view the reports we have put together so far for London here.
  • In the reports, we tried to evaluate and then map areas that we thought could definitely warrant a church plant.
  • Once these surveys are done, we will then begin to pray, research, and plan for exactly where to start. But at least we now know where there are legitimate needs, potential areas, and have a general feel for the entire city. We now have the information to help us make a wise decision.

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Other things we are considering as we survey the city:

  • Are there any areas that other pastors/church-planters have pointed out to us as needy areas?
  • Where can our gifts/abilities as church-planters be most effective? Just because an area is needy does not mean we are the best people to meet those needs.
  • What prejudices/fears/preconceptions/insecurities are keeping us from being open and willing to follow God’s leading? The needs of an area can be overwhelming and scary. As we survey, those thoughts often arise to the surface. We are trying to take the time to deal with those issues and give them to God. Before God can build a church, he must build us. Before God can work through, He must work in us.
  • What could God do in the city/area? We are trying to not look at the obstacles or the challenges, but to see with the eyes of faith. We are asking, What could God do in the area through His might power? What are the opportunities and possibilities? What doors is God opening?

2 comments

  1. Thank you Travis!
    We are currently working through what your post is about. We are in a city that needs at least 40 more churches! the hard part is, there are already some churches here. Some are active in winning souls, but not many… There seems to be lots that were started by missionaries, but today are not really doing much to reach our city. I have not found another Pastor/Missionary that has the same vision that we have. They are not training men. There are a hand-full of churches here, but they have really bad doctrine and as you know at some point that bad doctrine will cause them to preach a different gospel. That has happened a lot and we even have some people in our church that were in those kinds of churches before. woman preachers, etc….

    Thanks again for your post!
    I will be using some of your stuff as we also map out this city!

  2. I am very glad it was a help to you. It is a challenging especially when there are other churches, because you don’t want to plant a church in a an are that another church is reaching, but truthfully I don’t think it is ever the case that an area has too many good churches. There is always so much to do, it is just finding the neediest areas and where the doors are opening. Thank you for your vision and contributions to this blog.

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