Online database an 'untapped resource' for ministry

United Methodist churches across Florida are mining an online database and finding a treasure trove of demographic information that is helping attract new parishioners.

The Florida Conference pays $8,700 a year for the MissionInsite database, making it  free to use for any UMC member in the state.

First UMC, Coral Gables, has been using the program since November with a view toward attracting a more diverse congregation.

“The information is excellent in laying out the broad strokes,” said Greg Alt, who chairs the church’s administrative council.

“It’s then up to church leadership to turn that into resource intelligence and really determine what the potential demographic could be.” 

Pastor Ben Stilwell Hernandez at Pine Ridge Fellowship

Pine Ridge Fellowship pastor Ben Stilwell-Hernandez is among church leaders who use the MissionInsite database to design new church programs that appeal to the surrounding community. Photo from Pine Ridge Fellowship.

Collecting demographic information from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, MissionInsite combines data into a comprehensive, user-friendly format that can be used to paint an accurate social, economic or religious portrait of almost any community in Florida.

Thinking of starting a mission to feed the hungry? MissionInsite reveals the neighborhoods where those people live and how many are within a 5-mile radius of the church. Targeting young families? The database can help pick the ZIP codes for an effective mass mailing. Considering a GED program for the unemployed? MissionInsite knows where they live in your area.

“This is a phenomenal tool,” said Rev. Dr. Mont Duncan, executive director of New Church Development for the Florida Conference.

“It’s a great untapped resource. It helps us understand what we can do today to be relevant and whom we need to be relevant to. Some are waiting for the 1950s to come around again and ministering to people who are not there anymore.”

Surrounded by large Hispanic and African-American communities, as well as a large student population at the University of Miami, First UMC, Coral Gables, is using MissionInsite to plan outreach.

“We know we have a great pool of potential disciples in this area and [MissionInsite] is a great tool to identify them and develop strategies of how to reach out and bring those people in,” Alt said.

“We know who we have, but we don’t know who we don’t have.”

Alt is part of a demographic task force formed in November after Duncan made a presentation at the church on MissionInsite’s use.

“Our church is in a very affluent area of Miami but we are casting the net wider to include a rich, diverse community,” Alt said.

The database also provides insight on a community’s religious makeup via the Quadrennial Project, a national religious survey of Americans' beliefs, preferences and practices. This state of faith report was released last year.

“Let’s say a church decided it wanted to reach people with little or no faith. This report can show where those people are in a community,” said Duncan, 12 years at the helm of the New Church Development office. 

Mont Duncan of New Church Development discusses MissionInsite statistics
Mont Duncan, executive director of New Church Development at the Florida Conference, discusses a MissionInsite report generated for Christ Church, Fort Lauderdale. Photo by Susan Green.

“They can do a mailing to those ZIP codes or, and a lot of our churches are finding more success with this approach, go door to door and let people know the church is there and give them a direct invitation.”

At Pine Ridge Fellowship in Deltona, Pastor Ben Stilwell-Hernandez finds two parts of the program particularly helpful: Quadrennial Reports and the Congregant Plot.

The Quad Report “allows us to look deeper and broader into the households in a designated area to provide even more information than the pure demographics. …  It is pretty eye-opening,” Stilwell-Hernandez said.

The Congregant Plot also lets a pastor see neighborhoods where his or her flock is concentrated.

“This is helpful to know as we plan for community events and outreaches as we can pick where we go and don't go as a church,” Stilwell-Hernandez said.

“MissionInsite is especially useful in discovering new ministry opportunities,” said Chuck Salter, an ordained Methodist elder and president of MissionInsite.

“Conferences across the country use MissionInsite to develop strategic targets for new church starts, racial ethnic ministries and for transitional/redevelopment opportunities.”

Local churches also use the service to assist church leaders in development of effective ministries based on current and projected demographic trends, Salter said. A church that wants to start a daycare should know how many young children live nearby, for example.

"Often local churches plan ministries without a clear understanding of whether or not their community demographics support those plans," Salter said. "It’s not uncommon for a local church to say they want to reach families with young children, but not every community provides that opportunity.”

Salter sees the goal as less how to market the church and more "how to bless the community."

Some church leaders shy away from numerical descriptions of their neighborhoods, Salter said, "but the issue is not demographics, it’s a question of mission. We all know there have been scores of books written about the essential nature of externally focused ministries, making the case that often churches simply don’t ask the question ‘Who is my neighbor?’

"I believe this reluctance to understand and engage our neighbors is one of the reasons [membership in] every mainline denomination has declined for more than a decade.”

Duncan said he would like to convert more to the program.

“We have more lay people log in to the website in Florida than preachers,” Duncan said. “I would like to see more preachers buying into the concept because it takes a team of lay people and clergy to make this work.”

Stilwell-Hernandez is confident the software can help other churches, but he cautioned that it is not a cure-all.

“These reports should be used in conjunction with actually being on the ground and knocking on doors, eating in the restaurants and walking the streets. It is not a substitute, but rather an enhancement that is highly valuable if used well.”

-- Kevin Brady is a freelance writer based in the Tampa area.

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