Every organization depends on people, and when the characteristics of a population change, the possibilities for the organizations in that community change as well. Some characteristics of a community are readily observable in driving down the street, but others are not. We may be able to guess at what kinds of people live or work in a particular neighborhood, but there are ways to get much more accurate information about current demographics and trends over time.

Getting Started

Before gathering demographic information, it is critical to define your geography. Is it most important to understand one immediate neighborhood or a whole county or metropolitan area? Is there a section of a city that is more relevant? Your answers to these questions may depend partly on whether you are targeting a neighborhood or population group for outreach and/or whether you are thinking about how to expand your membership. That is, geography is as much a matter of mission as of destiny.

The Census of the United States provides detailed information about income, education, ethnicity, language spoken, household types, age distributions, and much more. You can look at a whole metropolitan area or just your immediate neighborhood (usually a “census tract” or zip code). While the full census happens just once every ten years, there are more frequent “community surveys” that fill in estimates for how things change in the meantime.
Some denominations assemble data from various sources and can provide a community profile for you. Additionally, most locales have some sort of planning office. These departments of local government (or offices in a Chamber of Commerce) often extract Census information and add in data of their own.
Once you dive into demographic data, it can be hard to figure out how to communicate the big picture of what you’ve found. Start by writing up notes in prose about the story you think this information tells. Then think about the half dozen or so statistics that capture the essence of that story. Find someone who is good at graphics and get them to create a few charts that will help you communicate your story.

Who’s Out There: Using The US Census

Our Studying Congregations Tool Kit features easy to use quick guides for better understanding a community of faith. This PDF download is ideal for religious leaders, seminarians and anyone else who wants to learn how to use demographic data such as the US Census in their congregational study.
The Tool in Action

Using the Census: Oak Park, IL & Anderson, IN

An important part of any congregational study is understanding the history and ecology of the community. These changes can involve racial or cultural changes to the community, like the example from Oak Park Illinois. Other important changes can be the growth or decline of local industries, such as the example in Anderson Indiana. [To read more about…

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