Contextualization / Demographics

Approach - Looking to understand the people you are trying to reach? We suggest the following basic approach:

  1. Identify General Areas of Interest: If you already know the meeting location for your Sunday services, make note of the address (street address or intersection). If not, identify addresses/intersections for potential meeting locations. In most city/metropolitan areas, your target area will typically be within a 5 mile radius of a specific meeting location. In rural areas, the radius can be significantly larger.

  2. Educate Yourself on Census Data: Census data does not have to be complicated. The US Census Bureau has a short educational paper explaining the essential basics of census data that is a must read. Click here to read it.
  3. Identify Variables of Interest: Demographic data is available for hundreds of different variables of interest (e.g. age, income, housing prices, race, etc.). The amount of data available will overwhelm most people. Decide the 5 most important variables of interest to you. Start by obtaining demographic data for these variables. You can expand your list to 10 later. Most of the sites below provide a list of the different variables available. Click here for a sample list of variables from the US Census Bureau.
  4. Obtain Free Demographic Data/Reports: A number of organizations offer free demographic data. In many cases, the free data is based on the 1990 census rather than the 2000 census. Look for data based on the 2000 census. The level of detail in the demographic reports varies widely so look for a site that offers what you are looking for. We've identified a list of sites that offer free demographic information (see the list below). Most demographic data is provided in "raw" form leaving you with the responsibility to interpret results. Often, the sites that charge a small fee for data will provide the information in a more readable form with some assessment/interpretation of the data provided (e.g. Percept).

    The best place to start is the US Census Bureau or the Church Marketing Solutions. The Census Bureau site will allow you to interactively get demographic data and maps for areas you specify. The Church Marketing Solutions can also provide you free data and maps for areas you specify. Click here for a sample report available through the Church Marketing Solutions. If you would like a customized report, simply email the or call them toll free at 866-342-5264 with a list of zip codes that you are interested in.
  5. Demographic Mapping: Demographic information is easier to interpret when it is mapped. Typically, data is mapped in different colors with each color representing a different range of values for the data. For example, dark green may represent average age of 35-40 while lighter shades of green represent different average age ranges. Maps allow you to see the data in specific geographic locations (down to small census tract areas) and to easily compare how the data in one area compares to another. Many of the companies that offer free demographic data also provide some mapping support. Most paid demographic services offer mapping. Again, the US Census Bureau site is the best place to start with mapping. Click here to see the Census Bureau's site for Thematic mapping. Click here for a sample report available through the Church Marketing Solutions. If you would like a customized report, simply email the with a list of zip codes that you are interested in.
  6. Interpreting the Data: After collecting the data and maps, its time to figure out what it means. You should consider purchasing a report like the ones provided by Percept. They offer a relatively low cost solution (under $500) that will tell you what the data in your area means. This product is called a Ministry Area Profile. (Click on products and then ministry area profile).
  7. Carrier Route Mapping: Carrier route mapping is done to determine how many active households and businesses exist within individual mail carrier routes. Carrier routes become important for direct mail marketing because you will want to "saturate" an entire carrier route to obtain the lowest possible postage rates. Carrier route maps are typically done by mail shops (or other paid services) and are not available to the general public online. Organizations like the Church Marketing Solutions offer free route mapping for customers doing direct mail with them.

Free Demographic Information - Call Church Marketing Solutions toll free at 866-342-5264 or click here for a free demographic report for your target area or click here for information about additional free information available on the internet.

National New Church Conference Presentation - Understanding Who You Will Reach / Eric Reiss (pdf)

Exploring Needs Assessment - Click here to download a paper by Compassion by Design about why church planters should conduct a needs assessment of their community. (pdf)