When I seek to understand a city, I try to balance three sources of input: written material (stories, history, studies), talking to people (first-hand understanding), and walking the streets (my own feeling, sensing, observing).
There are several categories, general and specific, that I seek to understand:
- Know the demographics, but don’t stop there. It’s important to understand your context. Some ideas: age spread, ethnicity, immigration, social-economical, growing areas, declining areas. Where do you practically observe this in the city?
- Know the application of history. Start with a concise history of the city. Facts are interesting, but ask, how does the past display itself in the current. How did history shape the people? How did it shape the neighborhoods? How has it affected things below the surface in what you do not see?
- How does the city organize itself? This has not happened randomly. City administrators look for efficiency. Understanding this helps you see how the city is interconnected and perhaps how the Church should be interconnected. Public transit, police districts, hospitals, public works are good places to start.
- Walk the streets. Leave your car at home. Sense the “vibe.” Discover places you have never been; ask the Holy Spirit to teach you. Note your observations, watch the faces of the people, observe social interactions.
- What is the level of community? Community lost – very little public activity; community saved – many activities on the streets; community liberated – revitalization, new expressions of community formed. Why? Starting missional works where there is little or no community takes a much different approach.
- Understand the spiritual demographics of the city. Find the facts, but also look for the trends. Correlate this with your dialogue with people. (Note: when you are studying the city it’s easy to ask, “I heard that people in the city have little interest in spiritual things. Have you found that to be true? How?”)
- Are there means for the believers in the city to know their level of unity? God delights when we act in unity and through that He often bestows a special blessing on the city. How has unity been limited or enhanced?
- What ways is the organized church engaged in the social issues within the city? Look for ways that encourage or discourage this engagement. What opportunities or challenges does this create?
- Read the local newspaper. Read the columnists. Note the special interest stories. Observe the cultural events. Look for expressions of local culture. Newspapers have to “sell,” so they understand their market. You can learn from how they see your context.
- Talk to people; talk to people; talk to people. Take a challenge to talk to 50 people with the goal of deepening your understanding of your city. Ask three simple questions:
1) In your own words, what is important for me to know about the city?
2) What experience should I do to deepen my understanding of the city?
3) Who else do you know that I should meet to understand the city (and will you introduce me)?