GEOGRAPHIC vs. DEMOGRAPHIC CHURCHES – Which one are you? Before you can grow, you need to know. This questionnaire will help you decide. #CureForTheCommonChurch #WayneSchmidt #KentwoodCommunityChurch

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 2012, excerpted from Cure for the Common Church: God’s Plan to Restore Church Health (Wesleyan Publishing House).

The cure for the ingrown church is to keep a church focused both inward and outward.  In fact, history indicates that churches that stay connected to outsiders often do a better job at inward ministry too.  For example, an Anglican pastor named John Wesley was so ashamed and alarmed at the depravity of the people outside of his church, that he took his sermons outside the church walls and began ministries to better serve their spiritual and physical needs.[i]  Balancing this emphasis upon people inside and outside the church required a rigorous structure his critics mockingly called: “Wesley’s Methods.”  Soon his followers were know as “Methodists,” a term which endures to today and should remind us that we need a clear method if we are going to avoid focusing only on people inside the church. After 20+ years of consulting, I believe this method here lies in three organic remedies.  These cures, if taken together, can foster a healthy balance between inward and outward focus.

RX 1 FOR THE COMMON CHURCH = GROW O.U.T.  

In this cure, as well as in all of the cures in this book, the remedies spell out the name of the cure.

CURxE O:  Observe whom you are equipped to reach

CURxE U:  Understand the needs of those you are equipped to reach.

CURxE T:  Tackle needs by refocusing, creating or ending ministry programs.

CURxE  O = OBSERVE WHOM YOU ARE CALLED TO REACH

TWO COMMON OPTIONS

The main reason most churches become common is because they forget (and sometimes just don’t know) to whom God has equipped them to reach out and minister.[ii]  They know they aren’t supposed to be ingrown, but exactly who should they be growing out to serve?  Usually, there are two options that can be discovered by asking two questions:

  1. Has God equipped your church to minister to people in a geographic community?  
    1. If you answered yes, you might be a “Geographic  Church.” 
    1. Geo- means “of an area.”   This is a church whose ministry has been directed toward people in a geographic area (often those who live nearby).
    1. These churches meet the needs of people in one or more geographic communities.
    1. Examples:  a neighborhood church, a village church, a rural church, a church in a housing development, a downtown church, etc. (For more examples see Figure 2.1.)
  2. Has God equipped your church to minister to people like us?  
    1. If you answered yes, you might be a “Demographic Church.” 
    1. Demo- means “of a people.”  This is a church whose ministry has been directed toward a people group (e.g. those who share common characteristics).
    1. These churches meet the needs of one or more sections of the population that share common characteristics, such as age, ethnicity, socio-economics, common interests, etc.[iii]
    1. Examples: generational churches, ethnic churches, aging traditional churches, blue-collar churches, middle-class churches, Café Churches, college churches, etc. (For more examples see Figure 2.2.)

Your road to uncommon church life begins with understanding if you are a church equipped to meet the needs of a specific “geographic” area, or if you are equipped to minister to one or more “demographic” sections of the population.  Both geographic churches and demographic churches are legitimate and both are needed.  And, the process begins by observing your surroundings, your history and how God has moved in your church’s history.[iv]

Are You a Geographic Church?

Some churches are primarily equipped by God to reach a geographic area such as a neighborhood, a borough, a small town, a rural area, a township, a neighborhood, a school district, a suburb, an urban district, etc.  Geographic churches often have a long history of ministering in a specific area.  And, if the culture of the geographic area changes, because the geographic church is called to that locale, the geographic church will stay put but change with that culture.  

This is not always easy, nor quick.  In Appendix 2.A you can find the story of Kentwood Community Church, a Michigan congregation that has successfully changed ethnicity and grown while remaining in the same (changing) geographic area.

Today many churches are forced by their location and/or history to be geographic churches.  Figure 2.1 lists some more common examples of “Geographic Churches:”

Figure 2.1 Examples of Geographical Churches

 Churches constrained[v]by distanceChurches located in small towns and/or rural districts with very little outside traffic may have no other option than to become geographic churches meeting the needs of those people living nearby.Churches that are elsewhere off the beaten path.
 Churches constrained by natural featuresChurches located in wilderness areas, valleys, etc. with very little outside traffic. Churches located in back road areas.Churches located on river deltas, islands or peninsulas.
 Churches constrained by traffic patternsSuburban churches may be geographic churches if they are in an area of a suburb not traveled by many people from outside of the area. Suburban churches can be geographic churches if their buildings are hidden in a housing development or subdivision.
 Churches constrained by owned assetsChurches that own their own facilities (and market or geographic conditions make selling and moving impractical)Churches that own significant or valuable acreage (and market or geographic conditions make selling  and moving impractical)
 Churches constrained by imageChurches that are located in a neighborhood with its own identity (e.g. blue-collar, artist, urban, young professional, college student, etc.)A old, established downtown church that cannot move to the suburbs because there are other denominational churches already there.A church residing in one of the inner city’s labyrinth of neighborhoods, may be limited by that neighborhood’s identity.

Special Attributes of Geographic Churches

Geographic churches will stay put and change as the cultures around it change.  If the cultural makeup of a community changes, a geographic church will change to reflect those changes.  Rather than moving out of an area if the culture changes (like a demographic church might do), the geographic church is a chameleon, staying put and changing its appearances to reflect its changing environment.

Geographic churches can reach out to several cultures at the same time.  A geographic church in an urban area might be comprised of a Mexican congregation, an Asian congregation and a young professionals congregation.  

Geographic churches may be the majority of churches today.  From Figure 2.1 we can see that most churches today may be geographically limited, and thus are best able to reach out to their geographic communities.  But now let’s look at another increasingly popular option, Demographic Churches. 

Are you a Demographic Church? [vi]

Today people can drive a great distance to attend a church they like.  As a result more and more churches are drawing people from several sections of the population rather than just ministering to those in the geographic area nearby.  

Demographic groups are sections of the population that talk alike, behave alike and in which members can tell who is in their group and who is not.[vii]  Thus, though the names and designations are always evolving, Figure 2.2highlights some examples of Demographic Churches.

Figure 2.2  Examples of Demographic Churches[viii]

Generational churches[ix]Senior adult (b. 1945 & before) churches[x] also called Silent Generation or Builder Generation churches[xi]Boomer (b. 1946-1964) churchesGeneration X (b. 1965-1983) churchesGeneration Y (b. 1984-2002)  churches, etc.
Socio-economic churches,[xii]Churches in working class neighborhoods, etcUrban churches among the working poorMiddle-class suburban churches
Ethnic Churches[xiii]Latin American churchesHispanic American churchesAfrican American churchesAsian American churchesNative American churchesCaucasian churches,[xiv] etc.
Affinity churches(focused around a common interest)Cowboy ChurchesNASCAR churchesMotorcycle churchesEmerging-Postmodern ChurchesCafé ChurchesArt Churches, College Churches, etc.[xv]

            Special Attributes of Demographic Churches

Demographic churches (like geographic churches) can reach out to several cultures at the same time.  A demographic church could be comprised of a Latino/Latina congregation, an Asian congregation, an aging retiree congregation and an Emerging-Postmodern congregation.   

Demogrpahic churches will change locations, following a people group as they leave to live in new locales.  If the demographic group they are reaching moves out of the area, a demographic church moves along with the culture.  For example, a Boomer church may move from an urban area to the suburbs as its congregants move to those suburbs.  And, an Asian church I know moved to a nearby town when most of its Asian members moved to that town.  

Can Churches be Geographic and Demographic?  Yes!

Many churches are reaching nearby geographic areas, as well as several far-flung demographics.  In fact, this may be one of the healthiest ways for a church to grow, because the church maintains a strong local ministry while reaching out to more and more far flung people groups.  Such congregations create a wonderful region-wide ministry coupled with a strong local foundation.  

St. Thomas’ Church in Sheffield England is a good example of a demographic church that has a robust ministry to its local geographic area too. England’s largest Anglican Church (where most churchgoers are under the age of 35) calls itself “a church of churches” with worship services at different locations around town for varying people groups (e.g. a young professionals church, a student church, a church for internationals, and different churches in different neighborhoods).  It also has a robust local ministry in the geographic area of its first church, called the “Mother Church.”  This Mother Church was the original Anglican congregation that gave rise to “a church of (six) churches” around town.[xvi]

Still, for many small churches being both a geographic church and a demographic church may not be an option.   Because the average church in North America is only 75 attendees,[xvii] most of these churches do not have the numbers to be both a geographic and a demographic church.  Thus, the common church in North America must first determine if it is called to stay put and reach out to its geographic area or if it is go move, following a people group it has been reaching.  Figure 2.3 will be the key to determining this.

Which Church Are You?

Use Figure 2.3 to begin to investigate what type of church God may have equipped you to be.  Neither the geographic approach or the demographic approach is better than the other.  They are simply two basic ways that God equips his church to reach out.  And, each approach has pros and cons (see Figure 2.4).

The starting place is to look at your history, your situation and under what circumstances God moves in your midst.  To begin this process, check the boxes in the columns of Figure 2.3 that most represent your church and its vision.

Figure 2.3  Are you a Geographic or a Cultural Church?

 You might be a Geographic Church if ..You might be aDemographic Church[xviii] if …
  Focus You have a burden to reach a geographicarea for Christ. Needs in a geographic area (e.g. a neighborhood, etc.) dictate your ministry. You have a burden to reach one or more people groups for Christ. The needs of certain people groups (which may be spread across a region) dictate your ministry.
  Pastor Your pastor feels called to your geographic community. Your pastor has stayed (or is planning to stay) for a long time in the church’s geographical area. Your pastor feels called to a certain people (ethnic, generational, etc., see Figure 2.2). Your pastor is open to moving out of the area if most of the church’s attendees live or are moving out of the area.
  Staff Most of the church staff live in the church’s geographical area. Most of the staff have long histories in the church’s geographical area. Most of the church staff does not live in the church’s geographical area. Most of the church staff does not have a long history in the church’s geographical area.
  Facilities Your church owns permanent facilities in the area In the past five years you have built new facilities in the area. In the past five years you have renovated or updated facilities. You change facilities as need arises, leasing or renting church facilities rather than owning them. You have multiple auditoriums or venues to accommodate different worship styles.
  Limiting factors Your location is hemmed in by geographic features that sometimes thwart visitors from finding you, such as:A valley, hill or riverA small town surrounded by farmlandA neighborhood with its own identity. Your churchgoers are aging. Your churchgoers are moving away from the area, to an area where there are churches similar to yours which they may attend.
  Character-istics Your church is in a small town. Your church is in a neighborhood that has a specific identity. You church is in an urban area of a city. Your church is in a middle-class suburban church. Your church is a church with attendees primarily under the age of 35. Your church is known for blending several people groups together.[xix]
    Names Your church name reflects the geographic area you are called to reach, such as:Smithville ChurchPine Lake ChurchFirst (i.e. downtown) Church Harris Avenue Church, etc. Your church name has not been changed in a long time.  Your church name reflects the language of a people group, such as:Overcomers’ ChurchFamily Worship CenterCommunity Church[xx]A Greek or Latin name (e.g. The Crux- Latin for cross; or Missio Dei). Your church name has been changed in the last decade. 
 Growth Your church experienced a period of growth between 1950 and 1970. Your church experienced a period of growth since 1970.
 Results:  (total checked in this column) (total checked in this column)
(If you have equal checks in both columns you may be geographic and demographic church)[xxi]

When you tally up the columns in Figure 2.3, you will begin to see a congregational trajectory.  But remember, there are strengths and weaknesses to each approach.  Write in the box in Figure 2.4 which culture or geographic area you are called to reach:

Figure 2.4  Who’s needs are you called to meet?  (Circle one)

                                                                                                  Who’s needs are you called to meet?
 A geographic area Demographic groups
(describe it here)     (describe it/them here) 
                                                                                                  Remember these pros and cons:
Pros of geographic church:Builds a strong connection with an area.Can more readily bring about racial and cultural reconciliation within a changing area.[xxii]Does not need to move facilities as often.Can invest in local facilities enjoying ownership privileges. Cons of geographic church:Encounters change more often because geographic areas regularly experience cultural transitions.Staff and leaders usually do not stay for a long time, rather transitioning in an out as the culture changes.Pros of cultural church:Builds a strong communication connection with sections of the population that share common characteristics.Provides relevant ministry.Can move with a people group, leasing or renting facilities in lieu of purchasing or building them.Encounters change less often.Staff can remain a long time. Cons of cultural church:Can become culturally prejudiced.Can become separatist (i.e. siloed) unless it grows into a church where different people groups partner in the same church.[xxiii]    

Figure 2.4 should give you a general indication of the direction of your church’s recent ministry.[xxiv] Before you move ahead to the next remedy, it is important to reflect back upon what kind of church God has equipped you to be.


[i] Wesley urged discipleship via small groups which he called “class meetings” to help non-churchgoers grasp the basics of Christianity.  These “class meetings” were a type of discipleship group, which we shall discuss in greater detail in the next chapter.

[ii] A depiction of God equipping a church to best reach a specific geographic area or demographic is an unpleasant image for those who wish all churches to be all things to all people.  But, even in New Testament times we see congregations emerging with specific calls, such as Antioch’s emphasis upon missionary training, Corinth’s impact upon the Roman intelligentsia, and Jerusalem’s influence upon the structures and doctrine of the fledgling church.  While churches should not limit themselves as to what God can do, it is helpful for churches (just like people, c.f. Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12, Eph. 4) to ascertain how God has gifted them and to whom they may best be able to minister.

[iii] “demographic,” Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011).

[iv] This is not to say that all churches are called to a geographic area or to a demographic.  Some churches are mixtures. Yet, observing how God has equipped and empowered your church is the first step toward ascertaining whose needs you are called to meet.

[v] When using the term constrained I am not saying that God cannot call and equip a church to overcome a restricted geographic area and reach an entire region. There are many examples of such congregations (see Bob Whitesel, Inside the Organic Church: Learning From 12 Emerging Congregations, [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008].)  However in my consulting practice I have observed that God often calls churches to a geographic locale and does so in part by geographically delimiting their sphere of impact.  Because many churches are not aware of a call to a locale, they often stumble ahead trying to minister to a demographic that has left the area, and subsequently refuse to adapt and minister to the changing demographic in their neighborhood.

[vi] See Appendix 2.B for an explanation of John Perkins’ “3 Rs.” These three lessons from this pioneer in civil rights and Christian community development can ensure that cultural churches do not become mono- demographic enclaves.  It is the conclusion of my case study research and this book that a healthy church is not a mono- demographic church but a congregation partnering across cultural boundaries to produce a reconciliation between cultures that modern society so desperately needs.

[vii] The phrase “talk alike, behave alike and can tell who is in their group and who is not,” is expanded by Paul Hiebert in more detail as a matrix of behaviors, ideas and products (Cultural Anthropology [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1976). P. 25. 

[viii] These demographic examples are not meant to be exhaustive nor definitive, because demographic designations are still evolving (for more on this see Bob Whitesel, Preparing for Change Reaction: How to Introduce Change in Your Church [Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing Company, 2007], pp. 50-62).

[ix] For characteristics of generational churches see lists and charts in Bob Whitesel, Preparing for Change Reaction: How to Introduce Change in Your Church (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing Company, 2007), pp. 52-65.

[x] Today, probably the most widespread church demographic are those who prefer “traditional worship” (and all of its various permutations), Hispanic Churches (and all of their wonderfully diverse Hispanic cultures), African American Churches (with their many vibrant variations) and youthful churches (orientated toward attendees under 35 years of age).

[xi] This generation has been labeled the “silent generation” to emphasize their stoic nature in the midst of the Great Depression and World War II by historians William Strauss and Neil Howe in their seminal book Generations: The History of American’s Future, 1954-2069 (New York: Quill, 1992).  Tom Brokaw popularized them as the “Greatest Generation” in his book, The Greatest Generation (New York: Random House, 2004).  They have also been called the “Builder Generation” for their propensity to honor God with their handicraft as exemplified in their church buildings (Gary McIntosh, One Church, Four Generations: Understanding and Reaching All Ages in Your Church [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002] and Bob Whitesel and Kent R. Hunter, A House Divided: Bridging the Generation Gaps in Your Church [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000).

[xii] For more on socio-economic levels see David Jaffee, Levels of Socio-economic Development Theory (New York: Praeger 1998), and Organization Theory (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001).

[xiii] Defining ethnicity can be challenging, with terminology and designations constantly evolving.  I have employed here (only as an example) ethnic designations used by the US Census Bureau. 

[xiv] Historically, many of the churches in America began as churches reaching out to specific demographics.  For example Norwegian Lutheran Churches were started in the small towns of Wisconsin and Minnesota to offer culturally relevant worship for non-churchgoing immigrants in their native language and music.  But these immigrant churches also displayed many of the characteristics of geographic area churches because in those days most demographic groups were located in specific geographic communities.  This fact is sometimes hard for congregants with long histories in a church to understand, for they may want to retain their cultural and geographic focus long after their culture has moved to another part of town.

[xv] For examples of affinity churches see Bob Whitesel, Preparing for Change Reaction: How to Introduce Change in Your Church [Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing Company, 2007], pp. 56-58 and Bob Whitesel, Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 1 Emerging Congregations (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006).

[xvi] See my case-study of “St. Thomas’ Church Sheffield, England” in the following three sources: Inside the Organic Church: Learning From 12 Emerging Congregations (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), pp. 1-12; “A Process Model for Church Change as Reflected in St. Thomas’ Anglican Church, Sheffield England,” The Great Commission Research Journal (La Mirada, CA: Biola University, Winter 2010). pp.  265-280 and “The Perfect Cluster: For Young Adults, St. Tom’s Sheffield Creates Extended Families, and Everyone Knows Where They Fit” Outreach Magazine (Vista, CA: May/June 2005).  See also http://www.stthomascrookes.org

[xvii] Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, The American  Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2008 (Hartford, CT: Program on Public Values, 2009) and Duke University, National Congregations Study, http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/index.html

[xviii] It is important to note that “demographic churches” can be comprised of more than one demographic.  For instance, a demographic church can have a Boomer subcongregation, a Generation-X subcongregation, a Hispanic subcongregation and an Asian subcongregation.  Called subcongregations because they are sub-sections of the church, their cultural heritage is honored by allowing their worship/teaching/etc. to be culturally distinct, while at the same time working together to manage one organization. Thus, worship/teaching/etc. can be culturally distinct in the sub-congregational model, but the responsibility for management and assets is shared. Thus, unity is created in leading a church, not in worship at that church (for worship by the definition of the very term means encounter with God see Bob Whitesel, ORGANIX: Signs of Leadership in a Changing Church [(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011], pp. 130-131.)  Thus worship’s focus is God, not the creation of unity.  There are plenty of opportunities in the sub-congregational model for unity to be created in management and ministry cooperation.  One young emerging leader put it this way, “you can’t create unity in a worship service, the chairs are facing the wrong way.”  He made a good point.

[xix] See footnote 17 for an explanation of two types of multi-ethnic churches.

[xx] Even though the term “Community Church” would seem to designate a geographic church, the author has found that when the appellation “community” is added to a church name it usually designates a Boomer church (i.e. a demographic church) rather than a geographical-orientated congregation.  For example, one of my client congregations named “Community Church of the Nazarene” (comprised primarily of Boomers) broke away from Taylor Avenue Church of the Nazarene (at the time comprised mostly of the Builder Generation).  Despite the inclusive name, Community Church of the Nazarene became a church that primarily attracted Boomers from across the region, while Taylor Avenue Church of the Nazarene continued to primarily attract the Builder Generation from the neighborhood in which it was located.  Happily, both the neighborhood and church are today growing into a vibrant Hispanic community.

[xxi] There actually may be two prevalent types of multi-ethnic churches. 

  1. Multi-ethnic subcongregational churches.  These churches are comprised of a partnership of sub-congregations that are all part of one legal non-profit organization.  This would be analogous to a local church that was comprised of Asian, Hispanic, African American and Anglo congregations with different staffs and different worship encounters that are equal partners in the same nonprofit organization. Their various worship encounters resembles a multi-site or multi-venue church and their evangelistic prowess is a result of their ability to connect multiple demographic concurrently (for more examples see Preparing for Change Reaction: How to Introduce Change in Your Church [Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing Company, 2007], pp. 68-70).  While it has been my observation that evangelistic proficiency is increased in “multi-ethnic sub-congregational churches,” unless there are at least quarterly “unity events” a silo effect (see footnote 19) can occur.  However, this model’s evangelistic proficiency probably trumps the following model’s multi-ethnic harmony.
  2. Multi-ethnic homogenous churches.  There are many multi-ethnic churches which are in essence one worshipping congregation attended by multiple cultures.  It can be argued that these latter congregations are really not multicultural churches, as much as they are a homogenous congregation made up of people from different cultures who like a blended demographic format (see Tetsunao Yamamori “How to Reach a New Culture in Your Community” op. cit.).  While some of my friends would disagree with this conclusion (see Mark DeYmaz and Harry Li, Ethnic Blends: Mixing Diversity into Your Local Church [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010]) it is important to note that churches where multiple cultures rub shoulders and learn to get along are needed today, and both Yamamori’s and DeYmaz’s models are relevant.  

[xxii] See the example of Kentwood Community Church in the Kentwood Community of Grand Rapids, Mich. http://www.kentwoodcommunitychurch.com

[xxiii] The “silo effect” has been described by Patrick Lencioni as “the barriers that exist between departments within an organization, causing people who are supposed to be on the same team to work against one another.”  Silos emerge in the demographic church when a church evolves in demographicly-centric silos with little contact or unity experiences for other subcongregations. For more on the silo effect and how to overcome it, see Silos, Politics and Turf Wars: A Leadership Fable About Destroying the Barriers That Turn Colleagues Into Competitors (Hoboken, NY: Jossey-Bass, 2006), p. 175

[xxiv] Remember, simply because you are called to a culture, does not mean you should ignore other cultures or neighborhoods. But, this focus will determine who you will canvas to ascertain their needs in Cure U: Understand the Needs of Those You Are Called to Reach.