Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 1, Number 1



Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Multi-national companies devote much time and many resources to analyzing potential market areas. This is especially true if they plan to open a subsidiary in another country. They may give several years to determining the precise nation and city in which to build. Once the city is determined, they often contract such specialists as sociologists, anthropologists and economists, to research in depth its climate, people, institutions, political and financial stability, the potential market for their product or service, the availability of possible employees, health conditions and other factors of vital importance to their success in that location.

As a general rule, technical preparation for approaching and strategizing great cities is almost nil, often devoid of specific understanding of how cities function and how one should analyze them. Urban workers, therefore, face the dilemma of planning strategies for a challenge that they only partially visualize. As a result, they develop a strategy without the input necessary to make it precisely fit that particular city.

An Essential Tool for Evangelism

Urban research is an essential tool for successful church growth in the city, if used along with sound church-planting strategies and evangelistic methods. Without the ability to carefully research large urban centers, teams or churches may operate in a city for decades, never realizing that they may be failing to contact large segments of the population. They may enjoy good results in certain areas of a city but have no strategy for other districts.

Urban research can create an understanding of the city in general, and in the specifics of its structure, problems, opportunities, social classes and ethnic groups.

Comprehensive urban research can point the researcher to the gaps that exist in evangelistic outreach in the city. Furnished with this data, with measurements of receptivity and church-planting methods, the evangelist or team can strategize means for filling these gaps. Research can help develop good strategies for the entire city, rather than for piecemeal portions of it. Urban research is not an end in itself, but rather a tool to sharpen both understanding and evangelistic focus.

Sociological vs. Anthropological Approaches. One fundamental issue in urban research is the tension that exists between sociological and anthropological approaches to urban research. Hiebert (981.1) lists the differences between them as follows:

     Sociology stresses                     Anthropology stresses
     - group and society                    - culture and society
     - social behaviorism                   - behavior and cognition
     - macro approaches                     - micro approaches
     - western societies                    - nonwestern societies
     - quantitative approaches              - qualitative approaches
     - use of questionnaires                - participant observation
     - use of lab settings,                 - real-life settings in context
         as well as real life
     - detached observation                 - participant observation
Church Growth Methodology. Before investigating the merits of these two methods and the elements from each that are useable in given situations, one must look briefly at the methodology for urban research advanced by church growth specialists:

Church growth methodology stresses

    - Observing a city with "church growth eyes".
    - Seeking out receptive elements in the human mosaic of a city.
    - Expanding the base of seekers.
    - Presenting a sound Biblical message.
    - Contextualizing the message.
    - Determining evangelistic methods to be used.
    - Deciding upon meeting place and type of church to be initiated.

Preliminary Data

In order to research any world-class city, one must become acquainted with the geographical setting, climate, basic physical layout and governmental, economic and social structures which contribute to its uniqueness as a city. Every city in the world has its own physical, social and psychological nature, as well as its own unique cultural heritage. Every city has a personality that makes it different from every other city. In some nations, statistical maps and charts are available for any of their major cities, and even for a particular block of a city. Unfortunately, such detailed information is not usually available in developing nations. Therefore, other steps must be taken--some of them tedious--to obtain initial data. However, even with statistical details available, nothing can replace getting a feel for a city by personal observation and participation in its daily pulse beat. To begin with, the researcher should:
  1. Read about the history and present situation of the city.
  2. Study a complete map of the city, preferably one showing also its suburban and/or satellite communities.
  3. Make tours of the city, to absorb more completely the information obtained from the map.
  4. Consult the introductory pages of local telephone books, which give an insight into the history, features, special events, services and variety of businesses available.
  5. Obtain from hotels, city halls, chambers of commerce, travel agencies and airlines information dealing with the city.
  6. Visit public offices, educational facilities, hospitals, museums, wealthy districts, slums, industrial areas and other locations that contribute to the flavor of the city.
  7. Consult newspaper offices, as well as libraries and city archives, for clippings, books and microfilms on the past, present and future of the city.
  8. Visit the local census bureau. This office has proved, at least in Brazilian cities, to be a gold mine of information.
  9. Solicit the assistance of officials and businessmen who may be interested in sharing the story of their city.
  10. Collect photographs, albums and books on the city.
When these steps have been taken, the city is no longer a total stranger to the newcomer, even though it may yet be far from an intimate friend. As the material thus garnered is examined, a good initial profile of the city will begin to take form. To this preliminary data the researcher should continue to add further details.

Sociological Research

Sociological analysis begins with large groups and structures, drawing from them statistical information and evaluation. Surveys are taken of large segments of the society (macro approach) and from them, conclusions are drawn.

Gathering and Interpreting Statistics

Each city in the world is both complex and unique. Palen (1975:16) observes, there are at least three ways of analyzing the structures of urban life:
  1. The city as a demographic unit and an ecological community.
  2. The city as a form of social organization.
  3. The city as a collection of characteristic values, attitudes and perceptions.
These structures are difficult for the church researcher to penetrate, due to the sheer size of cities, resistance to sharing information with outsiders and the researcher's inability at times to ask intelligent, pertinent questions, record the answers accurately and evaluate the results. This is where adequate preparation for urban research enters the picture. Robert Schuller observes:
One of the primary reasons that we have been successful here is that we have learned to ask the right questions...If you do not ask right questions, you cannot get right answers (in Chaney 1985:17).

Survey information of a general nature, obtainable from the Census Bureau and other city agencies, should have available the following data: (1) Population by age categories; (2) Life expectancy figures; (3) Professions and their percentages within the population; (4) Percentage of population at different income levels; (5) Types of housing and their percentage within the whole; (6) Religious affiliations, by number and percentage; (7) Churches, their locations and growth figures; (8) Educational levels, schools and their populations; (9) Racial, cultural, national and language figures; (10) Percentage of families owning cars, telephones, refrigerators, inside plumbing and other conveniences; (11) Business and industry; (12) Crime, health, welfare and mortality figures.

All cities have an abundance of materials for the researcher, but they must be interpreted properly. One area that always needs interpretation is that of population. Do the figures at hand include only the mother city or do they include the satellite towns and communities around the central city, the greater or metropolitan region? How old are these statistics? What is the margin of error in them? Based on urban experience in Brazil, it can be assumed that the margin of error for population figures is about ten percent, generally on the low side. Many inhabitants, especially in slum areas, are missed in census-taking.

Anthropological Research

Anthropological research focuses on urban ecology, the shape of cities, migration patterns, ethnic groups, urban class structures, urban world views, social webs and networks, urban ethnology and other related areas.

Holistic vs. Ethnographic Approaches. Within anthropology a major point of tension is over holistic vs. ethnographic approaches to the study of a city (Basham 1978:299ff). In other words, should the research attempt to look at the city as a whole (a formidable task) or limit research to a small segment of the city, interacting with it (as did Lewis 1963 and Liebow 1967)? The community study approach is a broad investigation of the inhabitants of a particular section of a city. The interaction method is that of researching an individual, family or small group in its dealings with others.

Both of these approaches to urban research have their strengths and weaknesses. Community or city-wide investigation places the observer in the role of participant in a broad cultural setting. It appears to be a sound way in which to study an entire city, because it is supposedly a total immersion into the society being studied, in order to understand every detail of that city and its relationship to the culture. However, world-class cities are hard to thoroughly analyze because of their size and growth rate, as well as the complexity of their institutions and social groupings. Basham rightly states that the "very scale of a city, with its diverse peoples and life-ways, almost precludes total comprehension..." (1978:28).

It is the writer's opinion that the missionary researcher must look first at the city in its totality and then certain smaller elements of it in detail. As in the case of the famous blind men of Hindustan, each examining one feature of an elephant, the researcher may get a distorted view of the city from investigating only a segment of it. The broad view is necessary for perspective, in order to avoid spending years in some portion of the city and losing sight of the metropolis as a whole. This is what occurs, time and time again in large metropolitan centers. In concentrating on one community (or one level of the society), one can overlook the nature of the "elephant as a whole".

Cross-cultural Research. If the city is to be properly researched, the investigator must take into account the complex ethnic mix within it. His or her aim should be to study all of this richness of cultural diversity. No matter how long the researcher lives in a host city as a participant-observer, he or she will miss many of the subtleties of what is really happening in a cross-cultural communication situation. Information may be given that is misleading, not properly understood or colored by the researcher's own cultural and language bias.

Community and Ethnographic Studies. Community studies can be valuable for the religious worker because it provides a close look at the workings of a limited area that could be served by a single church; at the interrelationships in that area, its needs, goals and mentality in general. Ethnographic studies are even more limited in scope than community studies, for they focus on a specific individual, family or small group within a community. With verifiable biographical material in hand, furnished by reliable informants, the researcher can have a fair certainty as to the thought processes and behavior of the larger society represented by the ethnographic study.

Church Growth Research

Church growth research utilizes many of the above sociological and anthropological tools, but applies them to a specific goal--that of locating appropriate sectors of society and geographical locations for planting and developing growing churches. Church growth research is concerned with analyzing ethnic and social groups, searching among them for factors that lead to receptivity to the Gospel. These include recent calamities or crises of a city-wide, community, family or personal nature, wars and periods of reconstruction, migration, decline of a culture, tradition or religion, a period of rapid technological and industrial change, social mobility, prior accessibility to the Word of God, changes in government or city leadership, personal influences, and above all, the intervention of the Holy Spirit in the affairs of the city and the plans of church workers attempting to reach it.


In order to strategize and eventually impact a major city, it is essential to research it thoroughly. This research involves the use of various tools provided by sociology, anthropology and church growth methodology. Sociology supplies survey statistics and techniques. Anthropology supplies holistic approaches to the people of a city, as well as micro approaches, such as community studies and ethnographs. Church growth methodology supplies vision for the city as a whole and the ability to search out homogeneous units, family webs, social networks and factors of receptivity. It also provides the tools for feasibility studies of appropriate areas of the city for church planting.

All of these and other related urban research tools will enable urban evangelists and church planters to strategize the entire city for eventual spiritual conquest. These tools will enable Christian workers to better reach great, exploding megacities for Christ. This is why Christians are there--to "see the good of the city" (Jer. 29:7).



Barrett, David B.
    1986 World-Class Cities and World Evangelization. Birmingham, AL: New Hope.
Basham, Richard
    1978 Urban Anthropology: The Cross-Cultural Study of Complex Societies. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.
Chaney, Charles L.
    1985 Church-Planting at the End of the Twentieth Century. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.
Eames, Edwin, and Judith Granich Goode
    1977 Anthropology of the City. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Fox, Richard G.
    1977 Urban Anthropology: Cities in Their Cultural Settings. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Hannerz, Ulf
    1980 Exploring the City: Inquiries Toward an Urban Anthropology. New York: Columbia University Press.
Hiebert, Paul G.
    1976 Cultural Anthropology. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott.

    1985 Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Lewis, Oscar
    1963 The Children of Sanchez. New York: Vintage Books.
Liebow, Elliot
    1967 Talley's Corner. Boston: Little, Brown & Company.
Maust, John
    1984 Cities of Change. Coral Gables, FL: Latin American Mission.
Monsma, Timothy
    1979 An Urban Strategy for Africa. Pasadena, CA: William Carey.
Palen, J. John
    1981 The Urban World. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Shipp, Glover
    1986 Research As A Tool for Urban Evangelism in Developing Countries. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International.

This site mirrors the JAM site at the ACU web site.
Mirrored by permission of ACU Missions Personnel
Direct questions and comments to Ed Mathews,

Return to JAM Home Page   Return to OVU Missions Home Page   Return to OHIO VALLEY UNIVERSITY Home Page
Last updated on February 4, 2013
Page maintained by