Exegeting our suburb: trying to understand the area around our church

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I gave a sermon a couple of weeks ago at Clayfield. On Matthew 9:35-10:22. A passage where Jesus describes the work of evangelism as a plentiful harvest with too few workers. I won’t bore you with the exposition I did of the passage, suffice to say my big idea was that we are to be part of the harvest in whatever way we are able because it is urgent. I spent some time showing that Jesus’ commission to his disciples to preach the coming kingdom of God to Israel was a specific commission which is replaced at the end of the book with the “great commission”…

My application focused on the area of Clayfield as our church’s mission field. It was a “think global, act local” slant. Here’s roughly the third quarter of my sermon, where I got some stats on Clayfield from Queensland’s Office of Economic and Statistical Research, I got some other bits and pieces from the Real Estate Institute of Queensland, and a little bit from OurBrisbane.com. I don’t completely buy into social demographics as a key for understanding people in a suburb. I like Tourism Queensland’s market segmentation approach a bit better – they split people into interest groups rather than arbitrary groups based on socio-economic factors. While the approach has weaknesses it’s also a really easy way to gain some insights into a community beyond the “people I know who live here” approach. And some generalisations are good generalisations.

Clayfield is a pretty difficult suburb to figure out, other than a local primary school that acts a bit like a hub, there’s not much sense of community. I preached this sermon (with different stats) in Townsville last year, and it was heaps easier to read Townsville’s pulse (possibly because that was also my job).

Here’s part of my application, copied and pasted from my manuscript, it includes some stats on Clayfield, seven basic tips on reaching Clayfield (or any community) from those stats, and of course from the passage itself:

While we can’t just take this passage and apply it completely to ourselves – we shouldn’t expect to be healing the sick and we shouldn’t just preach to the Jews – we can look at this passage and see Jesus’ concern for the lost – his desire for the good news to be preached. And that should be our priority as a church – and Clayfield is our mission field. I know many of us travel across the city to be here each Sunday, and the idea of Clayfield being our mission field may sound foreign – but if we’re not thinking about how we, as a church, can reach the suburb around us… then who will be?

It’s our job as Clayfield’s “local church” to be reaching the community with the good news of Jesus. For us the great commission extends to where we live, where we work, and where we play – but it also has to be where our church family is.

The great commission is a pretty clear imperative for Christians to be taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. We need to be people who think globally, but act locally. If we don’t reach Clayfield – then who will? Lets talk a bit about Clayfield. Our harvest.

The Suburb of Clayfield is, by most accounts, home to around 10,000 people. But we should be considering the suburbs around us too. If we broaden our horizon to the electorate of Clayfield, which is split between a few different church boundaries, but which we can consider our patch, there’s a population of 47,657 to reach. By 2026, in 15 years, the population is expected to be over 61,000.

Have you ever thought about Clayfield as a mission field? It’s hard. It’s very hard. Finding a community pulse to tap into, to be a part of, is difficult. Figuring out the wants and needs of the average Clayfielder is hard. We know, don’t we, that this is a suburb, or district, crying out for the gospel. But how do we help our neighbours know it too?

What is it that makes the average Clayfielder tick? If you have any idea then our ministry team, and our session, would love to hear it. We’re not there yet. We know the Eagle Junction school down the road is a hub, and there are clubs and societies that have local chapters – but where do we go to start harvesting? Clayfield is tough. How do you convince somebody living in relative prosperity that they need saving?

Here are some of the facts about Clayfield.

It’s a transient area, in the last census half the people in Clayfield had only been living here less than five years. One in five Clayfield residents were born overseas.

We’re not an area of social disadvantage – one in fifty Clayfielders are in the bottom economic band, While one in three people are in the top band. We’re a prosperous lot, most of us have who want jobs have jobs, half of the residents of Clayfield own, or are paying off their home. Sixty percent of us have post-school qualifications.

This presents a challenge for us as we present the good news of a crucified messiah.

It’s a caring community – one in ten residents work in health or some sort of social assistance area, one in five volunteer their time for a community group.

Based on nationwide statistics two thirds of Australians identify as Christian, 66% of people tick the “Christian” box on the census, but only 10% of the population will go to church somewhere once a month. That’s 4,700 people in Clayfield, in church, once a month. ┬áThat leaves around 43,000 people the Clayfield electorate not being taught from, or even opening the Bible. Almost ever. People who have no real idea of who Jesus is. That’s a bountiful harvest. A harvest that needs, that desperately needs, workers.
That seems like a lot of people – and maybe you don’t think that sounds right. Maybe all your friends are Christians. Maybe all your workmates are Christians. Maybe all your family are Christians – if this is the case then you need to get out more.
If you want to be a harvester but don’t know where to start, let me give you some suggestions.
  1. Help Andrew and Simone with RE and building relationships at Eagle Junction school, find someway to help out at Clayfield college. Fifty percent of school students in Clayfield attend public schools – bastions of secular culture, with the other fifty percent attending church run private schools around the city. When you look at just primary school attendance a much bigger percentage are in public schools. RE is a great opportunity to get the gospel in front of non-Christian kids, and to encourage our kids to be passionate about sharing the gospel with their friends.
  2. Volunteer for a community organisation – I know we’re always up here asking for people to volunteer for things at church, but we can’t spend all our energy on serving each other and forgetting the world around us. Almost one in five Clayfield residents volunteer for some organisation in some capacity. If you’ve got kids who play sport, help out with their team, bring the oranges, help the coach at training. Put in the effort to go to matches and chat to the other parents. You’re probably doing this already – and you may even be doing it with gospel intentions – but that’s the key to harvesting.
  3. If you live in Clayfield, talk to your neighbours, invite them to our Local Knowledge events coming up – they’re a great intro to people from church, they’re designed to be non-threatening. Try to get your neighbours darkening the doors of church and meeting this family that you’re a part of.
  4. Shop locally – there are 5,400 businesses operating in the Clayfield electorate. Talk to a shopkeeper. Become a regular. Think about how you can get out there to meet people.
  5. Use your gifts for the gospel – if challenging conversations and confrontations are not for you then why not look for opportunities to encourage other people in our church family to get involved, if hospitality is your thing why not invite your friends from work around for dinner with some friends from church. Gospel ministry is a team game. We see that in the way people show hospitality to the workers in
  6. Pray for harvesters – you’ll notice that’s what Jesus actually calls his followers to do in chapter nine verse 38, before they get sent out on the road, That’s how we all can play a part. Because, as Jesus reminds the disciples as he speaks to them, God is in control. And all of us, as Christians, can pray.
  7. Invest in the harvest – if all of this seems beyond you, and even if it isn’t, give generously to the work of the gospel. Harvests on farms need resources. Think about what resources you have that you can contribute to the gospel – maybe it’s your time, maybe it’s your money. The CMS slogan has it right – we’re to pray, give and go.

But if those aren’t your cup of tea there are plenty of other options – if I can drive a tractor on my father-in-law’s farm and a bunch of fishermen and accountants can spread the good news throughout Israel while facing persecution from the Government – preaching a message interpreted by their hearers as stupidity, at least after the cross… think about the non-Christians in your life, your family, your colleagues, your children’s friend’s parents, your doctor, your butcher, your baker, your candlestick maker – think about how you can be part of presenting the gospel to them. If you want to be part of the harvest, if you’re a Christian who wants to see people challenged to live with Jesus as Lord, then don’t delay – the harvest is urgent. Get involved. Find something you can do and get in and do it.

If you’re interested in the idea of cross cultural work, if you’ve always harboured a desire to be a missionary overseas, then start in our neighbourhood. One in five people here are born overseas – that equates to about 10,000 people living in the streets and suburbs around us. There are plenty of opportunities around us, plenty of people – and every one of them needs the gospel. Every one of those groups is a ministry opportunity. Every part of our community needs to be reached – and if you’re a Christian then you should be part of it. You should be a harvester.

Five cheap ways to exegete your area

Here’s one of those posts where I try to synchronise a few years working with a marketing and economic development agency with the realm of ministry. Hopefully it’ll be useful both to me, and to you…

I’ve been trying to figure the suburb of Clayfield out. It’s a tough one. I’m sure others I work with have faced the same quandary (Andrew, Simone and Kutz) for years.

Marketing is a confusing blend of guesswork and social science – with new theories cropping up all the time – most marketing budgets are limited, so most marketers spend a lot of time putting their advertising in places that will get the best bang for their buck. Because most churches don’t have big marketing budgets or the time to conduct thorough demographic research here are five ways that you can let them do the hard work for you, which in turn will help you understand the people you’re serving.

  1. Read local magazines and papers – if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere that has a media outlet particular to your context have a look at what is being sold in the ads. Work out what kind of person buys those products. If your local newspaper features Tag Heuer watch ads you’re probably looking at an upper class suburb with high disposable incomes. Have a look at what stories are featured – editors keep their fingers on the community pulse, they talk to all sorts of people from your neighbourhood on a daily basis – the paper should be a reflection of the community’s values.
  2. Watch people in public places – What’s in the average shopping trolley? No frills or brand names? Battery eggs or free range? Are people making ethical decisions when they shop or financial ones? Are they eating healthy food or junk, are they buying microwave meals or the ingredients for some sort of substantial and prolonged culinary endeavour? You can learn a fair bit about people based on what they buy. Are people buying instant coffee – perhaps you should hold a coffee event and convict them of that sin, while pointing them to Jesus as the cure for all sin.
    I think you can get a good feel for a place by going somewhere busy and just sitting back and watching people. Sit in a cafe, on a park bench, or in a shopping centre and just watch the types of people who walk by, those who stop briefly, and those who also sit.
  3. What’s on the billboards – While billboards on main roads are for those driving through your suburb, they’re also for people from your suburb. Billboard advertising is purchased by location. It’s expensive (and mostly dumb – don’t advertise on a billboard – have you ever purchased something because you’ve seen it on a billboard (other than Coke)?). Advertisers don’t like spending money (unless they’re in government). They spend pointless money with some thought – the kind of product being advertised at a prominent intersection in your place probably has some relevance to the people living there.
  4. Talk to the owners of small business – Cabbies are a great source of insight in regional areas, or if you want a general state of play in a bigger centre (there’s no guarantee they’ll hail from your part of the city in Brisbane) – but small business owners have an interest in knowing what’s going on in their part of town. Their livelihood depends on it. Good business owners know their clientele, they know their repeat customers. Businesses like newsagents that deal with the same people every day are the best bet. When I was a networking function attendee in Townsville I would always talk to the bankers, the media ad space sellers, and cafe owners to get a feel for how things were going.
  5. Join a club or community group – head along to meetings featuring people from your area, join the P&C… contribute, but also watch and listen. What is going on where you live? What are the issues for people around you? How can you serve them practically? How can you hit them with the gospel?

Some bonus points for regional areas, unless there’s a suburb based equivalent these aren’t going to be that great for your specific context in a bigger city:

  1. Subscribe to newsletters from your regional economic development agency.
  2. Subscribe to newsletters from the Local Council.
  3. Join the Chamber of Commerce.
  4. Go to networking functions (who knows who you’ll be able to talk to about Jesus).
  5. Listen to local radio, especially talk back.

Incidentally, age demographics are dead as far as tourism marketing is concerned. Age is irrelevant (mostly). Place is also mostly irrelevant (except that it has a bearing on income). People want experiences that they can fit into the narrative of their lives. Postcard perfect photos are a thing of the past – you’ll find most tourism ads from here on in (thanks to some new market segmentation work produced by the state tourism body) will feature a mix of people enjoying different experiences.

People want a holiday they can go back and tell their friends about. Holidays aren’t about collecting photos of the seven wonders of the world anymore – they’re about doing something authentic, learning something new, or meeting interesting people from interesting cultures.

This new way of thinking is possibly relevant if you’re putting together an event for your neighbourhood – because I think events are similar to holidays.

But demographics still have an influence over where people live – you won’t find many low income students living in the austere realm of Ascot (think the upper class eastern suburbs) so understanding one’s geographic context is important when it comes to pitching events and sermon applications at people.