Ministry Mapping for Church Planting
by Guest Author

September 17, 2020

Church Planting

Ministry Mapping for Church Planting

By Guest Author

September 17, 2020

Two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars and a coffee shop logo. That’s what one church planter brought to Portland, OR in hopes of starting a coffee-shop-based community of faith. Coffee, in the recent seminary graduate’s mind, was the key to gathering people together into what he hoped would become a safe place to explore creative spirituality. With this vision, the native Texan had raised one quarter of a million dollars for the coffee shop ministry he projected would take six months to a year to get off the ground and one year to become self-sufficient.

One year later, the would-be church planter returned home to Dallas; burned out, embarrassed, and confused. Despite the solid business plan, the coffee shop church planting strategy had failed spectacularly. What went wrong? The plan had been born in Texas, not Portland. It made sense on paper, but he hadn’t done his homework to learn about the people he wanted to serve. He hadn’t taken the time to learn about the people or place to which he’d been sent.

A Basic Ministry Skill

One of the most overlooked basic skills for God’s people on mission is mapping. Mapping is the collection of insights about a people and a place—beginning with observation, filtered through dialog, and recorded on a map. Around the world, missionary teams, church planters, and local church leaders are using mapping as a way to really understand the people they wish to serve.

Most mapping begins with a map and something to write or draw with. When mapping, it’s helpful to think of a map as having different layers; like transparent overlays that can be superimposed one on top of the other. These layers allow us to organize and visualize what we learn. Looking at multiple layers simultaneously allows us to see how the information collected in one layer might relate to the information from another layer. When we see how bits and pieces of information interconnect, we may begin to glean helpful insight that can guide us in our approaches to evangelism, discipleship, and church planting.

The Physical Layer

The first layer of our map is the physical layer, which requires the least amount of skill and insight to map. For this, we usually begin with an existing street map, like you might find from Google or Apple. These maps are continuously updated, saving us the trouble of starting from scratch. Maps in hand, we set out to explore our cities—one neighborhood at a time—and record what we see.

At first, the physical layer of our maps might include roads, pathways, highways, rivers, railroads, and bike trails. Then we might take note of the different hubs of activity where people connect. Add in some basic information about different neighborhoods and area landmarks, and the physical layer of our map becomes a tool to help us make sense of our cities. If you want to relate to people, move into their neighborhood. Mapping can help us know how to do that.

The Social Layer

The second layer of our map is all about people. We typically begin mapping the social layer with good demographics data, which can be found online. Age, ethnicity, income, education, and religious affiliation information provides a great foundation to work from when mapping the social layer.

We then move out into the city to observe how people behave. I like to look at how people interact with the space, how the building environment affects their behavior. It’s also helpful to annotate our map with history, signs of conflict, the presence of social groupings, and any obvious idols that people worship. The things we observe in these areas are the things that propel us into interaction with local people: “I noticed the Civil War monuments in the center of the city. What can you tell me about them?” I remember asking locals when we first moved to Richmond, Virginia. Every answer I received made it onto my map.

In short order, we can begin to get a sense of what the people of the city are like: what they value, how they spend their time, how they are connected. These insights can guide and shape our approaches to ministry. Observe lots of materialism? Build an apologetic that addresses how Jesus is better than stuff. Find a lot of racial discrimination? Lean into reconciliation and unity in Christ with believers across racial lines.

The Spiritual Layer

Finally, a useful ministry map will include spiritual insights. The first thing to add to this layer is the location of other believers in the area: known believers, churches, and para-church organizations. You wouldn’t believe the number of church planters who parachute into a city to start a ministry without ever looking around to see who might already be there doing similar work. The result is needless competition.

Next, we would do well to mark other places of worship on our map. Odds are, your city has mosques, temples, and “cultural centers” that you never really noticed. Take the time to find these and consider reaching out to meet spiritual leaders of other religions. You never know where those connections might lead.

A Valuable Tool

My ministry map helps me organize the insights I gather about my city. But the best maps are those build and maintained by groups of like-minded believers working together to understand the place to which they’ve been sent. When someone joins our ministry team, we share our map with them to help bring them up to speed. When volunteers want to come assist in our work, we send them out to map those parts of our city that we’re less familiar with. Mapping is how we learn our city together.

Which brings us back to the coffee shop church planting strategy in Portland. How might the zealous young entrepreneur have done things differently had he engaged in a bit of mapping before he formulated his plan? The physical layer might have revealed the thousands of existing coffee shops across the city struggling to survive. The social layer might have allowed him to see which groups hang out where, and how many of them extend open invitations for those new to the city to join in what’s already happening. The spiritual layer would have connected him to the rest of us who loved that city and wanted to see disciples made and churches planted.

If you want to know the city to which you’ve been sent, gather your team and make a map.


Caleb Crider is a missiologist, writer, and teacher. He’s married to Lindsey and has two children: Jonas and Meredith. Originally from California, Caleb spent seven years in Spain where he began a nonprofit artist exchange program. He then returned to the United States to co-found The Upstream Collective, a network of churches committed to thinking and acting like missionaries at home and abroad. He is one of the authors of Tradecraft: For The Church On Mission, and now trains people to live and work cross-culturally. Caleb currently serves as Instructional Design Leader for Training at the International Mission Board and is working on a PhD through Columbia International University.

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