Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Trap of the Target Audience

We live in a specialized nation, a country of "experts" who through training and experience have each become very good at one thing. And many of them are very good at doing one thing for one specific group of people. Consider restaurants, television shows, retail stores, websites, magazines, musicians. They all have their specialty and their target audience, their niche.

Enter Christians and churches. We have been called to communicate a message to the world, a message of hope for sinners through Jesus Christ. We have a great commission, from our God and Savior himself: "Go and make disciples." This is a high calling from a great master and is worthy of effort, excellence, and effectiveness. We must ask the question, how can we proclaim this truth in the best way possible?

Some leaders in the church have concluded from business models that the church also needs to be targeting our audience, so that we can be most effective in sharing the gospel. There are now "generation" churches and "emerging" churches and "seeker-sensitive" churches and all sorts of different labels that identify who the leaders of that church hope will attend.

As I mentioned in my last post on relevant ministry, I think this is a trap. I'm going to expand on this Trap of the Target Audience a bit more by highlighting some lures of this business mindset and some possible pitfalls of the approach.

Why is the idea of Target Audience so appealing to the church?
  • First, I think the idea of the target audience is appealing because it has been effective in the business world. Marketing, specialized products, and generation-specific media forms have made targeting your audience one of the most important and helpful tools in selling a product. It will also be helpful in spreading the truth of Jesus Christ, right?
  • Choosing a target audience is more efficient. The church can become experts at sharing the gospel with such-and-such a group, which will be more effective.
  • Choosing a target audience can help us avoid controversy. All the disagreements about musical style, preaching approach, technology use, and so on can be simplified by making decisions on what will be most useful for reaching our target audience.
What are some of the possible pitfalls of serving a Target Audience?
  • We may not be able to reach everyone. Let's face it, most evangelistically-minded churches are not targeting the 80-year olds. If each church targets an audience, the church as a whole will inevitably leave out some, most likely the weak, the poor, and the uncool. If that happens, then we've lost track of the "Go and make disciples of all nations."
  • We could end up with single-generation churches, and this would be a tragedy. How can a church obey the commands of Titus 2 ("Older women teach younger women") if there are no older women or younger women around? Another version of this, which has been happening for the entire history of our country, is single-nationality churches. This is another tragedy!
  • This could lead to generational church-hopping. What happens when the 20-something church turns ten years old and everyone's in their thirties. Does it become the 30-something church? Or does everyone go off to find a 30-something church when they "outgrow" the 20-something church?
  • Our children may be confused. Which church do they attend? At what point does a teenager or young adult go to a church with something targeted directly to them? What happens to their relationships with their parents at that point?
  • This could lead (already has?) to a consumer mentality in choosing churches. "I will attend the church that most effectively targets my needs, desires, and preferences. Someday maybe I'll find an even better one."
None of these pitfalls are guaranteed to happen. However, I do think they are the logical end of a consistent and broad application of the idea of targeting an audience for church outreach or regular ministry. And the possible results are frightening to me.

A quick note of clarification: I'm speaking here about a church as a whole targetting one small segment of the population in the majority of their ministry work. I can understand that the young adult ministry of a multi-generational church would hope to connect with that particular group specifically. This makes sense as long as there is also a context where the young adults get to worship and serve alongside other generations, younger and older.

Also, you may wonder, what in the world does this have to do with media? The connection I make is that one of the primary ways that churches target a particular audience is through tailoring media, from preaching to graphics to videos to anything else, to that audience's tastes. And as the people who produce church media, we need to know why we are doing what we are doing and what effect it will have on the future of our church.

Is there anything I've missed? Do you disagree? I'd love to hear from you!


Anonymous said...

"And as the people who produce church media, we need to know why we are doing what we are doing and what effect it will have on the future of our church."

Absolutley. "Because it looked good." is a common defense I hear of certain church media choices or "Because it will work." What will work is the power of God on planet Earth. We as artists work to communicate how to interact with Him, not replace Him.

Stewart H. Redwine

Anonymous said...

I understand what you are saying, and have gone through thinking about most of these issues in the context of developing a church plant plan. But what I continue to struggle with is effectiveness. I have just never seen a church that targets across niches that has been effective as a church that targets an specific niche. I think I am fairly convinced that a church that seeks to be all things to all people sacrifices effectiveness. In ideal world, we would be able to be effective across niches, but this is not an ideal world. The closest I can come is to target a mindset (not a generation, or stage of life, or nationality). This can be more difficult to define, but I have seen it done. Targetting a mindset will tend to attract an unbalanced congregation, but it generally will have representation from across the spectrum.

Dave Wilcox said...


Thanks so much for your comments. And thanks for being involved in church planting. I have the highest respect for people who make the sacrifices necessary to start a new church from scratch!

If you don't mind, can I ask a few questions to learn more from your experience? I certainly don't have a corner on wisdom, and I'm sure I can learn from you.

1. How do you define effectiveness?
2. How do you measure effectiveness?
3. What mindset did you choose to target for your church plants?
4. What types of people has that brought in?
5. Did you make any media-related decisions based on this target approach? If so, what were they?

Looking forward to learning more,


Anonymous said...

Disclaimer: I haven't been involved with actually planting a church (yet!)... I've been involved in laying the groundwork by determining strategy and such for a church plant, but the circumstances
haven't yet been right for the actual plant. Someday, maybe, if that's what God wants. But currently I serve in an established church. I also serve with a church unity ministry that is sort of a start-up ministry that does some church-like things (eg. holds periodic services, and the like) so
that is sort of church plant-ish.

There, now that that's out of the way. So there's not really much profound experience that I can

share from on the plant side of things, but whatever, I'll take a crack at the questions anyway... :)

Definition of effectiveness...
For effectiveness of the church, one answer is "how well are you achieving your purpose and direction?" But that can get a little circular. So maybe the more generic/universal definition would be "are you increasing the quantity and quality of disciples in the world?" I think every church should be able to agree with both of those. Many would resist the "quantity" aspect of that statement, and I know numbers aren't particularly popular these days, but Christ told us to go and make disciples, plural, not just one really really good and spiritual disciple. So yeah, I think as a general rule, that's the definition of effectiveness I work by.
For measuring effectiveness, obviously the quantity side of the equation is reasonably easy to
measure. You just have to decide what you are going to count... attendance? conversions? baptisms?

It seems that baptisms is becoming the popular meauring stick because it is easier to define as a
spiritual marker in someone's life than attendance or conversion.
The quality side of things is much more difficult to measure. I have been a part of survey mechanisms
that provided a rough indication of the spiritual healthy of the church, but I'm not sure it was
particularly accurate in providing a specific measure. It was effective at providing an indication of
spiritual direction, though. I've also seen churches try to use attendance at their "righteous few"
events as an indicator of quality of disciples in their church (eg. number of people in small groups,
even number of people at a Sunday evening service), but I think those are badly flawed indicators.

Short answer - I don't know of a really good way to measure quality... I think generally you need to rely on those who are relationally driven to gain a "spiritual gut feel" for the disciple quality of the church.

For "effectiveness of media", the definition really comes down to one thing: how well is the message behind a piece (be it a video, drama, or even an entire service) communicated? Do people leave your service and know what the nugget was that they learned (whether that is a practical piece of knowledge, or a more conceptual sort of thing, or just a deepening relationship with God). I've tested this out with people before - asking them 30 mins after a service is over what the message of the service was. It's frightening how often they will struggle to identify it in many churches. Try it two weeks after a given service, when hopefully they have had a chance to apply that nugget to their lives, and in most churches you've got little hope of them being able to identify what that nugget was. Effective media increases absorption of the message God has for us. Most messages from God, from "I love you" to "Don't eat yellow snow", can be communicated more effectively to a broader spectrum of people with different learning styles if different forms of communication (media) are used. The problem is that within one form of media, there are different styles within that form that will work better with different demographics/niches of people.

Re. targetting mindset rather than demographic... I'll use the example of the church unity ministry I referred to above. In this case,
the ministry has a reputation for being a "20 something" ministry. This is mainly because the group
that started it happened to be in their 20s, and the music that tends to be used is mostly recent and
performed by a band. However, it is not a 20 something ministry. It is a ministry that seeks to
unify the churches in our city through worship and prayer. By that very fact, we cannot target a specific demographic or niche.

Instead, we try to appeal to those who believe in the unity of the church, or at least those who are
willing to consider the importance of the church in a city functioning in unity. This has been
effective, but has also made it tought for us to be clear about our identity. Humans find it easiest to classify according to external characteristics (black, white, old, young, male, female). When your identity is found in a common mindset that is not related to something visible, that makes things a lot more difficult (not impossible, of course, just more difficult). Sometimes targetting that mindset naturally results in a specific type of demographic being your identity - not on purpose, just as a side effect. In the case of this church unity ministry, the people that attend are predominantly between 20 and 40 years old, with a smattering of younger folks and older folks. Older and younger are under-represented, possibly because that mindset is not represented as much within those demographics, or possibly because of specifics related to worship style, or maybe both.

With media, I find that you have to make a lot of stylistic decisions based on the expected audience or the intended audience (two different things!). Take the simple and humble music montage. My general rule of thumb is to have cuts at about 4 second intervals. That works great for the 20 to 30 year olds. But the odd time I have had to go with 6 to 8 second cuts, I have received more positive comments from those 40 years old and up... their perception abilities operate at a different speed (not better or worse, just different) and therefore they feel much better about a piece with a slower visual pace. At my own church, we have two distinct services - one designed for younger folks, one designed more traditionally. We generally select very different pieces (music, video, drama, readings, etc) for each of those services even though they share a common theme and sermon. We just know that what will work in one will not work in the other. To try to pick or develop pieces that will work in both contexts tends to diminish the effectiveness (ie. how well the message behind the piece is communicated).

Gosh, this got long and ugly really quickly... I'd better stop rambling here because I've said more than my fair piece.

Thanks David for the work you are putting into the blog... it's good stuff!

Dave Wilcox said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I will refer back to them as I think and write about this more in the future. One last question...

Do you think it is possible to train teenagers to enjoy slideshows with 6-8 second cuts? Or, do you think it is possible to train across generations, so that people can learn to enjoy what blesses others?

Anonymous said...

He he... I think it depends on which direction you are coming from. Can older folk, who are mature and generous, learn to be blessed by what naturally blesses teenagers or 20-somethings? Absolutely - and those folk that are willing to learn this are treasures! Unfortunately, the older you get, the trend is to be less accepting of a dynamic environment (ie. humans tend to like change less and less).

Can younger folk learn to be blessed by what naturally blesses seniors? Yeah, it's possible, but younger generations tend to be a little more self-absorbed, and are searching to create their own identity.

There are two areas where cross-demographics programming works really well... inspiration and wisdom. When your message is imparting wisdom (in its various forms - stories of the good old days, a life's experience with God, etc) the young will listen to the old. When your message is imparting inspiration, the old will listen to the young, and vice versa. And inspiration even works across cultures. But even within areas of wisdom and inspiration, both will be more effective when shared in a context/style/form that resonates most strongly with that demographic group. For example: script exactly the same message and have it shared (a) someone during a Gaither Homecoming concert, and (b) lead singer for Casting Crowns. Exactly the same words can be spoken by each, but they will have different degrees of effectiveness depending on who is hearing it.