Targeting “Target Audience” Language in Church Growth

What do churches mean by talking about “target audience”? No doubt, one would have to ask each of the churches using such terms what they mean. Perhaps not all of these churches have thought through the associations often bound up with these words. This post is designed to stimulate thought on our use of such terms and what they might signify for Christian community in a market society. Here’s one question to consider prior to beginning: if one comes to the conclusion that “target audience” proves problematic in one or more ways, what might you suggest as a replacement for these words? (For more sustained reflection on this and related subjects set forth in this post, see chapter 2 of Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church and chapter 1, 8 and 16 of Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction).

In the realm of marketing and advertising, a target audience is that group of people for which a product is developed and a marketing message is crafted. Should a church make use of marketing strategies for the sake of church growth? I suppose it all depends on what kind of marketing and marketing strategies one has in mind. Now what is involved with talk of “target audience” in the sphere of church growth?

Targeting by a church that concerns the cultivation of intentional contact is generally benign. Deliberate contextualization is a good thing. Targeting as a strategy of marketing for the church is not. It involves demographic targeting. What could be possibly wrong with demographic targeting? Demography’s practices do not go deep enough; they do not account for analyzing people and communities according to their depth and complexity. What I refer to as deliberate contextualization involves thick narrative description and person to person engagement in a particular community. So, the level of investigation must involve intentional and sustained interpersonal contact.

What if I am not representative of a given church’s target audience? I would not wish to be the person who starts attending a church that does not view him or her as part of their target audience. Will such an individual be subtly or not-so-subtly encouraged to go elsewhere? Targeting can easily move from intentional inclusion to unintentional or even intentional exclusion. With this point in mind, I would rather speak of “called” than “target.” Emphasis on God’s call suggests that people’s inclusion is beyond my control and foresight. While I should be intentional and deliberate on outreach, I must guard against attempts at manipulation and exclusion of some people and preference for others. “Called” over against “target,” if deliberately thought through and lived out, helps Christian leaders be open to God’s direction and all people who come through their doors (since we are not able to predict or determine who will come and who will stay).

How do we balance between focused deliberation and openness/inclusion for the sake of healthy church growth and community formation? My friend Mark DeYmaz makes the important point that one can and should focus distinctive evangelism efforts on specific communities and people groups (See for example 1 Corinthians 9:19-23); however, in the realm of the church, we must most beyond homogeneity, wherein we bring those who have come to Christ from various ethnic communities into one fellowship. After all, Paul’s churches included Jews and Gentiles, even though he sought to engage Jews and Gentiles distinctly in Gospel witness. Paul exclaimed that the dividing wall of hostility was broken down between Jews and Gentiles; as a result, they were one in the church (Ephesians 2:11-22); when we erect church walls for homogeneous congregations, we are in danger of rebuilding the dividing wall of hostility.

Is a targeted group or church one’s “audience”? And, if so, what does that entail for those leading services? Are they performers, actors, entertainers, even salespeople? If so, perhaps those churches using this language and living it out should change their names from “community” churches to “commodity” churches; after all, they’re selling something. By no means do I wish for churches to change their names in this way, but I would hope we would think clearly about what we mean when we use such terms as “target” and “audience” on the one hand and “community” on the other. The same goes for the use of marketing strategies and constructs as it pertains to “product” language. Is the church selling a product or bearing witness to a person—Jesus Christ?

I am so grateful that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has not called us to sell a product, but to witness to Jesus and life-changing personal encounter with and through him. I am also extremely grateful that Christ’s church is not called to worship three commodities in isolation, but three divine persons in communion. Churches claiming to worship the triune, communal God must make every effort to shape their language on church growth to reflect this reality—and to live in view of the reality of the triune God. Then whatever church growth we experience will not simply be quantitative, but qualitative in the most relational sense imaginable.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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