Repost from Andy Rowell’s Blog on stengths and weaknesses of “Targeting” a demographic as a Church October 27, 2008

A wider target: Deconstructing and redeploying the Seeker Sensitive Service planning of The Purpose Driven Church

In 1995, Rick Warren published The Purpose Driven Church.  It was perhaps the most influential book in church circles in the decade.  It was the definitive “how-to” manual of how grow a megachurch.  In it, he presented Donald McGavran’s “Church Growth” principles from the 1970’s to a new generation.  Younger leaders in their 30’s like Leadership Journal managing editor Skye Jethani and myself continue to feel like these ideas need further theological reflection.   In his post in January 2008 entitled Sense & Sensitivity: Why It’s Time to Abandon the Seeker-Sensitive Model, Skye reflects on biblical and monastic hospitality and urges churches to embrace people first rather than focusing on which people our church is targeting.  Although I largely agree with Skye, I want to affirm in the seeker sensitive approach the principle of intentionality.  I think it makes sense to be intentional about how we are communicating in our worship services but I agree with Skye that a narrow target is theologically problematic. 

What we need I believe is a wider target.  The educational and missional and liturgical task demand that we attempt to communicate as clearly as we can with as many people in attendance as possible.  For those not involved in this ideological argument between seeker-senstive vs. not seeker-sensitive, this should be quite obvious.  In plain English, the pastor and worship leaders should attempt to draw in and engage as many people who may attend the church from the surrounding community as possible.  This is the wide target.  This involves speaking clearly, using music that has broad appeal, and using images that are accessible to a large range of people.  This is why the tasks of preaching and leading worship are so difficult.  However, this seemingly obvious insight does have some edge to it, some “bite,” because it means that congregational worship and preaching that only appeals to the most entrenched insiders needs to be given greater accessibility.  The pastor can address very complex Christian concepts and stories but they need to use vocabulary that people readily understand (or they need to define those theological words).  Rituals need to explained.  Music needs to be singable or otherwise accessible or it needs to be carefully taught.  What Warren and other seeker-sensitive people get is that the person who visits the church for the first time needs to be given tips and help on making sense of what is going on.  This, as I argue below, however does not mean that churches need to only have one target audience.  They need to be intentional about communicating with the wider target of their surrounding community.   

Here then is my comment on Skye’s blog in response to his post

I think this theological probing into hospitality is important work.  I agree with you that the biggest problem with seeker-sensitive approaches is that they seek to capitalize on people’s social prejudices by giving them an environment, communication and music that makes them feel comfortable.  This can tend to reinforce social barriers.  If the worship service is designed to appeal to “Saddleback Sam . . . in his late thirties or early forties . . . among the most affluent of Americans” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995, p. 169-170), then one wonders whether people who do not fit this profile will feel that they do not belong. 

As one attempts to speak the language of the people; (I like this terminology because it makes one think of the missionary task or educational task); we must be careful to include the whole surrounding community–a wider target.  Warren and others are wrong I think for championing the targeting of one demographic (Saddleback Sam), but they are right in wanting to clearly communicate the gospel of Jesus to those present in language those people understand.  “Why do we got to all this trouble defining the typical person we’re trying to reach?  Because the more you understand someone the easier it is to communicate with him” (Warren, Purpose Driven Church, 171).  Yes, that we can agree with.  Warren contradicts his own emphasis on Saddleback Sam when he notes in passing that his church has not rigidly followed the single-demographic targeting!   He notes, “One of the advantages of being a large church is that you have the resources to go after multiple targets . . . we’ve been able to add additional ministries and outreach programs to reach young adults, single adults, prisoners, the elderly, parents with ADD children, and Spanish-, Vietnamese-, and Korean-speaking people, as well as many other targets” (Warren, Purpose Driven Church, 159-160).  Warren’s conscience, even in 1995 before his awakening to the needs to the world, would not allow him to strictly only target one group’s needs.  But he is wrong that only large churches have the luxury of reaching a variety of people.  No, every church needs to intentionally communicate with (and minister to) the broad range of people who live within their community.         

Therefore, I do not think that it is mutually exclusive to “welcome strangers indiscriminately into our tent/monastery/church” and “determine our target audience’s desires in advance.”  Preparing for people to come over is precisely what hospitable people do.  The monastery has clean beds and food in the cupboards so that when the stranger shows up, they can be hosted appropriately.  Similarly, it is appropriate for churches to prepare well to communicate with the people who will come through the doors.

Furthermore, negligence by worship leaders and preachers in preparing well to communicate in language that guests understand will not necessarily lead to congregation members stepping up and being more hospitable.  I have seen friendly and distant congregation members at both seeker megachurches and traditional small churches but my sense is that the pastor and worship leaders have a significant role in shaping congregational practice by their own example and practice.

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