So I’m reading Seven Practices of Effective Ministry by Andy Stanley, Reggie Joiner, and Lane Jones.* I’m getting a lot out of it. I really appreciated the points about “Clarifying the Win” and “Teach Less for More.” These have really impacted my thought process regarding my work and teaching. I believe they have improved because of the reading. I highly recommend the book.
But, as with all books (except the Bible), I hit a snag. In their chapter on “Narrow the Focus,” which had lots of helpful info also, they get into the niche marketing idea for churches. As they talk about creating brands, they mention that you have to identify a target group. This brought to mind all that I read years ago in The Purpose-Driven Church about this kind of niche marketing.
In the Narrow the Focus chapter, the idea is that a single congregation can’t meet everyone’s need. I am supposed to conclude that a single person has a different need from a married person. A retired person has a different need from a working person. A black person has a different need from a white person. A young upwardly mobile person has a different need from a blue collar person. Management has a different need than labor. There is just no way a single congregation can meet the needs for all of these people. There just aren’t enough resources in any given congregation to meet the needs for all these different people. Therefore, we are told, churches need to narrow the focus by identifying a target. Find out what the target needs, then devote the church’s resources to meeting those needs. They will attract that kind of person. While they will not be able to help everyone, other churches can meet the needs of other people. Because they are not stretching themselves too thin, they will grow larger within their target group than they ever would trying to meet everyone’s needs.
That sounds all well and good, but I keep hitting a roadblock on that path. How can I sing that the blessed gospel is for all but then conduct the congregation’s work in such a way that as we present the gospel it is meant to attract for young upwardly mobile people like Saddleback Sam and Samantha with there two kids Steve and Sally (The Purpose-Driven Church, p. 170)? Are we teaching a good news that is for everyone or just a certain few. If it is only for a certain few, are we teaching the gospel found in the New Testament or one of our own making? Of course, the folks who proclaim this method say it is working because their congregations are so large. “It must be right,” they say, “because God is obviously blessing our approach.” That, apparently, is code for “We have more people attending than you.”
I have to admit, that line of argument can seem reasonable at times. But something still plagued me about this approach. Then it hit me. I asked is the foundation really sound? Does a single person have a different need from a married person? Does a teenager have a different need from a grandmother? Do all of these people really have different needs? On the surface that seems to be true. I’ve even said it myself sometimes. But the reality is this premise is all wrong. While I’m sure in some sense all of these people have different needs, God didn’t send Jesus or establish the church to meet every possible need someone might have. He sent Jesus and established the church to deal with the one need that everyone has.
We are all dead in sin and need the life offered through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10).
Let’s face it, the problems we all have are caused by sin. I don’t need some special teaching just because I’m married with kids. Do you know what causes me struggle in my marriage? The same thing that caused me struggles when I was single. Sin. It will be the same thing that causes me struggles when I’m an empty-nester. It is the same thing that causes me struggles with my neighbors and my co-workers. What do I need? I need the life, the victory, the freedom from sin that comes through Jesus. As Jesus sets me free from my sins, my life will improve no matter what situation it is in. Further, I will learn how to live contently in my relationship with Him no matter what sins those around me commit.
When I learn that and let the good news of Jesus start to impact my life, it will change my marriage, it will change my career, it will change my community. Let’s think about this in a microcosmic way. Think of the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12. Who can the Golden Rule help? Let’s see. I think it will help teenagers, single people, married people, divorced people, widowed people, black people, white people, hispanic people, asian people, rich people, poor people, educated people, uneducated people, white collar people, blue collar people, management people, labor people, unemployed people, Democrats, Republicans… The list could go on. In other words, in this scenario, we don’t need a church that pours all its resources into teaching young married couples. We need a church that will pour its resources into teaching the Golden Rule. Why? Because that will help everyone.
Consider another microcosmic example. When a church is directed by its community to try to meet the felt needs of its target audience, it might do something like the following. If we target young families, we all know the felt need. Childcare. My wife and I have four kids, we feel that need. Yes, it is a need that my grandparents don’t feel. So the church says, “Young families need childcare. Let’s devote our resources to accomplishing that need and we’ll get more young families in our church. If we devote our resources to that, we won’t have enough money to also accomplish the felt need of seniors which is providing company.” If that is the way churches are thinking, no wonder Narrow the Focus comes to mean narrow your target audience. But let me ask you, did God send Jesus or establish His church to meet the felt need of childcare? No. Jesus died for the real need of victory over sin. Narrow the Focus should not mean narrowing the target audience. Rather, it should mean narrowing the needs we are trying to meet. We should narrow it right down to the need Jesus died for–victory over sin. When that happens, we actually open our target up to everyone.
When a church teaches the freeing truth (John 8:32) of God’s powerful gospel (Romans 1:16-17) then lives will be changed for the better no matter what the felt needs of the individuals are or their station in life.
The problem is we have too often bought into the pop psychology of felt needs. Let’s face it, appealing to felt needs will attract folks. But appealing to felt needs is too often appealing to fleshly needs. God did not send Jesus to die to fulfill our felt needs. He sent Jesus to die to meet a real need. Felt needs are different for every person. But this real need is the same. Sadly, not as many people care about their real needs as their felt needs. Further, nothing we can do will force them to recognize their real need. In fact, all that we do to fulfill their felt needs might keep them from seeing their real need because they are never forced to examine their own neediness. So, moving from a felt needs focus to a real needs focus may cost us some members just like it did for Jesus in John 6. But focusing on the real need will actually provide the real help that people really need.
Yes, a single church can meet the need that everyone has. We don’t need different churches for all kinds of different people. We need churches who are willing to focus on what all of us have in common. We’re all sinners in need of a Savior. He will change our lives if we will let Him. Let’s narrow our focus to that.
*Yes, the links in this article are affiliate links. Help a guy out. It’s Christmas time. Click on the links and buy something.