Why Focusing on a Group is NOT the Way to Build a Church

Why Focusing on a Group is NOT the Way to Build a Church

I just picked up a pamphlet from a very large church planting agency. It outlines several steps a church planter should take. Of particular interest to me is step #2: Define Church Planting Focus Group.

It reads: Throughout the Scriptures, God declares His love and eternal purposes with a focus on identifiable groupings of people worldwide. North America is a complex mission field consisting of many cultures, languages, and worldviews. Defining a church planting focus group is an essential task.

I know what they are getting at, but I am afraid this kind of process bleeds marketing and the like. Nike shoes does this very same thing and GAP has recently said it will be targeting 35-year-old women. Should a man seeking to plant a church give in to this kind of rationale?

The brochure is correct in affirming that North America is ripe with cultures. And the principle is good overseas where a certain people group is so entrenched in tribal pride that they will not associate with the other tribe over the hill. But the vision the apostles modeled is not to focus on a particular group – namely Jewish people as was done before Pentecost.

Rather, they are to preach INDISCRIMINATELY to all peoples. In other words, the focus should be on the Gospel and not what kind of culture you should build your church around. As you think about the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells, there is a smorgasbord of peoples from every tribe people and language. Don’t take it to the extreme…Meaning that you should never focus on a specific people group. This would be a great ministry within the church, but to say, “Our church is going to focus on Hmong people or Argentines or 20-somethings,” is to entirely miss the boat as to the implications of the Gospel.

Therefore, church should focus on preaching and teaching the Gospel, with a view to bring together people in the name of Christ. Ministries should be blessed that seek to reach a target audience. However, the church should never be defined by that people group.

  • Dave Dunham
    Posted at 14:53h, 13 September Reply

    I am not sure I understand what you’re getting at, Matt. Help me see your point here. Are you saying it’s wrong for a church to develop it’s ministry largely with a specific group in mind? Doesn’t it seem impossible for a church to do ministry that appeals to everyone?

    I am not intending to criticize. I’ve made that argument myself, but I am not sure I am there anymore. So if that is what you’re saying I’d like to hear your specific take on it for my own benefit.

    Thanks brother.

    • Matthew Wireman
      Posted at 13:04h, 20 September Reply

      Appreciate the question. I am going to take a few series of posts to respond to the questions in the comments section as I think the dialogue is immensely helpful.

  • Luke
    Posted at 15:29h, 13 September Reply

    Everybody targets a group. I think it’s a little misleading to suggest that it’s actually possible to preach and teach the gospel and just expect that a diverse set of people will come and hear. This is how spiritual resources get hoarded in one place or another, in a similar way economic ones do.

    I think this is why the apostolic model is instructive for us. Apostles were “sent-ones.” It seems you are suggesting that we do mission, which needs an apostolic impulse (going and laying foundations), on the basis of a pastoral-impulse (to feed and grow God’s people).

    The apostolic model was to proclaim the gospel. Certainly, they weren’t using clever marketing ploys. But they were doing so in a variety of context that they actually went to and proclaimed in, usually in response to the characteristics of the context or circumstances. This is what we call contextualizing (which has very little to do with the color of the walls).

    I’m also a little unsure why you would say that targeting a group makes sense overseas, but not in America, as if America is uniform. Do the poor, addicted, orphan and widow or even ethnic minorities just show up because we are in the pulpit teaching and preaching? The call is to “go and make disciples of all nations (ethnos),” not stay in your pulpit and everything will sort itself out.

    I do completely agree, though, that if what we mean when we say “targeting” is really just taking advantage of Christian market forces, than we are in a bad way. If however, what we mean is that we go to the places in our neighborhood, city and world where Christ is not known and laying new foundations, than I think we are starting to move with the impulse of the apostles.

    • Matthew Wireman
      Posted at 15:22h, 23 October Reply

      Of course we will target certain people in our preaching–it’s the nature of being finite humans (and needing to communicate in a language to a certain person in a certain space and time). While we do need apostolic impulses, we must also remind ourselves that Paul also sought to bring two polar opposite cultures together under the one Hear, who is Christ (i.e. Ephesians). As to targeting folks overseas, I am trying to get at the idea of language barriers. That was the context, not that it’s okay to start a church based on 20-somethings in Uganda but not here in the States. Rather, such an impulse would be a branch of the local churches witness in their culture.
      You are right, these focus groups will not just show up. We must go out to them–to the highways and by-ways, as it were– and bring them in (i.e. Isa 66). I am sure that I did not portray the church’s ministry as staying behind a pulpit. That would be counter-productive, indeed! Jesus said, “As you are going, preach. . .”
      I like how you have brought up the need to go where Christ has not been named. May we do just that and bring them in and grow together in our love and appreciation of the myriad of ways people express worship to our One God!

  • Keturah
    Posted at 06:04h, 14 September Reply

    I think what you said needs desperately to be understood. Perhaps more than just common sense, there is Biblical precedent.

    The world that first received the Gospel was ripe with cultures. But there was no canvassing, market research or contextualization. There was proclamation of The Gospel. Everybody got the same message. The identifiable groupings were lost sinners and idolaters. The message, like a vaccine for a particular condition, was indiscriminate.

    Much of the modern missional misses the message. The message is not simply, God loves you. The message must begin with God’s Wrath over man’s rebellion or God’s love means nothing.

    And the good news must be the death, burial, resurrection, appearance and ascension to the throne as predicted by the unfolding of God’s plan. That is the message to all groupings in the New Testament preaching. It is the only one that will save.

  • Brian Scarborough
    Posted at 07:40h, 14 September Reply

    I cannot agree 100% with what you are saying. You make a great point that we need to preach the gospel to everyone and to build churches accordingly. But does not God call some to a specific ministry to specific groups? Paul was called to be apostle to the Gentiles. While not ignoring Jews, he had much more success among the Gentile God-fearers and some pagans.
    We all can be called to a specific place or peoples or groups. Churches must be open to all, but we may have to have Korean churches and Hispanic churches (or services) or whatever to make sure that all are truly reached.

    • Matthew Wireman
      Posted at 15:15h, 23 October Reply

      Brian, Does my follow-up post help with your question? How about my responses to the other threads? If not, let me know!

  • Francisco Munoz
    Posted at 08:27h, 14 September Reply

    What about all the attention 20 somethings have been getting for the last 10 or 20 years? Would you say that a large number of churches and leaders have been focusing primarily on 20 year olds at the expense of sharing the Gospel with EVERYONE ELSE? I’m a young adults leader but I know I can’t focus just on that age group and yet some leaders focus on nothing else.

    • Matthew Wireman
      Posted at 15:14h, 23 October Reply

      Francisco, I thank God for your service to 20-somethings. I would argue that people who make a church out of 20-somethings will do their people a disservice in the long-run. I can see a church having a young professionals ministry to serve a need amongst their congregants. . .but to build a separate church service around that demographic would cause atrophy in their discipleship. In other words, make the 20-something one of many ministries in your church. But don’t make a church out of it!

  • David J Jones
    Posted at 11:45h, 14 September Reply

    Thank you Matthew, that was very refreshing. This approach is essential if we are to see the Church attain to Paul’s model in Ephesians,
    “And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 for the training of the •saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. 14 Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. 15 But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ. 16 From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.”

    • Matthew Wireman
      Posted at 15:12h, 23 October Reply

      Yes! May we be united and may we seek unity actively–not merely in theory. Thank you for reminding us of the ONE body imagery in Scripture. I find that many Christians want to give a wink to passages such as these but fail to pursue it in their lives (individually and corporately). We are too quick to write passages like these off as ideology rather than a reality we are to pursue. We wouldn’t say to someone, “Because you are united to Christ, it doesn’t matter how you live.” NO! We would, I hope, encourage them “Be who you are.” In other words, work out your salvation in fear and trembling knowing that God is at work in your working.

  • Micah Colbert
    Posted at 16:07h, 14 September Reply

    Greatly appreciate your article, my friend. I have spent the past three years involved in a church plant in Ghana, West Africa. What a blessing it is to see University grads sitting next to “village people” united as one in the gospel! Over time, where the gospel is preached indiscriminately and an environment of discipleship is practiced, this kind of culture-shattering unity will be found in churches both on oversees and in the US. Thank you once again for calling us to evaluate our practices from a Biblical perspective.

    • Matthew Wireman
      Posted at 15:09h, 23 October Reply

      I am so thankful that God is bringing people together under the banner of Jesus that would not be able to sit together under any other banner. May he continue to exalt the Son!

  • Steve Mosely
    Posted at 21:51h, 14 September Reply

    I don’t understand your last two sentences. They seem contradictory. In most of your article it seems like you’re against the idea of a target audience… that the target idea is a marketing mentality.
    When a person outside the target audience responds, one doesn’t turn people away. But there loads of choices one has to make: what language to preach in, what street corner to stand on, what literature to distribute, what language(s) to use for worship, what instruments to use for music, what clothes to wear. Obviously those choices make the message more understandable, more relevant, more comfortable to some people, and more culturally distant and “foreign” to others.
    All must be welcome in the church, but every church has specific cultural characteristics that give it in effect a target audience, whether or not that audience is consciously chosen as a target.
    Perhaps heaven will have multitudes of monolingual, monocultural worship “services” in which we rejoice all together in our supracultural Redeemer.

    • Matthew Wireman
      Posted at 15:08h, 23 October Reply

      Hey Steve,
      I am not against a focus group, per se. I am against the idea of building a church, which is meant to reflect the reconciliation in Christ, around that concept. Merely because people have certain affinities toward a group does not justify allowing this preference in perpetuity.
      Surely we do have cultural affinities, but I think we would do well to seek out ways to appreciate and utilize varied cultural expressions of worship to God.

  • Ryan Frontz
    Posted at 22:07h, 14 September Reply

    A good word. Living in the South, I get to see many examples of exactly what it is you are describing. A fresh reminder that the Gospel is truth for all.

    • Matthew Wireman
      Posted at 15:06h, 23 October Reply

      Hoping to plant in the South, I pray that Christ would be honored in reconciliation happening across racial and socio-economic divides. May God give you grace, Ryan, to pursue this as well–as it is obvious from your comment that you desire to do just that!

  • Jamie
    Posted at 01:51h, 15 September Reply

    I agree that we should preach the gospel indiscriminately.

    Do you see a difference between contextualizing the gospel from having a target or focus group? They seem closely related.

    • Matthew Wireman
      Posted at 15:04h, 23 October Reply

      Thanks for your response. Part of preaching the Gospel indiscriminately would be to utilize a ministry for reaching target groups. . .for a period of time. After people are folded into the life of Christ–understanding the unity the Gospel brings and the reconciliation that happens–I think it behoves a congregation to seek ways to worship together. Again, reaching out to focus groups would be a temporary vision, as well as be subsumed as a ministry of the congregation-at-large.
      Make sense?

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  • Stephen
    Posted at 16:22h, 15 September Reply

    What about focus-groups that are unreached and not being reached by neighbors? In a place like New York City, the high immigrant population leads to several groups that are culturally and socially isolated from their surrounding groups. Add in the high social-collective nature of these non-Western groups (i.e., it’s more typical for a large family to make a drastic decision like conversion than it is for an individual to separate) and it seems like planting a church directly and intently focused on one particular group would be the only way to hope to reach any out of this group.

    You could refute this argument as pragmatic but is it a wrong pragmatism?

    • Matthew Wireman
      Posted at 15:02h, 23 October Reply

      This is a great missiological question. Sorry in the tardiness in response! I think what you are getting at is essential to bringing in people to worship together (from all tribes, tongues, and peoples). There could definitely be focus groups that are targeted as a ministry of a church. For example, say your congregation was an affluent one and someone in a lower socio-economic situation would not feel comfortable (especially if they haven’t been converted or been taught Ephesians) being in your gathering. I could foresee a congregation “targeting” that group with a view to folding them in in the future. This is a process and should not be hurried merely for the sake of reflecting the Revelation vision of everyone worshiping together.
      I don’t see your response as purely pragmatic. After all, pragmatism has to play into the equation of how we will tell others about Christ. Ruled by Scriptural precedent, pragmatics help us fulfill our mission.
      Does that help?

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