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.

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This post has 23 Comments

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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. 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!

  6. 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.”

    1. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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!

  9. 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.

    1. Jamie,
      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?

  10. 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?

    1. Stephen,
      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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Idealism and Realism

One of the difficulties with living is when our ideals come crashing against the rock of reality. That is, I have a dream gets hosed down by the injustices of mediocrity and status quo.

I have been walking through the Core Values of our church plant, Christ the Redeemer, and we just got done walking through our first (and most vital) core value of Community. My wife was speaking with someone following our conversation on the topic of what Acts 2 models for the church by way of biblical community. We see people selling their possessions and giving to those who had a need. We see people welcoming others into the mess of their homes and being vulnerable with one another as they were learning together what it meant to follow Christ’s road to Calvary.

The response of the other mother my wife was speaking with was, “That seems awfully idealistic.” The truth is, it is idealistic. It is the goal for which we aim. Most communities of faith are content with merely showing up. But as Bruno Mars encouraged, we need to show up and show out. That is, the community of faith is not merely a body of people that gather, but they gather with a purpose. It is like halftime where they assess the team and seek to address weaknesses in their offense or defense and shoulder the load together. To accomplish an impossible goal. What is that goal other than displaying the beauty and majesty and wonder of the gracious God who loves the unloveable?

On full display in word and in deed, we see that the Christian community reflects how God enters into our messes and embraces us–in the midst of the stink. This idealism can only be reached by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit…in the very crucifixion of the flesh that seeks self-preservation. The life of faith is a flesh and bone reality that has scars and bruises…and fresh wounds to be bound up. Uncomfortable? Yes. Life giving? Yes.

A Church Planting Weak Link

I last posted on the weak link in church revitalization. I think it’s only
fair to discuss a weak link as I have seen them among churches and church planting. These are general impressions and shouldn’t be taken as a brand on any particular church (especially any that I have been a member at!). I find that there are several threads that are frayed and needing re-tooling or being done away with altogether.

Church planting has become a very popular buzz word among churches over the last 15 years or so. With the advent of groups like Acts 29 and a fresh initiative from denominations to plant churches, I have found that people (particularly pastors) like to talk, but don’t do a lot by way of actually taking strides in planting churches. Here are some brief thoughts on the problems as I see them.

1) Assuage guilt. Let’s be honest. We read the Bible and churches being planted is a natural consequence of Christians living faithful lives. We look at our lives and our churches and, quite frankly, we don’t see a lot of disciples. We see a lot of people gathering around common preferences. But little, by way of sharing the Good News and people being converted, is happening.

Little is done to remedy the issue in practice. A re-tooling of the way we’ve always done it is just too hard. But, we know it should be important to us. . .so. . .we talk about it. Ad nauseum. We talk about mission. We talk about vision. We talk about evangelism. We talk about loving the lost. We talk about taking risks. We talk and we talk and we talk. Jaws are flapping, but feet are planted. We have this perverse way of calming our conviction by collaborating, but never do.

2) Church planting is TOO cool. Put another way, planting a church is so important and so vital and so awesome that we don’t know where to start. Too many folk have focused on the man in church planting. Too much emphasis and pressure is put on the person planting the church, that if St. Patrick or William Carey themselves came, they probably would be turned away. [ASIDE: This is not hyperbole. I have heard of men being turned away for the very things that these men struggled with.]

Church planting is not too big or too important that we can’t take risks. So many churches put the pressure to do it just right because if it fails, then people will be disappointed and disenfranchised. You know what? Failure does happen. Relationships do fracture. People get hurt. I think this issue is more endemic to North American Christianity than it is worldwide. Brothers and sisters in Africa or South America are preaching the Gospel and churches are being planted. Do we have so many structures and protocol that we often miss the bus of what God is doing in our midst? I’m afraid so. I’m afraid that we want t’s crossed and i’s dotted to a fault.

I appreciate the gravity that folk place on doing it right. That’s not what I’m railing against. I am railing against the acute tendency to faithlessness because we want things to be perfect.

3) We have no clue of what it would look like for the Spirit of God to sweep us off our feet. This is related to 2 above. I am afraid that we so organize and plan that if God swept through our congregations, we would try to stop him. Church planting is messy. I think that’s part of God’s design. In our efforts to be “successful” and to “ensure growth,” we eschew the power of God to mess up our worlds. We compartmentalize and call it being a good steward. We sit down and call it counting the cost. Could it be that God would want to wreck your world? Could it be that the pretty plans tied in a bow is actually a keg of dynamite intended to be blown up?

A Revitalization Weak Link

church doors locked down burnedIf church revitalization is to happen, people must let go of their kingdoms. {Tweet That!}

I just got the latest publication from my alma mater with the subject of church revitalization. On page 24, there’s an ominous graph showing the status of Southern Baptist church decline from 2007-2012 (decline of 29.5%). On the facing page, there’s an even more telling quotation from Al Mohler that reads “Sadly, many churches will die by congregational suicide. Unwilling to be replanted, they simply want a slower decline. This is disobedience to Christ.”

Before I took a vocation in higher education, I wanted to church plant or revitalize. Regarding the latter, I remember one specific example (which is not an isolated incident from other friends who have tried to pastor churches that were dying). Let me briefly tell you the story.

I wanted to plant a church in a certain neighborhood in Charlotte last year. Due to various events, the plant did not happen (for another post perhaps, or at least a coffee conversation). Concurrently with the plant not happening, a friend told me about a congregation of about 50 folks (average age 65) that had an interim pastor and would need a full-time pastor in the near future. I called the two deacons of the church to have lunch with them. I shared with them my desire to pursue the position, my desire to serve the community, and my willingness to raise my own support because they didn’t have the money to pay my salary. They never called me back.

Part of the back story–and something I will be writing on in the future–is that the church suffered from 3-4 different fellows who tried to pastor there and essentially left the congregation reeling with debt and power struggles. This caveat aside, there is a disease in our churches where people are afraid of change because they are fundamentally afraid of losing control. That’s right. Churches, like so many institutions, are afraid of losing control. What is sad about this state of affairs is that people do not own the church, Jesus does. We are merely called to gather as fellows servants, not politicians who jockey for control and perpetuity to their “legacies.”

May I plea with my brothers and sisters who are in declining churches. It may be time for you to gift your building and resources to a new generation. It may be time for you to celebrate all that God did in your midst and to rejoice at the opportunity to bless the next generation who is charged with proclaiming the glorious gospel of Jesus once you are buried. Please don’t let you building and your resources that you invested for the sake of the Name be buried with you. Joy is not meant to be boxed up and buried with you. {Tweet That!} It is intended to live on in the lives of those that come after you.

Time after time, I have been warned about not pursuing a pastoral position because there are “powers that be” who don’t want to see change. Might I submit that it is not change people are afraid of, but control? Have we assumed that because I gave my money, I have some kind of ownership? Sure there is an investment, but never. Yes, I said never. There is never ownership. The Church is owned by One. Those who are members of that Church have the privilege to invest and to love and to gift.

Now, like with any blog post, there are a hundred caveats. This serves as merely a starting point in the dialogue. A starting point and a plea.

What did I miss? What caveat would you offer? What story can you share of your experience, or am I alone in this?

I love this song by the Gettys, which captures my pleading and desire: