A few years ago, there was a small church in the Pacific Northwest that had for years neglected any outreach to the community. With the coming of a new pastor, the church leaders decided it was time to begin taking the gospel to the students of a nearby college. Several ideas on how to reach the college students were debated, but they eventually determined that the best approach was to open a coffee house near the campus. Since other churches were seeing good success using a similar ministry, they felt assured they would also. The church leaders raised the necessary money, renovated a building, contracted with a local band to provide music, recruited the volunteer help, developed advertising, and set a date to open the coffee house. Advertising brochures were placed at several locations on campus, as well as at local business establishments where students were likely to go. Flyers were distributed in the student union and to students walking on campus. On opening night, all was in place for the expected crowd. Coffee was prepared, the band was ready to play, and counselors were in attendance. Unhappily, when the time came for the doors to be opened, only one person showed up. Since he felt quite awkward being the only person in attendance, he sipped his cup of coffee, listened a short while to the music, and left soon after.
The church leaders decided to double their efforts at advertising and try again. It did no good. After two more weeks of an extremely low turnout, the coffee house closed its doors forever. Soon after, the leaders gathered to debate what had gone wrong. They had prayed for God’s blessing, volunteered their time, advertised well, and even invested their own money. What had gone wrong? Why had God not blessed their efforts? It was only after several months that the answer was discovered. Coffee house ministries had indeed proved fruitful in reaching college students, but only near those campuses that had a resident student body. What the church leaders failed to understand was their college had a commuter student population. The students on the particular campus near their church were not even around on Friday evenings, and those that were attended classes during the same time as the coffee house hours of operation.
In spite of all their hard work, the church described above had not taken time to study and understand their target audience. Churches make well-intentioned mistakes that keep them from experiencing biblical church growth, and one of the major mistakes is to not do adequate research to understand the people they are seeking to reach with the gospel. Despite our timeliness and good intentions, if the method of evangelism we use does not fit the particular harvest, we will be ineffective.
While reaching the whole world with the gospel is the mission of the Christian faith, lifegiving churches recognize that the world is made up of many different audiences. Since different groups of people have quite different cultures, needs, and methods of communication, a church that intentionally tries to reach a specific group with the message of Christ, will normally be much more effective than one that tries to reach everyone with a general attempt. Every church should have a sign that says, "Everyone Welcome," but a deliberate strategy must be in place or they will only see accidental growth.
At first glance, it may seem that aiming at select groups of people is not biblical. Upon on further reflection, however, it becomes obvious that it is the only strategic way to actually reach the world for Christ.
Think for a moment how God began to redeem the world. From the beginning, God has been concerned for the entire world, not just certain people. God’s desire is to redeem every tribe, nation, people, and family upon the face of the earth. Yet, how did he go about reaching the world? His plan started with a clearly defined target audience in the person and family of Abram, and worked outward to the whole world from there. Abram became a family, then a tribe, and eventually a nation among all the nations of the world. Of Israel, God said, "I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Is 49:6).
The coming of Jesus through the Nation of Israel was the key to bringing blessing to all the nations of the world. Indisputably, God "so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life" (Jn 3:16). Jesus loved the entire world, not just certain select segments of it. He eventually would die for "our sin; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn 2:2).
To reach the whole world, Jesus began with a defined target audience. His niche was among the Israelites, specifically Galileans. To no surprise His tactical plan started with a clearly defined target audience —Galileans. Interestingly, Jesus selected twelve men who displayed both a heterogeneous and a homogeneous mix. Matthew was an establishment type, Simon the Zealot had a revolutionary background, John may have come from aristocratic stock, and Peter, James, and John were all blue-collar workers. Yet, they were all Galileans. No Gentile, Samaritan, Idumean, or even a Hellenistic Jew was part of the twelve. Jesus gathered an inner circle of men who were a clearly definable target—Galileans. They all spoke Aramaic (Mt 27; 26:73). The only exception in the twelve was Judas Iscariot, and he eventually betrayed the Lord. Later, the chosen replacement for Judas was a Galilean named Matthias (Ac 1:23-26). In a similar manner to that of Abraham and his family, Jesus used a clear target audience to begin winning the world.
Paul’s blueprint for ministry also involved targeting a specific group of people, to reach the whole world. His heart desire was always to see the Jews come to faith in Christ (see Ro 10:1). To him, the gospel was for everyone in the world, but it needed to go to the Jew’s first, as he declared, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Ro 1:16). Paul’s unique calling, however, was to the Greeks. Christ told Ananias that Paul was to be "a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel" (Ac 9:15).
Paul weaved his love for the Jew’s and His calling to the Gentiles into an original strategy. His usual custom was to go first to a synagogue to preach, and then move from there to the Gentile God-fearers (Ac 9:20; 13:5; 14:1; see especially 17:1-3). To reach the Gentiles, Paul targeted the Jewish synagogue community where he knew there would be God-fearing Gentiles and Gentile proselytes to Judaism. The Jews rejected Paul (except for a few people) in most situations, but he would win considerable numbers of the Gentiles and form them into a new church. Paul effectively used a plan that targeted Gentiles involved to some degree in the synagogue communities to which he spoke.
Having an understanding of one’s target audience is a way of deciding what are the most effective methods to win people to Christ, while remaining open to supernatural encounter that prayer. The proverb is correct that states “the mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps” (Pr 16:9). A strategic plan is important, but authentic church growth is always supernaturally empowered.
A church should not, of course, be tied so rigidly to a plan or target group that it is insensitive to the leading of the life-giving Spirit in other directions. While it is biblical to have a clear target audience, it is evident that the Holy Spirit also directs in super-natural ways.
Who is your church’s primary target audience(s)? In what ways is your church reaching members of your target audience for Christ? How might your church be more fruitful in communicating the gospel to your audience(s).