Over the years, I’ve had a lot of jobs besides ministry, to help pay the bills. When I was young, I sold meat from a freezer off the back of a pickup truck, door to door. It was a tough sell, and often quite sketchy. The guy who trained me showed me how to know your target audience and sell your meat in different ways, depending on who your customer is. He told me, “If it’s a married man, you sell the steaks, you sell the sizzle.” I tried it, and I was surprised that it worked. He told me, “If it’s a married woman, you sell the marinade chicken, you sell the convenience.” I tried it, and was impressed that it worked. He told me, “If it’s a single man, you sell the seafood, you sell the romance of a preparing dinner for his date.” I tried it, and was astonished that it worked. “What if it’s a single woman?” I asked him. He told me, “Flirt.” I decided that wouldn’t work, because I didn’t have much to sell, and this meat was off the market.
When you’re selling something, it’s important to know your customer base. You don’t change the product, but you change the way you market it, to appeal to different potential buyers. Over the past weeks, we’ve talked about catching a dream for new ministry, finding friends and partners to help make it happen, and making capital investments in entrepreneurial ministries to make them successful. We’ve looked at how Kickstarter[i] connects inventors with investors and funds new business ventures. The church needs to be in the same business of promoting people with ideas for innovative ministry, matching them up with those who can partner with them in terms of help and funding, and assisting them to launch their new endeavors. But no matter how good the product of the Gospel is, or how helpful your ministry, you’ve got to know your target audience in order to get buy-in from both partners and investors on the one hand, and your ministry recipients on the other.
For example, the inventors of the Fidget Cube[ii] used Kickstarter to get them in touch with their customer base. They didn’t market their product as a toy, but as a solution to a problem for people who constantly fidget. They knew their target audience, and tailored their sales pitch directly to them. In the same way, BauBax chose not to advertise their travel jacket[iii] as the height of fashion. Instead, they knew their audience valued comfort and practicality over fashion, so they had no issue with creating four kinds of jackets full of pockets—even a blazer with a hood. As weird as that is, customers are buying them up. Knowing your target audience makes all the difference in a successful venture.
The same is true in ministry. When Jesus sent His disciples out on mission, He knew that the Gospel isn’t one-size-fits-all. He sent them to a variety of audiences, each of which would take a different approach. In Matthew 28:19[iv], Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Following up on that Great Commission in Acts 1:8, Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” All nations. All people groups. All kinds of folks, from all races, all orientations, all languages, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all levels of education. Every little subculture you can imagine—bikers, Rastafarians, school teachers, white supremacists, people in the fitness culture, soccer moms, heavily-tattooed and pierced people, pagans, gamers, liberals and conservatives—take the blessing of God to them. Remember—the Gospel never changes, but the way we present it certainly changes, depending our audience. When Jesus ministered to different people, He knew that some people needed physical healing, while others needed a word of grace, and still others needed to be told to quit being so religious. Some needed to be challenged to live differently, while others needed no challenge, but simply needed to be lifted from despair. Jesus understood that knowing your target audience makes all the difference in a successful venture.
The problem is that the church often takes a cookie-cutter approach to ministry. “Who’s your target audience?” we might ask, and the church answers, “People.” And when you ask them what they want these people to do, their answer is, “Come to church.” But Jesus’ commission to go to the ends of the earth means more than putting “Y’all come!” on the church kiosk. It means finding the specific problems that are in your neighborhood or society, and offering a solution. Fidget too much? Here’s a solution. Traveling uncomfortably? Here’s a solution. Need a little more meat in your diet? Here’s the solution. What if the church understood our target audience and offered solutions and approaches to real needs that are around us? Illiteracy? The church offers an after-school program. Poverty? Why doesn’t your church offer a clothes closet or food pantry? Racial tension? Let your church be the one to bridge the divide and promote reconciliation and real relationships. To follow Jesus’ commission, you’ve got to know your target audience and offer a solution to meet those needs.
Now, I’ve heard it said, “They won’t listen to the Gospel if their bellies are empty, so you’ve got to feed them to get them to listen.” While this may be true, this smacks at a disingenuous kind of marketing strategy, where Christians do good things so that people will listen to them, so that Christians can convert them. Instead, let’s think of it this way: It’s not until you begin living out your faith that anybody’s going to be interested in hearing what you believe. So instead of clothing the naked for the sake of drawing in a target audience, offer them clothing because it’s the right thing to do. Go ahead and shelter the homeless or offer English-as a-Second-Language classes or A.A. meetings. That’s what the church should be doing. But not so that you’ll look like you care, so that they’ll come to you, so you can evangelize them. Instead, start with actually caring about your community, learning the needs of your target audience, meeting those needs, and then maybe, just maybe, you’ll have an opportunity to tell them about Jesus. Because only then will you really be living like Him. Rather than having a conversation with your Buddhist, Muslim, atheist, Jewish, or Hindu neighbor so that you can give your personal testimony and win them to Christ, how about having an open conversation with them because by doing so, you’re acting like Jesus? And then, when there’s a true relationship, you can have faith-based dialogue based on mutual respect. That’s knowing your target audience—because kickstarting ministries doesn’t mean you’re selling something. It means you’re giving something away—the love of God and hopefully the love of Christ-followers who act like the One whose product they represent.