Should Churches Target a Defined Demographic as a Strategy for Church Growth?
Casting a wide net vs. narrowing your focus
Growing a healthy church requires character in leadership and commitment to a vision. It also requires a concrete strategy. Without a well-thought-out and executed plan, churches will stagnate. But when you put action to your vision, you immediately increase your chances for success.
What’s the best fit for your congregation? With so many churches of different shapes and sizes, there are a multitude of strategies from which to choose. One way to implement church growth is to shape your church’s ministry to reach a specific audience.
In this issue’s Perspectives, we look at whether a church should target a defined demographic, such as a specific age group, and leverage it as a church growth strategy at the risk of alienating or ostracizing others. That may mean going all in on one particular characteristic of your surrounding area. Or it may mean shaping service times, locations and elements to reach a specific subgroup.
This column presents two perspectives on that issue. Leaders have debated the church growth movement pretty consistently since its inception about 50 years ago. What follows is not a definitive answer to the question at hand, but it does provide some guidance. If you’ve ever thought about targeting a specific demographic for outreach, we hope this discussion will help you decide what’s right for your church.
As a church growth strategy, and specifically as it relates to church planting, targeting a defined demographic is a valid tool. In fact, if you use it correctly, it can be the best thing you ever do. You will be able to create a base of volunteers and leaders and scale your approach for future growth.
Think about who you naturally attract to Christ. That may be a group who looks a lot like you — one who thinks and acts the way you do, with similar taste and style. But it may be another group altogether. Regardless, it is a wise use of the personality and giftings God has given you. When you target your efforts in one direction, you’re leaning in to how God created you individually for His work.
A church that targets a specific demographic is not ignoring the needs of others; it is simply focusing on specific needs directly. Every church has a limited budget and finite resources. You make decisions all the time on what to do and what not to do. You must base those decisions on some sort of criteria. Why not be strategic with those resources and use them for growth?
Your target demographic does not have to relate to income, race and gender, family makeup or educational background. If you live near a capital city, for instance, your target may be politicians and government workers. If your church is near a military base, you might focus on service members and their specific needs. If you have a rural church, you could find ways to attract farmers and ranchers.
Leaders have debated the church growth movement pretty consistently since its inception about 50 years ago.
The one common denominator of any target demographic, though, should be a heart that is open to God. Who nearby is the most receptive to evangelism? Begin with them. As you grow your base of volunteers and disciple makers, you’ll be ready to expand your target audience.
As you read the Book of Acts, this was exactly Paul’s approach, especially in his earliest missionary journeys. Entering a new city, Paul would first go to the synagogue and speak to fellow Jews, hoping to win some to Christ. Then, Paul would expand his target audience to Gentiles and pagans. This proved incredibly successful for him, and it still works today.
God has placed you in a specific geographical area. Leverage that positioning, and lean in to your strengths to grow where you are planted. He has a reason for putting you there, and spiritual wisdom can guide you to strengthen and grow the church in your area.
Targeting a specific demographic as a strategy for church growth is problematic. It can create needless obstacles for any church wanting to have an open door. If you say you are interested in ministering to any and all people, shaping your ministry to fit just one group is contradictory.
People who are not the aim of your reach efforts will feel left out or overlooked. For instance, if you decide that your congregation will be a “family church,” focusing on children’s ministry, marriage sermon series, and small groups for couples, then singles will feel unwanted. Creating a youthful vibe that only interests millennials will make older people feel unneeded or unwanted. In targeting one group, you’ve eliminated any space for other groups.
This is one of the worst unintended consequences of the church growth movement. Many have written solid critiques of the movement and have much to say about other consequences. The most grievous is the contextualization of the gospel. And focusing on one demographic to the exclusion of others can lead down that same slippery slope.
When you direct your ministries toward one group, you run the risk of forcing every message into a one-size-fits-all box. You base every decision on that one demographic you’re trying to reach. You adapt your sermon applications to fit a perceived felt need, rather than letting the Word of God speak for itself and leaving space for application to every life situation.
There is a difference between reflecting your immediate community and targeting a specific demographic. Ultimately, your congregation will likely start to resemble the makeup of the surrounding neighborhoods. If they are homogenous, then your church will probably be the same.
When you are living in a diverse area, though, it takes multiple approaches to attract people from different backgrounds. A well-balanced approach in your advertising, worship style and presentation, with an intentional effort to attract all people in your community, will lead to a healthier church that reflects God’s plan for the salvation of all people in all nations. Why wouldn’t you want to cast your net as far as you can?
God is the One who ultimately brings people into His family. The Spirit and the bride invite “whoever desires” to come to Christ (Revelation 22:17, NKJV). When you focus on worshipping Jesus and sharing His message, He will call all types of people to your church, regardless of your targeted marketing efforts.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 edition of Influence magazine.