Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Invitations to the Feast: Who?

A prison got a distinguished guest speaker to address their prisoners. He looked out over the men in orange jumpsuits and began, “My fellow citizens...” And then he stopped as he heard some snorts and whispered comments. And he realized what he had said. As convicted men, the inmates had lost their rights as citizens. So he began again, “My fellow convicts...” The laughter was louder this time. He realized that he was going to have to drop his pretended camaraderie with the inmates and skip to one of his other standard opening remarks. So after the laughter died down, he tried a third time. He said, “Well, I'm glad to see so many of you here today...” 

In the past weeks we've talked about why we should tell people about Jesus, how we can communicate the gospel and what the essentials of our message are. Tonight we are going to talk about the important task of knowing your audience so you can effectively target our message to them.

When I worked at a radio station in the Ozarks we didn't have to worry about who are audience was. It was everyone in town who didn't listen exclusively to the Christian station, the only other radio station in this town of 5000. We were the sole source of local daily news and our most popular feature was the Civic Record, a recitation of who was admitted to the local hospital, who was discharged, who was born and who had died and where were they laid out. Among ourselves, we Djs called this boring feature the Civic Dead. Once when the station was off the air due to transmitter problems, I fielded phone calls from people who wanted to know if, despite being unable to broadcast, we were still going to read the Civic Record. I had to quash the temptation to tell them we would indeed for all our psychic listeners.

When I worked for a hard rock station, we knew who are our audience was: primarily young men from their teens to their twenties. Which is why I questioned the account executive who wanted me to write an ad for a poodle grooming service. The salesmen, not one of our best, ignored the fact that our listeners were outside his customer's target audience and the ad would not generate much if any business. He was practically taking their money under false pretenses.

Even if you are using the right medium, not everyone exposed to your message will respond. Let's say you are a Chevy dealership. The best ad in the world will not move people who usually buy a Mercedes Benz. Or a Lexis. Even Chevy buyers who have already have a model that's only a year or 2 old are not likely to be tempted by your ad to get another. Your best target are people who would consider a Chevy and who are already looking for a new car or whose present car is old and giving them troubles and might be ready to think about trading it in. No message will be effective for all people.

This doesn't mean you needn't tailor your message for your target audience. Jesus did. His audience were Jews in a largely agricultural country so he used a lot of imagery that involved seeds and plants and trees and vineyards. He also used metaphors about shepherds and sheep, another rural occupation. A carpenter, he spoke of building houses and towers. Growing up the poor son of a widow, he spoke a woman frantically searching her home for a lost coin and a widow who harasses an unjust judge till he gives her a fair verdict. Living in a land of great wealth disparity, he spoke of the rich and their slaves. Jesus spoke of things that were familiar to his audience. Knowing their attitudes towards these things, he would sometimes play to their expectations and sometimes confound them to make his point.

So who are the likely members our audience? For the gospel, potentially everyone who is not already a Christian, though practically it would be mostly seekers and people who have not already made up their mind on God or Jesus. Given that most children today are rarely taken to church outside of baptisms, weddings and funerals, people with children are an important audience. In fact, a lot of people who drift from the church will return when they become parents, realizing their children should get some religious education. Which brings us to another key audience: lapsed Christians. And out of that group, our expressions of the faith might appeal to certain folks who are familiar with the way we worship, such as lapsed Lutherans, lapsed Episcopalians and former Roman Catholics.

We have to frame the gospel slightly differently for each of these audiences. For agnostics, we will want to go with the basics of theism. For seekers and those not raised in a church we also want to be adept at talking about the essentials of Christianity. We will want to have some answers for Frequently Asked Questions and for common objections. It can be trickier with lapsed churchgoers. They may have just drifted away. They may, however, have had bad experiences in a previous church or be given bad theology. I had a friend who desperately wanted a child. When she delivered a stillborn baby, her pastor told her it was God's will. Not surprisingly she did not return to that church. You don't tell people that their tragedies or losses are God's will. You certainly don't tell them they are punishment for their sins. You tell them about God's love and healing. You point out how God knows pain and loss through Jesus. You tell they can stop punishing themselves because Jesus took care of that for us. You let them find the meaning of their painful experiences for themselves, even if it takes years.

While the essentials of the faith don't change, what you emphasize in communicating the gospel will vary with each person. So a great deal of evangelism should be listening to the person to find out their specific needs and desires.

They may be simply looking for God, a creator, someone bigger than them to whom they can give their allegiance. That's a simple order to fill, but it's rarely that straightforward for most people.

They may be looking for a faith, by which I mean a way of understanding life and the world. There are many competing models out there but if the person has perceived the emptiness of the paradigms the world offers, they may rightly think that a better place to look is Christianity. They may also be looking for a source of strength, a resource to help them deal with life and their struggles.

They may be looking for a community, a group of people who provide love and support.

They may be looking for a purpose in life, an inspiration to motivate themselves.

They may be looking for a moral code, an organizing principle or way of behaving as they navigate through this tricky and corrupt world.

They may be looking for peace and/or forgiveness and healing.

Or they may simply be looking for a blessing for a rite of passage, that is, a baptism, wedding or funeral. This is definitely an opportunity to tell them the good news but it's my experience that few of these people stay in the church after the ceremony.

Jesus offers all of these things: a big God, an approach to life that gives both guidance and strength, a group of followers distinguished by their love for one another, an energizing purpose to life, a code that prioritizes ethics by love for God and others, spiritual well-being, forgiveness and restoration, and a way of fitting the big events of our lives into the larger narrative of God's redeeming love for his people.

As for our specific churches, what do we offer people? All of the above plus some features of our own. For one thing, we are small churches. Unlike bigger ones, nobody gets lost in the crowd here. You can know pretty much everyone in the congregation. The parish acts like a caring extended family. You have every opportunity to use your gifts and participate in the life of the church and make an impact.

Secondly, we are liturgical churches. There is beauty and harmony in the way we worship God. We are united in our words and actions. We are literally all on the same page. And we offer complete worship—prayer, praise, preaching and partaking in the body and blood of Christ. It is a spiritual feast for those who hunger and thirst for God.

So we have the tools to identify our target audiences and we have lots to offer them. When and where can we encounter them in order to invite them to the great feast? We will look at that in 2 weeks. 

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