For General Audiences

Lately, I have repeatedly heard the question, “Who is the target audience?” in regard to a series of books I have written.

I understand how marketing works; you have a better chance of sales when you isolate and focus your energy and resources on the subset of humans whose profile indicates the greatest potential for interest in your product.

Yet the question grates on me because I didn’t have a target audience in mind when I wrote this series. I don’t like the way that niche marketing has become all-consuming in our society. The concept divides and polarizes and dehumanizes us. It assumes that we are all defined by narrow interests and demographic profiles and can identify only with our own kind.

I have read stories that work on many levels at once and deeply touch people of vastly different backgrounds and ages. These are the best stories that exist. With our insistence on target-marketing, we are driving them out of existence.

Can the same be said of a sermon? Are sermons most efficient when they isolate and target a specific audience? Yeah, they probably are. But here’s the problem. Like stories, the best sermons are those that work on many levels at once and deeply touch people of vastly different backgrounds and ages.
So we have another need to reconcile the irreconcilable (see my previous column, “EMOTION!” Screamed the Calm Voice of Reason” ). I need to zoom in on individual targets to sharpen the focus of the proclamation. Yet at the same time, I need to widen the field of vision so I can include as many people as possible into the picture.

I don’t care what the church sociologists say, our congregations defy demographic analysis. What do you do with a demographic that includes:

  • a family who appears never to have been in a Lutheran church before. They call me “Father.” They come, desperately in search of healing for a loved one who is battling disease.
  • a retired pastor, seeking a new church home in which he must take a back seat after a lifetime of leadership.
  • an elderly man who admits he can hear only one fourth of what I say.
  • a young woman who comes to me with tears in her eyes to thank me for coming down out of the pulpit in a sermon.
  • a couple still pining for the golden age pastor whose ministry ended here more than 30 years ago.
  • a woman going through the motions of faith, hoping against hope that God will find her, yet so not expecting it.
  • a child who attempts to influence my sermon by channeling thoughts of Harry Potter into my mind as I speak.
  • a family that comes every Sunday to church, as their families did before them.
  • a teenage girl who’s embarrassed to be there.
  • a long-time friend who is visiting.
  • a person who clings to his religious traditions as the only constant in a frightening, changing world.
  • a person who wonders why she comes anymore because this isn’t what a church is supposed to be.

They are sitting there, looking at you, waiting to hear something. Who’s your target audience? Do you try to cut one out from the herd, lasso him, and brand him?

Can focusing on one person at a time help you tell a story that crosses the boundaries separating these people? Or is it distracting?

I can’t answer this question for anyone else. I can’t chart the waters between irreconcilables. All I know is I would love to hear the Gospel told in a way so accessible and compelling that it draws all people together for just a few moments.

That’s a tough sell. But that’s what the best stories do.