Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Selling Jesus to Saddleback Sam

This is the 2nd edition in a series of entries where I'm thinking out loud about Marketing the Kingdom of God. If you wanna catch up, here's the first one.

Another way in which contemporary churches incorporate marketing strategy is by focusing & declaring their target audience. Good businesses do this: if they're good at what they do, the business will focus their target demographic & aggressively seek to engage that target demographic with their brand.

In the last half century, this way of thinking has been applied to the Kingdom of God. It has been especially prevalent in the strategical thinking among those associated with The Church Growth Movement. The book that brought perhaps the greatest prominence to this idea of bridging "strategic demographic targeting" with "church" was Rick Warren's great book The Purpose Driven Church. In that book, Pastor Rick talks about their target demographic whom they gave a name: "Saddleback Sam." Here's what Pastor Rick writes in his book about Saddleback Sam (p. 169)...
Saddleback Sam
Click Image to Enlarge
Most of our members would have no problem describing Sam. We discuss him in detail in every membership class.

Saddleback Sam is the typical unchurched man who lives in our area. His age is late thirties or early forties. He has a college degree and may have an advanced degree. (The Saddleback Valley has one of the highest household education levels in America.) He is married to Saddleback Samantha, and they have two kids, Steve and Sally.

Surveys show that Sam likes his job, he likes where he lives, and he thinks he's enjoying life now more than he was five years ago. He's self-satisfied, even smug, about his station in life. He's either a professional, a manager, or a successful entrepeneur. Sam is among the most affluent Americans, but he carries a lot of debt, especially due to the price of his home.

Pastor Rick goes on for several pages describing Saddleback Sam. It's an impressively well-researched profile of the typical resident of Saddleback Valley, CA, as well as the prototypical prospective member for their Saddleback Valley Community Church.

This idea of a church focusing & pursuing a target demographic was not new to Pastor Rick's church, however. This idea rises out of an ideology first formulated by Donald McGavran, the father of the Church Growth movement. McGavran was a missionary in India, and figured out that people of different caste levels would not worship with one another. So he planted separate churches for each caste level with the idea that he would convert them and, once they reached a certain level of maturity, he would be able to mix them together later. However, there was a big problem with this strategy: it didn't work. The idea of separatism already had been woven into their mission strategy & crystallized in form in their churches. They never could get the castes together as one body.

This idea has a name: the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP) of church growth. McGavran's observations of people movements led him to postulate that "people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers." (quote from Peter Wagner) McGavran understood that birds of a feather flock together. He learned that people naturally associate with persons of like values & rarely venture outside of these units.

Pastor Rick even offers scriptural support for the HUP strategy. He highlights the fact that in the limited commission -- when Jesus sent out the 12 -- they were to go to Jews only. Was Jesus racist? No. He was simply focusing his target audience... or so says Pastor Rick.

So what say you? Does the Homogeneous Unit Principle of church growth sound like a viable strategy for your church? Is it theologically sound? I'd like to hear your take before I taint it with my own opinionated perspective.


Jordan said...

My initial reaction to the theory is that it is wrong.

From a theological standpoint, I think that we have to 'target' every person that we meet. Becoming all things to all people... All fall short and need God... Make disciples of all nations...

From an experience standpoint, I think that opportunities can come from unlikely places. It is a little presumptuous to say that person X is a great candidate while person Y is probably not just based on generic criteria like that. I know that at our church interested parties are often not of the cookie cutter variety. We have to be flexible and have a positive and confident reaction to all.

I think of the Samaritan woman who would have been overlooked or driven away by many of the apostles because of her ethnicity. John 4:39 says that "Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony".

Having said that, I think that developing strategies for evangelizing different groups is a good thing. A different presentation or strategy is needed sometimes and being prepared is never a bad thing.

mattdabbs said...

Wow, sending out the 12 as an example of the HUP? That is bad exegesis at best. There are many theological reasons that fit the context of that story that have nothing to do with the most effective means of evangelism means you don't cross racial lines.

The last two churches I have been a part of have been racially diverse and it is a real blessing. I have found that when people start viewing other people as important because those people are important to God and made in his image, they will invite people from all races and background. There are examples where homogeneity has worked extremely well it should not be our model and should never be a principle of our evangelism. Can you imagine passing over someone because you think the church wouldn't grow fast enough if this or that race started coming?

Dan said...

When I first saw “Saddleback Sam,” I thought it was pretty crazy, but after further reflection, I think it may have a place, and can be very practical, as long as it doesn’t become an end itself.

I believe churches ought to be reaching out to the people that are around you, no matter who they me be. There are a lot of churches, like Impact in Houston, that are in inner-city areas that “target” poor or homeless people, and they have been very successful in their mission. I doubt any of us would criticize them for reaching out to the area around them. But at the same time that these churches target their efforts to those that are in their area, I’m sure they would welcome people from other walks of life as well.

On a similar, smaller level, my church has different small groups set up for different types of people in the church. We have groups for young families with children, older members, empty-nesters, teens, etc. They are like this to be relevant to the different types of people in the church, but again, the groups are not going to kick someone out because they don’t fit the target. The groups are the way they are not to be exclusivistic, but to be relevant.

As long as churches like Saddleback are not confining themselves to people that are exclusively in the Saddleback Sam model, I don’t see them as doing anything different than inner-city churches. They seem to be just trying be relevant to and to reach the culture around them.

I had some scripture that influenced my thoughts, but I’m leaving it out just to be a little more concise. But, to sum it up, I think that if Saddleback is in an area where there are a lot of Saddleback Sams, I say learn to reach them, with the caveat of not excluding others. No matter what your opinion is on big churches, you can't argue with the success that Rick Warren and Saddleback have had in reaching out.

Mark said...

I think it is a helpful principle to make outreach efforts at specific target groups.

I do not support the idea that each congregation is really only trying to reach one kind of people. (Though most of our congregations are full of people who are a lot alike)

I've been advocating some outreach efforts in my own congregation where we would go for different targets. Usually when we say "outreach", we just mean "giving stuff to poor people." In evangelistic terms, I wanted to see us think about some efforts to get in touch with all different kinds of people; poor, rich, white, black, young, old, single, married, etc.

So I think using the targeting approach can also be a means to diversifying our approach. In our effort to reach everyone all the time, I'm afraid it keeps us from being able to make good short-term manageable goals for certain outreach efforts.

I don't think I disagree with anything else that has been said here; I'm just trying to put a different twist on this. I think there's a lot of wisdom in being thoughtful about who we may be reaching.

We don't think poorly of an inner city ministry for reaching inner-city-type people, why would we think poorly of a congregation in a rich suburb for catering its approaches to wealthy, suburby-type people?

I just think our churches should try to represent the ethnic and economic blend of our own community.

Lloyd said...

I can give my 'amen' to the comments above; there is nothing wrong with knowing the concerns and personality of the people who live in your area. My idealistic, younger self would have condemned this model immediately, but I think Warren might take issue with that unless I had an equally effective strategy that I was working myself. In other words, better to be a racist, castist, middle-upper-classist who is actually reaching someone than an ideological purist who is conversing only with his books.