How to Please All of the People All of the Time
Marketing tips for churches.
You can’t. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, you know that of course. So why do we (especially as church leaders) spend quite so much energy trying to do it anyway? And what would happen if we stopped trying to appeal to the masses and just focused on the few?
Sorry about my blatant false promise of a headline, though I doubt you fell for it. Advertising is getting more honest. It has to because we’ve all heard the outrageous promises and 100% money-back guarantee one too many times. We can see through it at 50 paces.
Why is the church like the marketing industry?
As a copywriter, I work in the marketing and advertising industry. One of the first things you need to know about a product is who it’s aimed at. If your client claims upfront that “it’s for everybody”, you know you’re on a hiding to nothing. It’s the classic marketing error - trying to appeal to everybody, all of the time. By doing that, you actually appeal to nobody. Your messages become wishy-washy and vague. The essence of marketing (as far as I understand it anyway) is to identify your market... the type of people who will be interested in your product… and then figure out where they are and the best way to get their attention.
“I’m not talking to all of you.”
But what’s that got to do with you if you don’t work in marketing? Well, nothing unless you lead any activities at church. If you’re a pastor, I’d like to talk to you especially. You’re my market today.
It seems to me that pastors and church leaders come under a lot of pressure to market to everyone, to try to please all of the people all of the time. Now some of this pressure is internal – because you’re genuinely lovely people, and you want to include everyone. And some of the pressure is external because when you don’t please the people… doesn’t your inbox let you know it?
But what if you didn’t even try to appeal to everyone? What if you stood up on a Sunday morning… or started off your home group one night with these words:
“I’m not talking to all of you.”
“Today I only want you to listen if you’ve come here to meet with God. The rest of you can switch off. There’s no condemnation here, just don’t listen to me at all. I’m not here to convince you, cajole you or pester you. I’m not interested in that. But if you’re hungry for God then good. This meeting is for you. And you alone.”
Not a ploy to engage the disinterested
If you could pull that off with a kind, gracious and genuine spirit, how awesome would that be? It might even intrigue some of the people who are just turning up because they feel they ought to, not because they want to. But that is not my point, this is not a ploy to engage the disinterested.
What if we sought out the spiritually hungry, and spoke only to them?
What if they were your target market? Not the masses, the minority.
Because isn’t this how Jesus marketed his message? Himself? Salvation?
Didn’t He say, “Come to me all who are thirsty”? That’s His market – the thirsty ones, the hungry ones, the desperate ones.
The masses flocked to Him, it’s true, and He didn’t turn them away, mostly. But He did quite often retreat up a mountain, or up a hill or onto a boat… to see who would follow Him once they had to take a hard walk without snacks.
And didn’t He speak in parables and riddles that half (if not more) of His audience didn’t even understand? Why? Because He wanted to see who was hungry… who would puzzle it out. Who would come to Him and ask the question, “What on earth are you talking about?”
Jesus loves the masses. God wants every single last person to be saved and enjoy eternity with Him. But He knows more than anyone that you can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. Unless he’s thirsty.
The 100% money-back guarantee of conversion
I think sometimes we work from the misconception that if people saw miracles they would automatically turn to God. If we could release enough of the power of God on the earth, they would repent. Releasing God’s power and miracles is awesome and something to be pursued to demonstrate His love… yes, yes, yes.
But the sad truth is that people met Jesus Himself, saw Him do miracles and healings and still didn’t choose to follow Him. Mindblowing isn’t it? To see God Himself in action and to still choose not to follow Him. Judas managed it quite spectacularly, despite living with pure love for 3 years.
We can’t control people. We can’t please all of the people all of the time. Jesus didn’t. In fact, doesn’t it seem He sometimes went out of His way to put people off? Making it harder for them to follow Him, with hard sayings. Asking the rich young ruler to give up his wealth. Asking others to leave their father’s burial to someone else and to come follow Him.
Are we guilty of false advertising?
Do we sometimes try and advertise the path to life as being wide and easy, in order to appeal to as many people as possible?
"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV).
Jesus told His would-be followers that they’d have to take up their cross, die to self and risk persecution in their lifetime.
In trying to make the gospel more ‘appealing’, have we made it less so?
In only talking about the upside (forgiveness, life with God, eternity in heaven), have we made it seem implausible? Too woolly? I don’t know, I’m just intrigued by how Jesus went about talking to people… and how we do it. He never sugarcoated the gospel. It’s the greatest offer of all time – real life with God, and yet Jesus pitched it this way:
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16.24 NIV)
OK, here He was talking specifically to the disciples, but did He give another message to the masses? I don’t think so.
What would happen if you made it harder for people to join in, not easier?
So what am I saying? I’m saying, what would happen if you made it harder for people to join in, instead of easier? What would happen if you said, “This isn’t for you, unless you’re prepared to go all-in.”
What would happen if you stopped people-pleasing and held meetings designed purely to please the Holy Spirit? You’d probably lose most of your congregation. Bill Johnson did when he took over the church in Bethel, Redding. But the people you got left with? Wow. What about them? Wouldn’t they be worth it?
Finding Gideon’s Army
You see, God likes to stack the odds against Himself. He goes into battle with the smallest army from the smallest nation. With the puniest heroes (David and Goliath, anyone?). He picks the prostitute and the tax collector and totally offends the important dude whose home He’s eating dinner in.
Remember Gideon’s army? God kept making it smaller and smaller by letting the people who didn’t really want to fight go home. He didn’t force them into battle with the Midianites. The Midianites who, by the way, were more numerous than the sand on the seashore. You’d have thought he’d be press-ganging everyone into active service rather than trying to whittle the numbers down.
"But the LORD said to Gideon, 'There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, "This one shall go with you," he shall go; but if I say, "This one shall not go with you," he shall not go.' So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the LORD told him, 'Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.' Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink. The LORD said to Gideon, 'With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.'" (Judges 7:4-7 NIV).
Intrigue them into the kingdom
I remember a story that Gerald Coates (founder of Pioneer, UK) once told about one of his neighbors. It went something like this. One day his neighbor came and knocked on his door and said something along the lines of, “I’ve been watching you and your family and there’s something special about you. Something different. What is it?”
Wow, what an opening. What an opportunity to beam and say, “It’s Jesus.”
Well that’s not what Gerald did. Instead he said, “Wouldn’t you like to know?” and shut the door in his neighbor’s face.
I don’t know, maybe this story will offend you. But there’s something so outrageously bold and brilliant here, it sticks in my mind. Gerald took the unexpected route. He probably drove his neighbor nuts with intrigue, I’m hoping anyway, until the neighbor couldn’t stand it any more and begged to be told more. Is this the way to stir up spiritual hunger? Maybe.
Force-feeding the fat or going where the hungry are?
The kingdom of heaven is for the hungry and desperate, so why are we trying to force-feed it to those who aren’t interested? We either need to arouse their interest by playing way more hard to get… or go where the market is. There are hungry people out there… addicts, bankrupts, prostitutes. There are spiritually open markets – children, new agers. The church I go to has been planted intentionally in the middle of one of the most troubled housing estates in the area. Jesus’s light shines brighter in the dark places.
Liberated to minister to the few – Holy Spirit ambush squad
I was asked to go help out at a Pentecost meeting recently, not at the church I go to, but another one I have a lot of good history with. It was such a liberating experience. I sat at the back with my fellow Holy Spirit ambush squad and as the meeting went along, we just got up as prompted by the Holy Spirit and prayed for people. I just looked for those who I sensed were the hungriest to meet with God and ministered to them where they were. They drank heavily. We didn’t feel the need to try and bring everyone along, we just went where we were wanted. Of course the invitation was always there for anyone and everyone to join in and drink. But I didn’t worry that rows of people sat solidly in their seats and didn’t really enter in. I felt sad that they missed out, but you know what, that wasn’t my responsibility. We handed out the party invitations and then waited to see who turned up. We walked up the mountain onto high ground and those who were hungry followed us. We devoted our attention to the few, though we welcomed all to join in if they were willing. So often we do the opposite, try to get everyone on board, water down the message and leave the thirsty dissatisfied.
Sometimes as pastors we spend all our energy trying to cajole the complacent majority into action. What if we targeted a minority instead? What if we highlighted the hardships instead of the easy ride? Would we find ourselves a small, highly-motivated army of heroes? I suspect we might.