I’m in the midst of a fantastic conversation with a pastor of the Reformed persuasion and the topic of targeting worship for particular demographics, micro-cultures, etc. came up. He suggested that some consider targeting to be less than okay and that he “resists” the target terminology.

That’s not an uncommon notion in the church today. When I suggest that a worship service become more focused in its approach to reach a particular segment of the community, or when an additional worship is warranted and I recommend a missionally focused service, there’s regularly some pushback. There are a number of ways church leaders have expressed why they think targeting is wrong, but ultimately it comes down to the fear that targeting is exclusionary.

I get that. I really do. In fact, I get that all the time. But the fact is, I’ve yet to attend a worship service that wasn’t targeted. Oh sure, some are more broadly targeted than others, but every worship service I’ve ever attended has, in fact, been exclusionary.

I've yet to attend a worship service that wasn't targeted … and every worship service is, in fact, exclusionary. @billtb Share on X

Take for example a “traditional” worship service. By traditional I mean that hymns are sung from hymn books; traditional instruments (or no instruments) are used; there may be responsive readings; traditional language is used such as doxology, invocation, and benediction; and prayers are often written rather than extemporaneous. Of course there are alternative practices that could be listed, but you probably get the idea. These traditions, as wonderful as they may be, presume a participant that is both familiar and comfortable with the traditions – in other words, a “churched” audience that has significant history of being churched. When a thirty-something family with no church memory shows up in a church like that, it’s nearly identical to dropping into your local Greek Orthodox church or a Mosque and then trying to figure out what’s going on, what’s being said, and then wondering how to worship in that setting. Everything would be foreign to us and the chance of experiencing the wonder of worship in that kind of setting would be slim.

“But at least our traditional service is presented in the mainstream culture and language … the average person could understand it, at least.” That’s not necessarily so.

  • Traditional services often use words, traditions, and rituals that make no sense at all to the typical unchurched person who almost certainly hasn’t memorized the Lord’s Prayer and doesn’t even know enough to ask “Sins, debts, or trespasses?”
  • Today’s “mainstream culture” is media and image driven. That’s how people learn today, but the traditional worship is print and auditory driven.
  • Today’s music (actually for at least the last 50 years) is rhythm driven. Traditional hymns are lyric driven. The differences can go on and on.

The point isn’t that traditional worship is outdated and ought to be ended. By no means. There is an important place for traditional worship and when a congregation is filled with those who appreciate and love traditional worship (not always just seniors), a lot of energy should go into producing an excellent traditional service. But let’s not fool ourselves: Traditional Worship Is Targeted.

What about a “blended” service? There are the exceptions (and almost every pastor who’s wedded to traditional churches thinks their congregation is one of them), but in the vast majority of cases, a blended service tries to please everyone and ends up pleasing no one. Regardless of the micro-culture that attends a blended worship service, virtually everyone is going to have to compromise their own proclivities to experience worship. Those who live and die by the organ are going to despise the guitar and keyboard. Those who value the freedom of expressive worship will resent the explicit order of service. Etc. Blended services try to target everyone but ultimately discovers there is no “everyone.”

Let’s be honest here. The Bible is exclusionary in its inclusivity! Even Jesus said that he’d come for the “Lost Sheep of Israel,” i.e., the Israelites. But he made sure that there were provisions made to reach each one who showed up in his crowds.

No single congregation can reach everyone, and they weren’t called to. The “Church” (capital C) is called to reach everyone, but we have to realistically share the load with one another. Targeted worship simply recognizes the reality that not everyone is going to relate to the style, methods, music, language, etc. of a particular worship service. As Paul said, therefore, we must become all things to all people that by some means we might reach some. That may mean we keep our traditional worship service – maybe even make it more traditional – and start something “new” that missionally targets a different micro-culture.

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