Future Church: Part 9

By: Justin Anderson

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Some of you know that I have been dabbling in Stand-up Comedy for the last year or two (please don’t Google it). Nothing is more important in stand-up than learning how to write a joke. Every joke you’ve ever heard has a clear structure: setup + punchline. A setup establishes the subject or premise of your joke and is meant to get the whole audience on board with where you are going. It should be relatable and clear.

Then, the punchline is meant to be a misdirect, something the audience doesn’t see coming. A bad punchline can be seen across the country, and because you can anticipate it, you don’t laugh (unless you are full of pity or the punchline is at someone else’s expense). Every joke you’ve heard has this same structure, whether obvious or not. The best comedians can obscure the structure to feel seamless and conversational.

The challenge with joke writing is that it’s really hard to get an entire audience on the same page. When you are just starting out in comedy, you are mostly doing terrible shows with a whole mixture of people. It’s very diverse (in the worst sense of the word), and this makes it really hard to find common ground.

When comedians get popular, it’s not primarily because they become better comics or write better jokes (although that happens as well); it’s mainly because they find an audience that likes how they tell jokes. Most comedians cannot make an entire room of random people laugh hard. Even the best comedians have a niche, an audience they can relate to, and an audience that sees the world the same way they do.

If you don’t believe me, go to a Kevin Hart show and then a Jerry Seinfeld show. Both are at the top of their game but will have wildly different audiences. The key to comedy is to find enough people who relate to you so that they laugh and, more importantly, buy tickets.

Leading a church is very similar. In order to have an impact in your city, you have to find your audience. That can look like a lot of different things, so if you think I’m arguing for a homogeneous church, you are missing the point. Successful, diverse churches have found their audience.

Finding your audience simply means understanding how God created you as a leader and then leveraging that unique identity to reach people who resonate with who God made you to be. Here are a few steps to finding your audience.

1. Know yourself.

Every audience is a reflection of leadership. Just like you don’t see a lot of young black men and women at a Jerry Seinfeld show or a lot of old white people at a Kevin Hart show, you will likely not see many people in the crowd who don’t look or live like you. Are there exceptions? Yes. Are you one of them? Statistically, probably not.

This isn’t good or bad, it just is. You are who you are and relate to whom you relate. There isn’t a lot you can do to change that. Now, can you hire people who aren’t like you to broaden the pool? Yes. Can you try to make your church as multicultural as possible? Yes.

But even that will define your audience differently. Not all people feel comfortable in a highly diverse congregation, nor does your city necessarily warrant it. There isn’t a right or wrong audience, there is only the audience God has created you to reach.

2. Be honest about yourself.

We all feel the pressure to be someone we aren’t. Whether it’s an idol or mentor who you want to emulate or messages you believe from the culture, very few of us stand alone as singular figures. Our task, to the best of our abilities, is to see ourselves clearly and embrace who God made us to be.

If I see another middle-aged white guy walk on stage in a leather jacket and Yeezys, I’m going to lose it. If you aren’t a lights-and-lasers guy, don’t get lights-and-lasers. If you wear khakis, wear khakis. If you aren’t strong, lose the tight shirt. Just be you, not because “everyone else is taken,” but because it’s lame and no one buys it.

Embrace whoever you and your team are and just run with that. Know that there are other people like you who will relate to you and the way you do ministry. Don’t try to do ministry in a way that isn’t an honest reflection of who you are and what you care about because it will ring false, and you won’t really be able to pull it off.

3. Know your city.

When I first started church planting, I was trying to plant some combination of Mars Hill Church and Redeemer Presbyterian Church. I was not in Seattle or New York, I didn’t have indie rockers or intellectuals, a Ph.D., or a choker. I was in Tempe, Arizona, a college town that was a suburb of Phoenix, but that didn’t stop me.

I don’t know who your models or idols are or where they do ministry but until we are all preaching in the Metaverse, you are going to have to reach your city. Who lives in your city (or town or hamlet)? What are they like? What entertains them? How much money do they have? How do they vote? What do they care about? How do they spend their money and time? How many kids do they have?

Your research has to go beyond simple demographics if you are going to find your audience. Demographics tell you who lives in your city, but it won’t tell you who your audience is. Unless you live in a remote village, you probably have a lot of different kinds of people in your area. You will not be able to reach them all. That’s what other churches are for. You just need to reach your audience.

So once you are honest with yourself, be honest about what part of your city you will be able to reach. I’ll use myself as an example. I’m 45, white, somewhat educated, and fairly smart. I grew up in a Christian home and don’t really remember getting saved or having a rebellious period. I played baseball in college, and I speak quickly and sarcastically. I also make a lot of jokes. I’ve got a wife and five kids and lean conservative/libertarian. I love rock and roll, sports, jazz, and bourbon-forward cocktails.

Those things about me form the core of my worldview, speech patterns, and outlook on life. Which in turn produce the illustrations, descriptions, and points of emphasis in my preaching and leadership. If your life has been significantly different from mine, it’s going to be tough for you to relate to me, which is fine! That’s why I am not the only preacher and don’t lead the church. But if you can nod along to some of my self-description, you are far more likely to be able to resonate with both my preaching and my leadership.

Our task is simply to identify how the things about us (and our teams) will engage the people around us and who those people are.

4. Engage your audience

I want to give you permission not to feel the pressure to reach everyone or even every kind of person. You can’t, and you won’t, so stop trying. Don’t do the opposite either, and guard the gate from anyone you aren’t comfortable with; that can get weird fast. Just be yourself and be realistic about who you are going to reach, and then go find those people.

If you have kids and live in an area where people have kids, you’d better have a great kids ministry that you really lean into. If you are brilliant and talk like an intelligent person, you had better engage the smart people in your town so you can all be smart together. If you have a rough upbringing and got saved late in life, you have a particular ability to relate to people that I have never been able to successfully relate to.

Whoever your audience is, lean into a ministry that engages those people. Emphasize the things that you can do better than anyone else and program around those things. Sometimes, people roll their eyes at the church in town, which is the “cool church,” the “young church,” or the “cowboy church,” or whatever. Don’t roll your eyes; learn from them. It is likely that they have simply found their audience and responded to them in a way that struck a nerve.

This is getting long, so I need to stop. There is much more to say on this topic, but for now, I’ll say this: diversity is good, AND God made you who you are. Leaning into who you are is more likely to produce healthy diversity than pretending you are something you are not but really trying to be diverse. People really like authenticity, so lose the leather jacket, put your cardigan back on, and just be yourself. Some people will be able to relate to you, and others won’t, but it’s the only kind of ministry that’s really worth doing.