Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Audience Comes Last

Recently, on 60 Minutes, acclaimed music producer Rick Rubin said: "The audience comes last… the audience doesn’t know what they want." 

It made me think of a favorite quote from Howard Schultz in one of his first books about the success he led at Starbucks, Pour Your Heart Into It. Schultz said: “You don’t just give customers what they ask for. If you offer them something they’re not accustomed to, something so far superior that it takes a while to develop their palates, you can create a sense of discovery and excitement and loyalty that will bond them to you. It may take longer, but if you have a great product, you can educate your customers to like it rather than kowtowing to mass-market appeal.”

Much of my background, experience, education, perhaps even expertise, is in marketing. More specifically, I have often been about the work of marketing church and church-related organizations. When bringing the Church and its various “products” to “market” I have been guided by this notion that, as Rubin says, “the audience doesn’t know what they want.” What God has for people is, indeed, “something so far superior” than anything they could articulate. The Gospel, along with all the good gifts God offers, is the sort of thing that is so extraordinary that it cannot be imagined… but once truly had, we cannot imagine being without the Gospel.

That is what we followers of Jesus have to offer, are compelled and commanded to offer; we offer the Gospel (“market" the Gospel) to those who don’t know they want it.

The Church routinely bungles the task. We routinely just give up and turn our focus inward. We don’t bother really thinking of those beyond our walls, beyond our ilk, beyond our cliques, beyond our cultures, and settle for an inward focus. We determine that outsiders don’t want what we have so we insulate and isolate ourselves with religious trappings. Any potential audience finds our message indecipherable.

We might give lip-service to our desires to spread the Gospel, build God’s Kingdom, and increase our numbers… but we are so attached to our inward focused ways that there is little hope for the Gospel to take root in others through our meager efforts.

We err on the other end of the spectrum, too, by being so marketing-minded that we truly focus on giving our “customers” what they want. We bundle up an appealing package of goods and services, slap on a patina of Christianity, but fail to focus on the Gospel. We may draw a crowd of the pleased and unoffended, we may build a brand and balance our budgets, but ultimately we fail because our market-minded efforts only result in building our little fiefdoms rather than God’s Kingdom.

There’s a hybrid that is common in the Church too… a dangerous, sort of inward-focused, market-minded approach. It is market-minded as it is purposefully appealing… but only appeals to a popular stream in Christianity (perhaps an excess, or even error, in some cases). It is inward-focused as it only targets a precise Christian niche. In years past that niche might be focused on prosperity; these days it could be something like Christian nationalism on the right, or unattached social justice on the left. Again, we might likely draw crowds and balance budgets serving the niche, but such an approach has little impact on unbelievers. It is just a crowd of the already blessed. Few are converted.

I am confident that there is a sweet spot, a place from which Church leaders understand that the Gospel is far beyond what consumers might want, but still outward focused. It takes skilled, Spirit-empowered leaders who can manage the tension between the transcendent Gospel and the unknowing masses.

Leadership is more than just asking people what they want and giving it to them, and it is certainly more than deciding for people and forcing it on them. Leadership holds out a better destination and makes a way to get there. The Gospel is, of course, that very best destination… and the Church, its members, and leaders, must do better to make way for people to get there.


Perhaps I can help you with coaching, evaluation, or planning. Greatifiers aims to help you make good things great. Reach out; I’d be glad to help. dan@greatifiers.com

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