Make no mistake about it, ours is a culture of specialization and niche marketing. From vegetarian or vegan restaurants to the most obscure hobby, entrepreneurs have found a way to tap into every conceivable niche market. And just as the church has borrowed other trends and techniques from the marketing world, niche marketing has been no exception. It should come as no surprise that para-church ministries and organizations have a target audience that they aim for, but we are seeing an increasing number of Christian churches that are shaping their ministries to reach a particular niche market. Sometimes this trend is the result of a subtle shift in the church’s ministry as they minister to a particular segment of the congregation. For instance, a church with a growing number of college age members may develop programs geared to meet the needs of that group. Concern for this group can evolve from a Sunday School class, to a small group fellowship, to a series of sermons tailored for that group, music that would appeal to that group, and on and on until the church has the character and reputation of being “a church for college students.” You can substitute “college student” with any other group or special interest such as family, young marrieds, business people, ad infinitum, but the end result is the same, a special interest-groups church, with a certain target audience.
But while some churches evolve to this point, others are planned and planted with the intention of catering to a specific group. Whether the specialty church is the result of efforts to meet the needs of a particular group within a given congregation, or of a church plant with a target audience in mind, the result is the same — an unnecessarily unbalanced and unhealthy church. This may appear to be an overstatement, but consider a family where one child is catered to and another is neglected. This is to the detriment of both. The one that is catered to develops unrealistic expectations and possibly a sense of entitlement. While the one that is neglected is made to feel inferior and at times even unloved, if not resentful of the favored child. But let’s consider a church scenario. A friend once told of an elderly widow who visited his church because her pastor was starting a prolonged series of sermons on sex. She understood the importance of addressing this subject from a biblical and pastoral perspective, but several weeks on the subject was more than she needed. Or, take a church that tailors its ministry to families with children, not only will such an emphasis not minister to those who are not married and have no children, but it could also prompt them to become discontent in their state. Contrary to what some may think or say (even many Christians), everyone that is single is not necessarily looking to be married. I have heard the complaints of unmarried Christians about the subtle pressures placed on them (sometimes in the context of singles ministries) to find a suitable mate, when finding a mate is the least of their concerns. In fact, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:8, 32–35 suggest that single Christians have fewer hindrances when it comes to serving the Lord. It is the responsibility of church leaders to provide an atmosphere that nurtures and edifies the whole covenant family.
Of course there is a place for special interest or small group ministries in the church. But I wonder if the contemporary church has made these secondary auxiliary ministries the driving force and defining character of the church. In other words, if a local church does not have a youth ministry, or a young adult fellowship, does this mean that church has nothing to offer youth and young adults? Have these special interest groups become the cornerstone of the church? On the contrary, the apostle Paul presents a different picture. In Ephesians 4:11–16 he says that Christ has given His church pastor-teachers to the whole body (family) for some very specific purposes:
First, they are for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry. Edmund Clowney in his book, The Church, says that the work of ministry consists in three things: serving God in worship, the world in missions and evangelism, and each other in nurture. Our gifts and participation in these things may differ, but our commitment to them should be equal.
Another purpose of the church in its ministry to the whole family is “building up the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:12–13). Knowledge of the person and work of Christ is important to the whole body.
Thirdly, it is the duty of the church to build up the family so they are not easily deceived “by every wind of doctrine.” In other words, the family of God must be instructed in what we believe and why.
A fourth purpose of the church to the whole family is the stressing of our organic unity. Paul says “the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (v. 16).
If these things are our primary focus, then each member of the family will be equipped to serve, they will recognize their individual value to the body and appreciate the value of their brothers and sisters, as we uphold our common faith, and glorify our heavenly Father.