Before becoming a minister, I sold insurance for a major life insurance company. My first week on the job, my supervisor told me, “If you want to succeed in this business, you need to find a niche.” He went on to explain that the leading agents in our company all specialized in a particular niche market. For example, several of our agents worked with small business owners, others focused on large corporations, and some specialized in estate planning. Those who worked the general market were far less successful. “If you try to sell insurance to everyone,” my manager said, “you’ll end up selling insurance to no one.” So I decided to find a niche of my own. I eventually chose the medical market, and it served me well. Establishing a niche gave me clear focus and significantly increased my productivity.
What’s true in business is also true in ministry. Pastors and churches are far more effective when they have a clear understanding of their particular niche in their community. Even Jesus focused on a specific group (see Luke 4:18-19). Instead of trying to reach the socially affluent, or leaders of the religious establishment, Jesus focused his attention on the poor and marginalized. Peter and Paul also each had a niche. While Peter focused on Jewish believers, Paul targeted Gentiles. That same trend can be documented throughout Christian history and continues today. Highly effective churches almost always have a clearly identified target audience.
The Need for a Niche
Pastors need to learn that their church cannot be all things to all people. For example, our worship style won’t attract every demographic in our community. Not everyone will like the way we preach. Our programs will not meet the needs of all persons. And, as hard as we try, we’ll never develop a theology that every Christian will agree upon. The sooner we learn that our church cannot reach every person in our community, the better off we’ll be. When we finally figure out that we can’t please everyone, we can begin the exciting process of discovering our own unique niche.
Our niche at First United Methodist Church, Lebanon, Tennessee, is providing a vibrant, centrist, mainline congregation of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors” to our community of mostly conservative churches. Of course, your niche will be different from ours—as it should be. Every community needs a rich diversity of congregations—from small to large, traditional to contemporary, pentecostal to liturgical, and conservative to liberal. Since every community has different kinds of people, every community needs different kinds of churches, all of whom are essential parts of the body of Christ (see Rom. 12:12-31).
How to Determine Your Niche
As you seek to identify your own unique niche, ask yourself and your church the following three questions.
1. What is your passion? When you and your congregation can identify your greatest passion, you are well on your way to determining your niche. For example, years ago, the leaders of my congregation wrote a one-page document called “Foundations.” In this brief but significant document, we clarified our primary mission, our core tasks, and the church culture we want to create. Through that experience we came to realize that our primary passion at Lebanon First is to be a “Great Commandment Church in the United Methodist Tradition.”
2. What are your strengths? Before you can determine your niche, you must identify what you do well, because that will substantively impact whom you reach. For example, one of our strengths at Lebanon First is providing what we call “ancient-modern” worship—worship that incorporates historic, traditional, and contemporary styles of praising our Creator. Of course, not everyone likes our unique style of worship. If people want an overtly evangelistic service, or three-point informational sermons, or rock-and-roll praise music, they won’t like our church. That’s okay! Lots of people do like our style of worship. The important point is that our unique worship style helps create and complement our niche.
3. Whom are you reaching? Perhaps the best way to determine your niche is to find out what kind of people you are currently reaching. For example, over the past ten years, our congregation has welcomed large numbers of new members. Before they join, I schedule a visit with them. During the visit I ask, “What attracted you to our congregation?” Almost all of them tell a similar story. They want to connect to a church, but they are not comfortable in the highly conservative congregations that make up the vast majority of churches in our town. Offering them a vibrant mainline alternative is our niche.
When your answers to the above three questions dovetail together, you have successfully found your niche. At my church our passion, our strengths, and the people we are reaching point to the same niche—providing a vibrant mainline congregation to our community. Knowing, celebrating, and communicating that niche has greatly benefited our congregation. We know we can’t meet the spiritual needs of everyone in our community so we focus instead on reaching those we can, trusting God to use the other good churches in our town to reach the people we cannot. That way, every church in our community gets to play their own unique role in advancing God’s kingdom in our small part of the world.
Finding a niche was the best thing I ever did in the insurance business. The same has been true in the church business. My sales supervisor was right, “If you want to be successful in this business, you need to find a niche.” So what’s your niche?
Martin Thielen has served as senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, Lebanon, Tenn. for the last ten years. His preaching and worship Web site, including sermons and series, is www.GettingReadyforSunday.com. Martin’s most recent book is “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” A Guide to What Matters Most. Complete information about the book, including a free Leader’s Guide, can be found at http://thielen.wjkbooks.com.