See, Know, and Serve

October 21st, 2013

How did St. Paul do it? How did he manage to start and sustain so many different churches, in so many different cultures, in such a time of change? We have the same desire to become all things, to all people, so that by all means, we can bless all the publics around our church . . . in an area defined by the average distance people drive to work and shop. However, most of us lack St. Paul’s intuitive genius to be extraordinarily cross-cultural and seeker sensitive. Now we have the tools we need.

The first tool is lifestyle segmentation. Today there are over 19 distinct lifestyle groups and 71 unique lifestyle segments in the United States. The speed of diversification is revealed by the fact that this is about a 30 percent increase in just seven years! Even small towns and rural areas contain at least three to four lifestyle segments that diversify the majority population. In urban centers, lifestyle segment diversity can mean that each neighborhood, street, or apartment complex can gather entirely different lifestyle groups—with different habits, attitudes, musical tastes, social perspectives, retail priorities, work ethics, recreational enthusiasms, relationships, social service needs, and religiosity.

Today’s demographic search engines can take us far beyond sensitivity to age, gender, race, family status, education, income, occupation, or home ownership. Do you want to reach the youth? Then you have to know which youth! There are over 20 distinct lifestyle segments with high proportions of people under 21—and they may not get along with each other! Do you want to bless Hispanics? There are over 10 different segments containing Spanish-speaking people that are quite different from each other. Do you want to bless African Americans? The growth and diversification of the African American middle class rendered obsolete all the stereotypes of the 1960s!

Every time you swipe a credit card, sign your name, or show up on the grid of government, business, health care, and social service, a databank accumulates information about your habits, preferences, issues, and opinions. Lifestyle segments all have suggestive names. (1)

Birkenstocks and Beemers: Upper middle-class, established couples living leisure lifestyles in small towns and cities;

Status Seeking Singles: Younger, upwardly mobile singles living in mid-scale metro areas leading leisure-intensive lifestyles;

Sports Utility Families: Upscale, middle-aged couples with school-aged children living active family lifestyles in outlying suburbs;

Diapers and Debit Cards: Young, working-class families and single-parent households living in small, established city residences;

Nuevo Horizons: Middle-aged, mid-scale income Hispanic families living mainly within U.S. border cities;

Urban Ambition: Mainly Generation Y African American singles and single families established in mid-market cities.

The detailed descriptions of every lifestyle segment help organizations in any sector anticipate their questions, concerns, needs, and priorities.

This rich, detailed information about lifestyle segments is used by boards of education, social services, governments, businesses, publishers, and the military to target markets, customize programs, and train effective leaders. So far the church has been unable to use this material due to a lack of adequate ministry and mission “filters” with which to interpret and apply the information. While every other sector has been fine-tuning relevance to target markets, the church has been stuck with outdated and useless categories to describe leaders and ministries. The short list of useless terms includes: “ordained” and “lay” leaders; “radical” and “ordinary” hospitality; and “traditional” and “contemporary” worship. Equally generic, vague, and unhelpful terms have simply been borrowed from the best practices of mega-churches, terms like “small groups,” “contemporary worship centers,” and “high” technologies. The public is so diverse, and community contexts are so different, that such terms mean completely different things to people who live just a few miles from each other.

Finally, we have a second tool. We have a new set of “filters,” shaped by the realities of diverse lifestyle segments, to define preferences for spiritual leadership, ministry programs, communication media, and even facility design and financial management. (2) Churches can now do effective strategic planning with genuine confidence that their plans are indeed relevant to the lifestyle segments in their mission fields.

For example, there are at least seven distinct preferences for spiritual leadership in America today. Some of them (like caregivers, enablers, and CEOs) are trained in M.Div. and D.Min. programs and involve professionals. Others (like disciplers and visionaries) are apprenticed through large churches and para-churches and have cross-sector training. Still others (like mentors and pilgrims) emerge in church plants and innovative Christian communities from cross-cultural experiences. The point is that different lifestyle segments gravitate to different kinds of spiritual leaders. Ordination is only one factor of relevance among many. And bishops need to know who to appoint where, so that these pastors can be effective to a particular public.

Just as different publics gravitate to certain kinds of spiritual leaders, so also they appreciate certain kinds of Sunday morning experiences. There are at least four different kinds of hospitality preferences (the basics, multiple choices, healthy choices, and take-out). Now that terminology for “traditional” and “contemporary” worship is obsolete, we know that there are at least seven distinct mission-driven worship preferences in America: educational, transformational, inspirational, coaching, healing, caregiving, and mission-connectional. Each one can be described in detail. Each lifestyle segment gravitates to a certain kind of worship. You can only blend two at most. Churches can now accurately discern the changes or additions necessary to make Sunday morning relevant to distinct groups of people—and anticipate their stress in doing it.

Different publics prefer different kinds of Christian education (curricular or experiential formats, biblical or topical contents, and generational or peer groupings). There are different choices for midweek small groups (designated or rotated leaders, curricular or affinity based); and different for outreach (survival, quality of life, recovery, health, interpersonal relationships, human potential, and human destiny). Church planners can even anticipate preferences for ecclesiastical or utilitarian church facilities, Christendom or contemporary symbols, and modern or postmodern technologies. We can design stewardship campaigns for people who prefer unified budgets or designated giving; or we can provide informed philanthropy or lifestyle financial coaching.

I think the most exciting aspect of these new tools of lifestyle segmentation and ministry design is the discovery that it really is not about marketing. It really is about mission. The point is not to attract people into church membership; it is really to bless the publics around us. Blessing people is the goal; church growth is the side effect. These lifestyle segment preferences are not just selfish whims, personal privileges, and comfort foods. These preferences are driven by profound existential anxieties about emptiness, meaninglessness, fate, death, guilt, shame, and rejection. The people eagerly (or desperately) seeking the spiritual leader, ministry, or mission that is most relevant to their needs are broken, lost, lonely, hopeless, abused, fearful, and alienated.

The era of church shopping died with Christendom. If people connect with a spiritual leader, a Christian ministry, or a church, it is because they are compelled by some urgent issue to do so. The issue is shaped by, and revealed in, their lifestyles. The answer is Christ . . . but the unique experience of Christ, and the particular blessing that is relevant, must be discerned and delivered by the church. St. Paul understood this. It is why the churches in Philippi, Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, and elsewhere were all different. It is why effective churches provide multiple options of ministries that are each unique. One church plant does not look like, or behave like, another—even in the same conference. This effective church does different things, in different ways, for different publics, with different results, than that effective church that is only a mile away. God does not call the church to be big. God calls for the mission to be big. And the mission will only be big if the ministries are unique for each lifestyle segment that God has entrusted to your church to bless in the name of Christ.

(1) These names, and the 19 lifestyle groups and 71 lifestyle segments mentioned here, are defined by Experian Marketing Resources and described in their resource Mosaic USA.

(2)  These filters are described in my book See, Know, and Serve the People Within Your Reach and are also applied to every lifestyle group and lifestyle segment in Mission Impact. Most United Methodist conferences subscribe to MissionInsite. Ask your Conference Office of Connectional Ministries.

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