What job does your audience need to do?

When you’re trying to reach people, business leader Clayton Christensen teaches that it’s more important to understand what your audience is trying to accomplish than its demographic information.

Many church-starting and church-growth strategies since the 1980s have borrowed marketing techniques that focus on the likes and dislikes of targeted audiences. For example, young people prefer drums and guitars and don’t like organ music.

What might congregations learn from studying people’s deeper yearnings?

Clayton Christensen, ranked #1 in the Thinkers50, the global ranking of business leaders, is best known for inventing the phrase “disruptive innovation” that is on the lips of every college president and provost as they look at Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and try to understand how they will affect the future.

Christensen says that marketing segmentation -- the process of dividing the audience by common characteristics such as age, income, ethnicity or gender -- does not provide sufficient information.

“The fact that you're 18 to 35 years old with a college degree does not cause you to buy a product," Christensen said in an article in Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge. “It may be correlated with the decision, but it doesn't cause it. We developed this idea because we wanted to understand what causes us to buy a product, not what's correlated with it. We realized that the causal mechanism behind a purchase is, 'Oh, I've got a job to be done.' And it turns out that it's really effective in allowing a company to build products that people want to buy.”

Christensen illustrates his method with the story of a company that wanted to increase milkshake sales. The company hired observers to track every customer who bought a milkshake. When did the customer purchase the shake? Did she eat in or take away?

The company discovered that 40 percent of the milkshakes were purchased at the beginning of the day by commuters ordering them to-go. Researchers asked commuters why they bought milkshakes. They learned that the "job" that many customers were "hiring" the milkshake to do was to sustain them on a long, boring commute to work. They hired the milkshake because it could be consumed using one hand and did not create crumbs.

What would we learn if Christians carefully observed the daily life of those who don’t attend church? What if we watched what people do at ball games, the public park or the shopping mall? What “jobs” are people doing there? Why do they go to these places, and what similar places do they go?

As with Christensen, close observation is followed by careful listening. The goal is to connect the activities and underlying needs of the constituents with activities of Christian community.

Like Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17, once we understand the desire to connect with the multitude of gods, we are better able to communicate the good news of Christ and the Church.