Lately, I’ve been reminded of the importance of knowing one’s audience. When speaking, performing, or creating art, one needs to be aware and have a decent working knowledge of the target audience.
I have had a couple of moments recently where I have noticed that I wasn’t as in tune with my audience as I had thought. In both situations, I let out some sarcastic comments that helped make a point. However, rather than picking up on the sarcasm, some in the audience were offended…Not that offending one’s audience is an awful thing (sometimes we need to offend people in order to spur them on), but if that’s not one’s intended result it can cause some serious damage. I thought I knew my audience. So, I went out on a limb and, in the end, found myself realizing that I didn’t connect with the audience as well as I had hoped.
I remember visiting a church where the pastor was really trying to connect with his audience. He had obviously spent some time researching the culture of this target audience. But, he wasn’t living in the culture…he was an outsider looking in. When he tried to connect with the audience with pop culture references, he failed. He referred to Bono, which goes over well with a crowd of 20-somethings. But, he pronounced the name as you would Sonny Bono’s last name, and not the name of the lead singer of one of the world’s greatest bands. He then referred to Flea of the Red Hot Peppers. Sure, these are simple slips. But, I remember thinking the guy seemed rather goofy…trying to be someone he wasn’t. This was an audience looking for some honesty, some authenticity, and all they received was a guy trying to be someone he was not.
This transfers to the art and music worlds as well. You have to know your audience. Sure, it’s totally appropriate to bring people along, to challenge them. But, if you want to accomplish a greater goal of connecting with the audience, you have to know what they are looking for. As a painter, you probably wouldn’t do some nudes for James Dobson. Generally, the ultra-conservative Christian folks aren’t into nudity. As a musician, you have to know that the audience has come in great hopes that you will play their favorite songs. I remember seeing R.E.M. years ago when they basically refused to play anything pre-Green album (which leaves out some of their best work). I found myself longing to hear certain songs, only to leave disappointed.
Yesterday, I was at a gathering where a praise team was asked to lead a time of worship. It was kind of cheesy for my taste, but for what they were doing they did a decent job. But, I really felt like they had no clue who their audience was. They did a bunch of slow and medium paced tunes (about 25 minutes worth). The “fast” songs they performed, the ones meant to energize the crowd, were at least 20 bpm too slow. However, it wasn’t the tempo’s that made me realize they were out-of-touch with the audience. It was the song selection. In a gathering of United Methodists, one has to realize that the average age is probably going to be over 65. One has to realize that the average person is going to be a huge fan of hymns, especially those composed by Charles Wesley. So, it would have been appropriate to throw in at least one familiar hymn. Instead, what I witnessed was a room full of older adults awkwardly singing along with unfamiliar songs. A few verses of some Wesley tune (like “And Can It Be” or “O For A Thousand Tongues”) would have had the audience going crazy!
What I’ve truly been reminded of is that there has to be a healthy balance of challenging people, giving them what they want, and giving them what they need. As a pastor, this is a great challenge. In a typical congregation, one encounters people at various stages in their spiritual development…all desiring different things. Finding a healthy balance is extremely difficult. It’s really easy to set the bar way too high or way too low. There is a great art to meeting people where they are at and bringing them to where God desires us to be.