4-14 and Market forces – by John Collier

It’s only a few days old, but the vigorous response to this invitation from Bill threatens to make my observations redundant. But I might be able to bring another perspective – not as erudite and as theologically apt as those from Haddon and Beth but heartfelt nevertheless.

My observations are coloured by my long employment in research at multinational pharmaceutical companies. In that capacity, I seldom met the ‘marketers’ but we did interact occasionally and I saw examples of what they did. The description of Singapore brings to mind the pre-launch inspirational meetings for a new drug. There would be a conference, a large meeting room, motivational speeches, presentations and activities until the mass of ‘drug reps’ were stirred into a frenzy of excitement to take on their mission: make this drug #1 in its class!

Can there be ‘missiology’ without ‘theology’? Clearly there can be even if the term ‘missiology’ is more or less exclusively applied to Christian missionary activity.. Many secular groups, not least the military, execute ‘missions’. In recent times companies and non-commercial organisations have felt obliged to formulate a ‘mission statement’. All these agencies will have some kind of theoretical back up, from disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, sociology, game theory, to guide them in formulating a strategy. Those sciences may also usefully inform Christian mission.

Another strategy I heard from the marketers was: “segmenting the market”. As I understand it, this means making small, sometimes irrelevant, modifications to products so as to appeal to a specific type of consumer: male, female, old, young, environmentally conscious, etc. A walk down the shampoo section of your local supermarket illustrates this process – many brands and subbrands with essentailly the same active ingredients packaged to appeal to slightly different people. In this was sales are improved. I think 4/14 is an example of this type of thinking.

I remember Johannes Malherbe at Cape Town making forlorn attempts to ensure that we always talk of the child in a communal context, specifically the family. Jan makes a similar point in his booklet: in Africa, the child is never alone – not just in a group of children but in a cross-generational community.

Our Western culture segments society by age groups so as to be able better to exert control and deliver services. We see this tendency in churches too: homogenous people groups.

When I went to missionary college 40 years ago(!), I was introduced to a book, I think a classic of mission literature, “Missionary methods: St Paul’s or ours”. It’s a long time since I read it so my memory may be frail (the book is on my bookshelf in Portugal and I’m presently in the UK) but I believe one part of it was that Paul planted churches. Whether or not this was the source, I can’t say for sure, but for many years I have believed that the only Scripturally valid approach to mission is to plant churches. Other activities are supportive of this objective. This is because the Gospel is about relationship, usually challenging ones.

Finally, I was very surprised when I heard about the idea of reaching children between 4 and 14 as if this was a totally new strategy. This was what was done to my generation in the UK. My parents generation went to church and took their children. In my generation, the parents had stopped going and sent their children instead. They did this until about the age of 14 when the children were able to exert some choice in the matter. The vast majority of them chose to have no more to do with the church! It is no surprise to find that most of those who stayed in the church made their decision between 4 and 14 – that is when they were exposed to the choice. What else would you expect? It’s a complete logical failure, though, to assume that these are the best group to aim evangelistic efforts at.

What we need to know is which age group, having made a decision, are most likely to stick with it? My guess is, for example, that students reached for Christ at university would ‘stick’ better.

It’s not difficult to get children to make decisions for Christ – there were ‘padres’ at Crusader camps I helped at who were renowned for getting 100% decisions before the end of the week. So, do we have such little confidence in the power of the Gspel that we will put most of our effort into the ‘easy option’?

I used to help with a charity in Canterbury which put a Christian worker into the local public (state) schools. She supported Christians in the schools with a weekly Christian Union/Fellowship meeting. The interesting insight came when we compared the membership of local church youth groups with the school groups. The majority of the Christian youth in churches did not want to be identified as Christian in the secular environment.

Well, I hope some of this is helpful.

best wishes

John

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