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Target Audience

May 15, 2014

My wife works with an international ministry that reaches out to abused women around the world.  Because many women who are abused, whether it is an individual or a systematic, cultural abuse, are sheltered or hidden the ministry uses a radio program as a way of reaching them.  The program, “Women of Hope”, is currently broadcast in over 60 languages and into nearly 100 countries.

The abused women are what is called the target audience; the people they are trying to reach.  Yet they consistently find that people outside that target audience are also listening.  They get responses from all walks of life including a number from men who, for one reason or another, resonate with programming intended to encourage abused women.

I’ve been thinking a lot about target audiences lately in relation to the Bible.  For the most part evangelicals today think that they are the target audience for the Bible.  Citing verses like Psalm 33:11 they say that God intended the message for them personally and are sure that it is not only acceptable but desirable to read the Bible to get God’s personalized message for them.  There is even a Personal Promises Bible where you can actually insert your name into the text to save you the trouble of actually making a personal application; all you have to do is read the Bible with your name already inserted.  “For God so loved Tom….”

An additional implication of seeing the Bible as a personal message, or even as a message intended for 21st century American evangelicals, is that we assume, since the Bible is ours, we are in charge of deciding what it means.  It leads to a proprietary smugness on Bible interpretation.

There is no doubt that the Bible can speak to us today.  We can learn from it and apply principles to our lives.  But we are not the target audience.  We are merely eavesdroppers listening in on conversations between God and a people centuries ago that were taking place in different cultures and circumstances and being delivered through a variety of messengers.  It is OK to listen in, a good idea even, but if we remember that we are not the target audience it can help us understand and apply the Bible or even at times keep us from misunderstanding it.

Take, for example, Proverbs 31:10-31, a passage we are sure speaks to 21st century women.  We create whole ministries named after these verses; give countless Mother’s Day sermons from it; create lists of tasks women must do to earn the title “excellent wife.”  (Actually, the Hebrew would be better translated “woman of valor.”)  Of course, we have to twist the language a bit to make it apply.  “Considers a field and buys it” has to mean gets the groceries to feed the family.  “Puts her hand to the distaff and her hands hold the spindle” doesn’t mean actually making clothes, it means buying clothes.

But when you read the text you realize that women were not, even in that day, the target audience for the passage, let alone contemporary women.  The only commands given in the passage are commands to men, in particular upper class Hebrew men who had a household of consequence that their wives would manage.  They are told to praise and honor their wives.

Since men are the target the idea that the tasks listed are a “to do” list for 21st century American women doesn’t wash.  This is particularly true in that other women, Ruth for example, are given the same “woman of valor” title and their lives didn’t in any way mirror the Proverbs 31 task list.  Ruth was an impoverished, childless widow.

Other examples abound and once we get past the idea that the Bible is written to me we are free to dig into the text, study how it was intended for that culture and then and only then take lessons from it.  Here is a teaser example.  In Romans 1 Paul explicitly condemns homosexuality.  What was the culture he was speaking into?  How does it differ from homosexuality today?  Why would this condemnation be joyously greeted in a 1st century Roman culture with an abundance of homosexual relations?  Why would it be seen, not as a mean-spirited condemnation, but as heroic stance for justice?  Until we can answer those questions we are better off not trying to apply the passage to our times.

So go ahead and eavesdrop on these ancient conversations between God and His people.   Learn from them.  Apply them. But always remember that you are not the target audience.

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From → Christianity

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