Red Ocean, Blue Ocean, and Evangelism in the Church

Several years ago, missiologist Alan Hirsch put some new language to the questions of evangelism and mission facing the church. He first describes two different marketing theories in the business world: “Red Ocean” and “Blue Ocean.”

The Red Ocean represents the place in which everyone targets the same group of people who are already very interested in whatever it is that you’re trying to communicate. And since there’s already a feeding frenzy happening in the Red Ocean (thus the name), it’s an easy place to get people to resonate with you, because many people will want to hear more. It doesn’t require as much thought. And it doesn’t require as much relationship.

The Blue Ocean, on the other hand, represents everyone else—those who are not interested in whatever it is that you’re trying to communicate. And since there is either very little interest or a general lack of knowledge, it’s a difficult place to get people to resonate with your message, because most of them either don’t understand what you’re talking about or just don’t care. It requires a ton of thoughtfulness and is dependent on establishing new relationships.

The renowned business theorist W. Chan Kim argues that the Red Ocean will always primarily get smaller (unless the Blue Ocean is engaged thoughtfully). In fact, that’s exactly what “Red Ocean” represents—“the sharks battle it out with each other for survival.” And this is the problem, as Kim sees it—everyone is targeting the smaller and shrinking group of people who are already interested instead of seeking to engage the larger and growing group of people who have no interest at all.

So what does this have to do with the church? Well, Hirsch (and others) believe that this is something we need to seriously consider. He basically suggests that it’s easy to go where we know and put our efforts toward things that will primarily target the small and shrinking part of our population who are already culturally close to us (which is an extremely small percentage in our neighborhood of Minneapolis). Conversely, this means that we probably don’t naturally engage in ministry in ways that effectively reaches the large and growing segment of our population who are culturally far from the church or who show no interest whatsoever.

Now, please hear me. I’m not suggesting that what we need is more business strategy in the church with a little bit of Jesus sprinkled in. That just perpetuates this problem, from my perspective. Additionally, I’m not saying that we need to discover some “product” that’s “better” or “more unique” than other churches. I’m increasingly skeptical that approaching it that way reaches many non-believing people in the first place, but even more to the point, we’re not “selling” some product that can be “made better”—we’re proclaiming good news, and it can’t be improved upon.

Where I think Hirsch’s description is valuable, though, is in helping us to reconsider what we think will be attractive to non-believing people. And this is something that we are extremely interested in thinking and talking about at Gospel Life Church. We don’t have much experience here, and so I’m not writing this post from a “this is how we’re doing it” perspective, but rather one that is seeking to actively learn from people in my community and from other pastors/church planters who are asking the same questions.

For example, writing for The Gospel Coalition, Dean Inserra offers a good example of this tendency toward Red Ocean thinking. He writes,

“When they visit [a church], unbelievers aren’t usually motivated by the reasons we think they are. Why would an unbeliever come to church because there is free coffee? He can drive through the Starbucks line, pay $3, and be home within 15 minutes. What about great branding and social media? I’ve got some difficult news for you: Unbelievers in your community probably aren’t following your church on social media. The pastor is really funny? So is YouTube. Perhaps unintentionally, these efforts and creative ideas are designed to attract people who hop around from church to church, looking for the flavor of the month. Our efforts, resources, and outreach are often well suited to reach the disgruntled or bored Christian next door.”

So what does it look like to reach non-believing people with the good news of Jesus? Well, we’re still in the very early phases of asking this question at Gospel Life Church, as our launch team is still primarily made up of believing people who want to introduce their friends to Jesus. But here are a few points of discussion that we’re trying to have on a regular basis. These points of discussion aren’t intended as a critique of established churches at all—far from it. We recognize that not only does a new church planting effort stand on the shoulders of established churches, but we continue to learn and grow so much from their faithfulness. Rather, these points of discussion are meant to uniquely describe our heart/vision and the way we are processing these things right now.

1.  We need to admit that we’re not always the best at evaluating what non-believing people need/want to hear.

The first step in this process for us has been readily admitting that we might not always have our finger on the pulse of what interests non-believing people in the way we sometimes think we do. This is why, in my experience, our ideas for reaching people can sometimes look or feel sort of like “youth group 2.0,” which is what Thomas Bergler describes as “the Juvenilization of American Christianity.”

But this admission needs to go both ways. It’s not just that we probably gravitate toward using means that primarily target other believers (e.g., “cool worship music,” funny/motivational preaching, or trendy environments). It’s also that we might be tempted to think that because orthodox Christian doctrine might be offensive or difficult, what non-believing people really want/need to hear is less about the “answers” from Scripture and more about what it might look like to remain comfortable in their doubt. And from my perspective and interaction with non-believing people in our neighborhood, this approach makes assumptions of non-believers that are just as baseless as the first.

Getting past these assumptions of what we think we know and instead listening and learning has been an important part of the process for us.

2.  We need to watch our language/jargon closely.

We could never improve upon the good news of Jesus, but we can relay the proclamation in a way that is understandable and do away with the Christian jargon/insider language that can so easily permeate our conversations. This is something that our launch team wants to work especially closely on together and help one another with in this process. As we express often, it’s not always about making someone feel “comfortable” as much as it’s about making the gospel “understandable.”

3.  We need to prioritize relationships and practice hospitality with non-believing people in our day-to-day lives.

This isn’t about people becoming a project. Please don’t hear that. This is about working toward genuine friendships with non-believing people even if they never appear to be interested in the gospel. As we discuss often as a launch team, the only reason that we can think of that a non-believing person would desire to gather with us for worship or discussion (outside of the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit) is if a trusted friend brings them. In the above-mentioned article, Dean Inserra has some wonderful thoughts along these lines. We haven’t figured this out yet, obviously, but we want to grow as a community who trusts one another to provide care and support for the non-believing friends that we bring into community.

4.  We need to rely on the Holy Spirit.

The truth is, we can no more bring someone from spiritual death to spiritual life than we can bring someone from physical death to physical life. While we are called to winsome engagement with non-believing people, and while we believe strongly that we should do so thoughtfully, it is not, at the end of the day, our work. We believe that the Spirit of God works through the Word of God to bring about conviction of sin, repentance, and faith in the gospel. And so we want to practice the normative means by which people come to hear and believe. We value the preaching of the gospel. We value baptism and communion. We value the gathered people of God. And we value the commitment of bringing non-believing people into that community so that they might hear the same gospel that we need every week and come to believe just as we need to believe.

Please pray for us as we seek to meaningfully and relationally engage even the most skeptical people with the good news of Jesus.