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Fulfilling Needs or Catering to Wants

The Internet Monk recommends a couple of books in a post titled Recommended: Wicker and Duin on The End of Evangelicalism, and I’m not going to gainsay his recommendation, considering I have read neither. But one comment he made caught my attention:

Despite being an interesting read and passing along many good pieces of information and research, Duin’s own point of view is jumbled. One moment she longs for communal simplicity, another for the seminary atmosphere of intense theology and the next for the erudition and authenticity of L’Abri. . . .

Duin in this quote is Julie Duin, author of Quitting Church. Now please understand that I’m not responding to her viewpoint, which I know only from a very brief second-hand reference. It’s the attitude that the Internet Monk seems to have found in the book, and which I have heard time and time again. Many people seem to be on a wandering quest, looking for whatever is not there in a particular church.

Further, please don’t read anything I’m writing here as a suggestion that church leaders should be sloppy, or should not care about fulfilling the needs of their congregation. Too often when church leaders tell people to suck it in and live with the church, they are really simply not that interested in reaching those particular people. On the other hand, there are large numbers of pastors and other church leaders who are working themselves to death trying to reach people who may be searching for something that does not, and will not, exist.

I recall preaching on a Sunday night once, in a church in which that service was attended by the most dedicated folks. I commented that I believed one should join a church not because of the needs it fulfilled, but rather because of how one could serve in and through that church congregation. A gentleman in the congregation objected strenuously. He thought the church needed to do a better job of serving him and of providing the kind of worship service he needed.

He was not entirely wrong. We do have spiritual needs that must be fulfilled through worship, but ironically, I think, those real needs will never be served while our wants are being catered to.

Hold that thought for a moment. While I was thinking about some of this, I read 8 in 10 Don’t Want Sunday School on John Meunier’s blog. The study from which he cited these numbers goes on to show that very few people are interested in spiritual formation beyond the occasional church service, and few want a small group experience.

As a teacher and small group leader, this bothers me quite a bit. But I’m not sure that we’re generally going the right way in response in many churches. You see, we try to find out what people want to have happen on Sunday morning, and then we try to do that. But I believe that when Jesus gets hold of you, you’re going to go places and do things that you might not want to do.

Worship is about God. Now I’ve argued before that leaders still have to pay attention to the people worshiping. You can’t just do anything you want and expect your congregation to encounter God in worship. But ultimately worship is going to involve loving God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves, and that can get uncomfortable.

Our neighbors? How about the neighbors down the pew? You see, worship is a giving exercise, and it might mean that I need to go and be part of Christ’s body when something is happening that I really don’t care for. If I’m the Bach lover, perhaps I need to be there for the teenagers with their praise band. If I want drums, perhaps I need to be there when the choir is singing an anthem.

Or the problem might be in sermons. I might be longing for a message filled with intellectual stimulation, but the body, the whole congregation, needs to hear a message of conviction, or one of encouragement. Going to worship together will involve commitment, and horror of horrors, giving up some of what I want in order to be with that body. I want to be made happy. I need to serve and to surrender to God.

The idea of being spiritual without a social aspect bothers me. The more I study, the more I see the command to love God and to love one’s neighbor as almost identical. This week’s lectionary text, Matthew 25:31-46 (The Sheep and the Goats), brings that more to the fore. Jesus is appearing in the form of people who need my help, and my love for Him is manifested in what I do for them.

I think quite often when we drop out of church, what we are saying is that we can’t be bothered to spend an hour or two a week doing things that have to do with other people. It all has to be the way I want it to be or I’m not going to go.

Now we can try to cater to that kind of folks if we want to, but I don’t think they will ever make a congregation. Our problem may not be so much that we lack enough entertaining music, adequate or excellent audio-visual material, or an engaging enough pastor. Our problem may be that we–myself included–lack enough commitment. If such folks are to become truly part of the body of Christ, they’re going to need to be converted, not catered to.

It may be that rather than a change of church programs we need a change of heart.

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One Comment

  1. “We do have spiritual needs that must be fulfilled through worship, but ironically, I think, those real needs will never be served while our wants are being catered to.”

    Ouch.

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