Defining the church’s ministry by responding to people’s needs is a common notion; but, because of the blurred line between want and need, no matter how much we speak of needs or perceived needs, it puts the church in the position of being defined not by its faith or history but by people’s wants. This trivializes the church, its mission, and its outreach. It eviscerates the heart of the church’s message and cuts the church off from its identity as the people of Christ. But the attitudes engendered in people who come to congregations expecting the church to make meeting their needs (or, more likely, their wants) a priority also harms the church. Simply put, when we say the church is to meet people’s needs, many people personalize that message. They hear, “If I go to church, those folk will take care of me.” In selling the church as a place where people’s needs are met, we draw people for whom there is, at least in their perception, an implied promise that if they come to the church it will provide them with what they think they need. The measurement of a congregation then becomes personal: “Is it meeting my needs?”
These needs are not limited to the basic needs of food, safety, and shelter. In all but the poorest congregations, members tend to meet those needs on their own. More often people turn to the church for emotional and spiritual well-being. They envision the church providing what they think they need to ensure contentment and satisfaction. Their confusion between needs and wants means their attitude often becomes not “Is this congregation meeting my needs?” but “Is this congregation giving me what I want?” They come believing the church will have as its priority, in terms of time and effort, taking care of whatever they feel is important. They require the church to respond to them personally. They believe it is the church’s job to listen to them, act on their ideas, and support their beliefs. Other aspects of the congregation’s life, other things it might be doing, are strictly secondary to the parts that impact them directly. So, if their concern is children’s ministry, they aren’t interested in outreach to singles or empty-nesters. If their interest is in traditional music, contemporary hymns or a praise service will be deemed unimportant. At best, they will treat such activities with disinterest. At worst, they will see such endeavors as detractions from their concern that should therefore be eliminated.
What happens when these people feel their needs are not being met? That is, what occurs when they do not get what they want? They believe the church is letting them down. It is failing to do as promised, which they see as a breach of contract. In response, they may leave, or they may challenge whatever is happening and whoever is in charge until the promised care-taking and attention are provided.
A Sense of Entitlement
Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). He also said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 14:24). Christian faith has always been about giving, not receiving. Those who expect the church to respond to their needs—no matter what—frequently have little interest in doing for others. They came to be cared for, so they see being asked to help others as changing the rules. The signs of declining commitment noted by many pastors—lower rates of worship attendance, pledging, and other forms of participation—indicate this emphasis on receiving. So do the requests, ranging from minor to impossible, that people feel free to make of congregations and the often extreme reactions they have when a congregation does not do as they desire. The underlying thinking appears to be this: The church is supposed to care for my needs, so I can ask whatever I desire of the church. It does not matter whether or not the congregation knows me, nor does the difficulty of my request matter. I do not need to cooperate or be flexible. It is the congregation’s duty to respond, giving me what I want the way I want it.
A Source of Disruption
Churches include people who are not only troublesome and disruptive but who also feel free to attack, diminish, and destroy church leaders, including and especially pastors. A portion of the blame for such disruptive conflict must rest with the needs definition of ministry. As mentioned above, when people believe the church is to care for their needs and it is not doing so, they feel free to become increasingly disruptive until they get what they want. The same expectations for personal response are applied to church leadership: If I believe the congregation is to care for my needs, then so are the congregation’s leaders. They are to visit me when I want to be visited and stay away when I don’t. They are to share my concerns and interests, make sure the kinds of programs I want are available when I want them, and design worship to include the kind of music I like. The expectations are even greater for pastors: Pastors should preach sermons I approve of. Their prayers should be neither too long nor too short and should cover the topics I consider important. They should be available whenever I want them.
No one can meet such expectations for every member of the congregation. Sooner or later the congregational leadership will disappoint someone. When that happens, the disappointment is again treated as a breach of contract. The church is failing to do what it is supposed to do and the disappointed member feels free to challenge the guilty leaders until they capitulate.
One of the ironies is that, while some pastors are attacked no matter how much they do, others are defended despite misconduct. Indeed, there are almost always members strongly championing their pastor even in the face of extensive evidence of egregious misconduct. Part of this is the natural denial of grief. When misconduct is first discovered, it is hard to believe. As the evidence mounts, however, the support continues. Because the needs mentality encourages people to measure pastors by what they personally receive, it encourages such misplaced support. Just as it does not matter what a pastor is doing for others if my needs are not being met, so it does not matter what a pastor is doing to others if my needs are being met. Misconduct thus becomes unimportant when it does not affect me directly.
Changing Our Language
“Need” is an elastic term. Many congregational ministries could be placed under it. If the needs aren’t physical, they are emotional or spiritual. The problem with the idea of ministry as responding to people’s needs is not in what congregations do but in how people come to think about the church. It reduces the church to a service provider whose clients/recipients are free to complain whenever they are dissatisfied. Lost is the idea of people being and becoming the church. Lost is the understanding of the church as a community of faith whose members struggle together to draw closer to God and to express that closeness in how they live and interact with the world.
To counter this, a shift in thinking is called for, and this shift must be reflected in our language. There are other, richer ways of speaking about ministry and mission than just talking about needs. Congregations that move beyond that language find that their self-understanding expands. As a denominational representative, I worked with one congregation that had been through a disastrous two-year pastorate. As we talked, I asked them who benefited from their existence and how. They answered solely in terms of trying to respond to community needs—providing a preschool to help young families, and helping the homeless who came to their door. We then spok
e of what tied them together as a church. They spoke of shared bonds of fellowship and growing together in faith, of the importance of worship in their lives. The word “need” was never mentioned. I pointed out they had just described two different kinds of pastors, and that pastors whose primary emphasis was responding to community needs used their time differently than those whose primary concern was nurturing a community of faith. As we reflected on the priorities of a pastor focused on needs, one of the congregants spoke up, “That’s what we just got rid of,” he said. From this conversation and others, the congregation came to realize that the center of their life was not to respond to community needs but to be a community of faith. They changed their self-description and pastoral expectations. They still have the preschool and feed the homeless, but now they do it as an expression of their life as a community of faith.
Looking at spiritual gifts is another way to move beyond the “needs” mentality because it reminds people that they have much to give. One congregation I worked with as an interim pastor had a twelve-week new members’ class. From the very first session, new members were asked how they would share their gifts. At the last session they were not only asked to fill out a financial pledge card but also to complete a spiritual gifts inventory and describe where and how they would be involved in the life of the congregation. The whole twelve-week program was designed to remind them that they were becoming participants in the church, not just recipients of it.
Reclaiming the language of call is another way to inspire a new awareness of purpose. As an interim minister, I often introduce congregations to Fredrick Buechner’s comment, “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” The wonder is how much this quote changes congregations’ understanding of mission. They stop trying to duplicate what another congregation does well and begin to consider what they can do. They stop looking for someone to tell them what to do and start generating ideas themselves. Best of all, ministry moves from being something they are supposed to do to being a celebration of their own call.
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