On Not Meeting Needs at Church

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by William Willimon, Dean of Chapel, Duke University

Not long ago, a pastor ran into a woman who had just visited his church with her family. The pastor told her the church appreciated her visit and he hoped they would return. She replied, “We enjoyed the service, but right now we’re just shopping around for the church that meets our needs.”

After all, what is the church about if not about meeting our needs? Of course, the church wants to meet people’s needs. But that begs deeper questions: “Which needs should the church attempt to meet? Who determines which needs the church will not attempt to meet?”

We live in a day when many are convinced that the church should take its cue from business and be more “consumer oriented.” Pastors are urged to create “user friendly” worship and programs that meet people’s needs. In this view, church is a product offered for consumption, to attract and satisfy more customers (or keep the ones you’ve got).

What is the greatest service the church can render? Perhaps it is not necessarily what people think they need. The church is not only about meeting my needs but also about rearranging my needs, giving me needs I would never have had if I had not come to church. (While we are asking what people want, we ought to ask the more frightening question: What does God want?)

The church is not here to meet people’s needs. The church is called to the counter-cultural activity of serving God in a world that does not worship God. In my experience, most of us come to church for the wrong reasons. That is, we come seeking confirmation of our preconceptions, help with our problems, fellowship with people like us.

In worship, in the life of the church, God wants to take our wrong reasons and reform them, redirect our desires, give us more than we would have known how to ask for. In the preaching of God’s Word, our preconceptions get challenged and changed. What we thought were our problems are revealed to be trivial and we are given problems we would have never had before we met Jesus. We come seeking mere fellowship with other people and are astounded to receive friendship with God.

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