The secret value of 'What’s in it for me?'

Long before Starbucks offered 80,000 different ways to order a beverage, Burger King urged us to “have it your way.” The primary product in a consumer culture is choice. And the primary question it invites consumers to ask is “What’s in it for me?” But is there any place for that sort of question in the church?

The church prides itself on being a self-sacrificing body, modeled on Christ’s self-giving love. “What’s in it for me?” runs counter to everything we believe in. Or does it?

I’d like to suggest that there is a secret value in urging people to ask us that question. And a not-so-secret value in the church answering it. After all, Jesus did.

Jesus gave people a reason to follow him, answering the inherent question: What’s in it for me? He met people’s deepest needs through his hands on healing. When calling disciples, he said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men and women!” Notice he didn’t say, “Follow me so I can use you to take care of my business.” He put it in their language and answered from their perspective.

I was often unnerved, as a pastor, when someone wanted to do or be something that we didn’t already have a place for in the church. How could I fit them into our structure? How could I keep the church running? How could we get our needs met if they wouldn’t do what we needed? After all, we had trustees and church council to fill; we needed people to collect and count the offering; we needed Sunday school teachers; we had to find people to do missions, outreach and participate in Bible study. I started with what the church needed, not what they needed or wanted to give. I started with what’s in it for us, not what’s in it for them.

Turns out that’s not a recipe for longevity or sustainability. It’s not what engages most people. Yes, slots got filled, gifts were matched with needs and the church functioned fairly well for years. But not everyone who came stayed. We were left with what we started with: structures to be filled.

But those structures aren’t necessarily designed to answer people’s deepest needs, fulfill their dreams, or empower them in the journey to be fully human.

Now I would want people to ask me, “What’s in it for me?” It’s an honest question that deserves an honest answer. The secret value in their posing the question is they might actually find their own unique reason for being part of the church. They might find their answer for being connected to Christ. The not so secret value in our answering it is we get to check if we are actually serving people or asking them to serve us. In other words, if we are there to help them fulfill their lives, or just our structures.

I sat sipping one of the 80,000 Starbucks beverage choices with my 40-something cousin, Brent, last week. “I don’t really attend church anymore,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem relevant to my life. I mean I believe in Jesus and all. But why keep rehearsing the same stories over and over? Does it really change anything? I’m left with the question, ‘So what?’”

There’s a person who never got to ask the what’s in it for me question. And a church that never got to answer it.

I’ve participated in Landmark Worldwide programs for almost a decade. It’s personal and professional development based in a coaching model that engages the question: What does it mean to be human? The organization is secular in nature. But they do an excellent job of prompting questions the church is likewise concerned with. When someone registers for a Landmark program they’re asked, “What would you like to get out of your participation in this course?” It’s a powerful question that helps people connect with their dearest concerns and their long-lost dreams.

What would it be like for us to ask that question of seekers and disciples? All too often we simply tell them what we the church are prepared to offer. Or what we think they should be looking for. Or perhaps we don’t even explain that. But when people can connect with what truly matters to them, and see a way to fulfill that through the church, then they will be eager partners in their own spiritual formation. They will be eager disciples of Jesus Christ. But we must be willing to have them ask us the “What’s in it for me?” question. And to wrestle honestly with the answers.

One hot and humid Philippine afternoon, I traveled on a bus with the marvelously eccentric and profoundly visionary Bob Hentzen. A former Catholic priest and co-founder of Unbound, an organization that matches over 300,000 children and elders with sponsors, Bob had the long view on the church. “We are great at making Catholics,” he said, straw cowboy hat akimbo, as he reflected on his mother church. “But how do we do at making human beings?”

That question has stayed with me. The United Methodist Church is great at making committee members, and even church members. And now we are working at truly making disciples. But how do we do at making human beings?

The more we can deal with people as they are, and not as we think they should be, the better we’ll be able to do at it. Today, people do ask the question, “What’s in it for me?” Not a bad question for us to wrestle with. It assumes they have personal agency as well as God-given dreams, hopes and questions. And it assumes we truly have something to offer.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at She is the author of The Jew Named Jesus and Green Church.

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