Don't Give 'em What They Want

October 10th, 2011
Image © greek0129 | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

In the West, it’s hard to grow a church without catering to people’s wants and felt needs. We preach super practical sermon series, we offer small groups that are designed to appeal to individual interests, and we serve gourmet coffee in the narthex. (That’s the lobby for those of you who don’t know churchspeak, or your congregation meets at the neighborhood cineplex.)

We try our hardest to stay on top of church trends so we don’t lose market share in our community to the local megachurch and its charismatic pastor. The best way to get people to show up is to give them what they want, right?

Then there are the churches that do the complete opposite. These churches are stuck in the 1950’s, and it’s usually for one of two reasons—either they don’t get that times and methods have changed, or they’re intentionally bucking the perceived consumerism trend by protecting their traditions. Some of these congregations even seem to wear this elitist attitude as a badge of honor. (“We don’t care if we grow. We like being small!”)

“People may say they want to worship with a certain style of music, but what they need is a little culture and more theological depth in their music.”

“People may say they like topical preaching and sermon series, but preaching from the lectionary is what’s best for them!”

“People may say they want more home group Bible study options, but what will happen to Sunday school if we do that?”

“People may say they want to use the DVD’s from Beth Moore for their study group, but they obviously don’t understand that our denomination doesn’t agree with all of her theology.”

What we have here are the classic “give them what they want” and “give them what they need” philosophies. Burgers and fries vs. Brussels sprouts.

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computer, had an interesting opinion about giving consumers what they want. He didn’t let that sort of thinking drive him because he assumed that consumers either didn’t know what they really wanted, or he thought that by the time he had figured out how to give it to them, they would have moved on to wanting something else anyway.

People who run businesses giving consumers what they want spend their entire careers being reactive instead of proactive.

Instead of giving people what they already wanted, Jobs instead showed them what was possible. Then he convinced them that they wanted it.

When news of the first generation iPhone broke, I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. I thought my Blackberry was the best thing since sliced bread, and I couldn’t imagine a touchscreen phone without a physical keyboard. I figured it would be an expensive toy purchased only by the most loyal Apple fans.

At least I was right about the expensive part.

Now I own an Android, but I can’t deny that the iPhone is the major reason for my phone’s existence. I would have never even wanted a touchscreen smartphone if I hadn’t seen the iPhone in action. Now my new phone helps me to be much more productive than my old phone ever did. And it’s a lot more fun to use.

Sorry, Blackberry.

There’s a lesson here for the church. Instead of trying so hard to give people what they think they want, or what we think they need, maybe we should focus more on showing them what’s possible. And we should do that with as much excellence and creativity as we can muster.

What if we stretched ourselves musically, theologically, intellectually, spiritually, and homiletically? Instead of aiming for the lowest common denominator, suppose we pushed the limits of our thinking and did church in a way that didn’t cater to current wants or perceived needs, but in the end, actually ended up being what people both wanted and needed?

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