'What Do People Want?' is The Wrong Question

by Greg Spires April 20, 2016

I am not a snob when it comes to watching movies.  Generally, I am not going to spend a whole lot of time dissecting plot lines or uncovering cinematic metanarrative.  However, when I watch a movie I want to enjoy myself.  In my view, that is sort of the point.  So, I will evaluate a movie on a scale of enjoyment that goes from Baby Geniuses to Raiders of the Lost Ark.  (I shouldn’t have to say it, but Baby Geniuses is the low end of that scale.)

One day I was out of town for business meetings.  The meetings were finished for the afternoon and I didn’t have to be anywhere until that evening.  So, I wandered to the local mall to see what was playing at the cinema.  None of the movies I wanted to see fit my schedule.  There was one movie, however, that finished in time for my evening appointment, but I had never heard of it.  It looked like it might be a good action movie, so I bought a ticket and found my way into the theater.

            As the movie began, the characters where speaking in a language I didn’t understand.  Fortunately, the English translation was printed along the bottom of the screen.  So, I followed the story with the aid of the subtitles.  I enjoyed how the film captured the cultural flavor with the language.  But it never stopped.  A half hour into the movie I was still reading subtitles.  I sat there thinking, “Okay, mister movie director, I get it.  This film does not occur in an English speaking locale.  Point taken, gold star for authenticity.  Now, make the English happen!”

            I gave it another fifteen minutes before realizing I was watching a foreign language film.  I was not invested enough in the story to commit to reading the rest of that script-- I mean, watching the rest of that movie, so I left. It probably won a bunch of awards, but I couldn’t hack it.  It just wasn’t fun (still, it was better than Baby Geniuses).

            I wandered into a theater, not knowing what to expect, and left disappointed.  Why?  Maybe the director of the film did a bad job connecting the movie with the audience -- me.  Likely, if the director would have spent more time figuring out what I wanted, and less time typing in subtitles, I would have enjoyed the movie more.  Of course, I didn’t even know what I wanted when I walked into that theater, so it is hard to know how the director of that movie would have figured out what I wanted.

            It is concerning to note that many churches evaluate their ministry effectiveness in much the same way; that is, working to figure out what people want.  In this way ministry becomes little more than a big effort to see how many people we can get to show up.  Once people show up, we then go to all kinds of lengths to make sure they keep showing up.  This is true across the church flavor spectrum, from the Northwest, with everyone in their flannel, beards, and gourmet coffee, to the historical and firmly traditional churches of the Deep South.  Regardless, they are seeking the same goal: get more people and get them to stay.

            The point is this.  New, modern churches do not have a corner on the market of consumerism.  Traditional churches are asking the same questions; they just have different answers.

            For example.  A new church might ask what kind of music, preaching, facility, and programs a community would desire.  If they have the talent and funding, there is a good chance they could attract a good sized crowd.  How do we get people to show up?  Figure out what they want, and give them what they are looking for.

            A traditional church might ask what kind of music, preaching, facility, and programs the people currently attending the church would desire.  If they have the talent and funding, there is a good chance they could keep people from leaving.  How do we keep people from leaving?  Figure out what they want, and give them what they are looking for.

            It may be consumeristic and attractional for a church plant to use multi-media with a modern worship band in an effort to get people to show up.  It is just as consumeristic and attractional for a traditional church to use hymns, accompanied by piano and organ, in an effort to keep people from leaving.  The issue is not so much what the churches are doing; rather, the issue is the question they are trying to answer: How do we get people to show up and keep showing up?  The answer to that question, regardless of whether the methodology is traditional or modern, will always be consumeristic and attractional.

            Disciple making ministry through Spirit empowered gospel proclamation will always seek to understand ministry context.  As Tim Keller points out in his book Center Church, we must look around us and see what the gospel affirms, and what the gospel challenges, in our context.

            However, this is fundamentally different than asking “what do people want?”  Whether the ministry context is a church plant in an urban center or an established, traditional church in a rural farm community, trying to figure out what people want will always lead to ministry that is opposed to gospel centered ministry.