“In a recent survey of 1,000 church attenders, respondents were asked, ‘Why does the church exist?’ According to 89 percent, the church’s purpose was ‘to take care of my family’s and my spiritual needs.’ Only 11 percent said the purpose of the church is ‘to win the world for Jesus Christ.’” - Greg Laurie, senior pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California.
For the past few years, there's been a substantial push back to the idea of the church as a meeter of needs. This generally takes the form of deriding the idea of the church as a "provider of religious goods and services" (to quote my friend Doug Pagitt, the first I heard of many, including myself, who have used this phrase).
And as far as that goes, I'm in total agreement. When the Church is seen primarily as an institution which caters to the felt needs of myself and my family, something vital gets lost as communities get sucked into an attractional cycle of tweaking programs and message to fit fads and tastes.
But more and more, I'm beginning to see the opposite end of the spectrum as just as much an overstatement and disservice to the true meaning and mission of the church.
I think of it this way: if the Church's mission is to be a sign and foretaste of the present and coming (already and not yet) Kingdom of God, then it's imperative that needs be met- that's part of the artwork, the essence of being a sign and foretaste.
In other words, one of the reasons we feed the poor, aside from the fact that people are simply hungry, is to point to what God ultimately does and will do in Jesus. We care for the environment for the same way- not just because it's good stewardship, but also because we are drawing a picture for people of the redemption and renewal of all things that began to come to fruition on Easter morning with the Resurrection of Jesus and will culminate someday in the Reign of Jesus.
So if all that is true, I think it's imperative that the church be meeting needs for people not just "outside" but inside as well. Not as a church growth strategy ("Get the kids and you get the parents!") but rather as a means of showing the mutual love and concern we are commanded to show (Gal 6:10) AND a means of being the sign and foretaste of Jesus' work we are meant to be. In the Kingdom, needs are meant- financial, emotional, whatever. So then, that same reality should be reflected in our communities.
The difference, I think, lies in the "how" as well as in the attitudes we cultivate as members of a community.
First, the how. If our primary strategy of meeting needs is one of professionals being paid to make things happen, things may indeed happen, but two unintended side-effects are likely to ensue. In the professional-driven church where nothing "official" happens that didn't originate in a staff meeting, where nothing is considered "real ministry" unless a paid staff-member is present, consumerism WILL become the driving factor. Why? Because what we personally have a hand in creating and sustaining we love and nurture. What we merely purchase, we consume. The quickest way to make consumers (not that people don't already have a pretty good head start)is to make ministry the domain and provence of people getting paid to do it. This disempowers people in the community who feel like they have to run everything by somebody "official"- and as we all know, putting someone in the back seat doesn't make a passenger- it makes a back seat driver- someone who grasps for whatever control they can get by judging and complaining about every turn, missed signal, speed-up or slow-down... The quickest way to stop back-seat driving type complaining is to hand someone the wheel.
Of course- there's still a role for people who are paid to free up the majority of their time to serve the community. There are pieces of ministry that take inordinate amounts of time (coordination of large numbers of volunteers, for example) or specialized training (counseling those in crisis is one) that mean if we want to have those things present in our communities, we make room in our budget for them. There's a pretty good argument from Scripture for paying people as well. This isn't an apologia for paid staff, but I think it's important to remember- that often when no one is being tasked with the primary duty to make sure that things are happening in a community, you get the same result as when it's a professional-only atmosphere: nothing much happens.
In when pastors and elders begin to grab a hold of their true main purpose in ministry- as equippers of others to do the work of ministry (Eph 4) that things begin to click.
In terms of attitude, though- it's not enough to think about what attitude to warn against- we have to point people to the positive alternative, and that probably looks like saying early and often: "We as a church are here to meet needs- not from the "top down", but from person to person, as a community." We point people towards the idea that when they see a problem or need, their first instinct shouldn't be complaining or criticizing, but asking if THEY themselves can meet or fix the need/problem. And if they feel unable, the next step is not to pass off to the paid professionals, but to spur conversation in the community about equipping people to do this task that is now becoming apparent as a pressing need.
To sum up:
My overall fear with the idea that the church is not here to meet needs is that while we may be effectively fighting consumerism with language like that, we're probably unintentionally signaling to people that needs that they see WITHIN the community are not a priority or even important. The real solution is to move elders and pastors from being the paid professionals back to the more biblical model of equippers, and to instill in people an attitude that community IS there to meet needs, and they are not just an essential, but THE main part of that.