It’s important for you to know, as we begin today, that much of the material in today’s sermon comes from a sermon written by the Rev. William Willimon, and printed in the magazine “Pulpit Resources.” I tell you that first because I feel strongly that preachers should always give proper credit when they use the words or ideas of someone else, so I always tell you if I’m doing that.

But it’s especially important to understand that today because there are parts of the message today that people could conclude I wrote to refer to a particular issue or group of people at Paris Presbyterian Church; that I was trying to influence our direction somehow. This introduction lets you know I didn’t do that; this is not directed at anyone or anything in particular, here. As far as I know, Rev. Willimon’s never even been to Paris Presbyterian Church, so he couldn’t possibly have been writing about us. No, his remarks reflect a situation found in many, many churches, of many different denominations, all over the country. This isn’t personal. 

The Gospel of Mark,” Rev. Willimon begins, “is a gospel full of controversies. {We find several stories where} Jesus intrudes, assaults, seems intent on provoking confrontation and conflict.

“Today Jesus is in his hometown, at a gathering for Sabbath worship in his home synagogue – the church he grew up in. And here, at home, too, there is conflict. Jesus encounters rejection here, among his own people; Mark suggests that this is because they thought of him as an unimpressive ‘hometown boy.’” Who does he think he is, coming back here and preaching like that to us? “Jesus provokes fierce resistance, even among those who had been closest to him.”

“Mark then links this story of rejection with the sending out of the disciples,” which immediately follows – and in which we see rejection playing a part as well: “If any place will not welcome you, and they refuse to hear you, shake off the dust on your feet as you leave, as a testimony against them.” The disciples can anticipate rejection as well, especially since their main message is telling people they have to change.

“So from the two stories we can gain a simple, straightforward, but sometimes overlooked insight: Jesus provoked controversy. His followers also provoke controversy. Something about Jesus – something in his teaching or in his person – turned away more people than he attracted. Jesus, it appears, was willing to suffer rejection,” to say things people didn’t want to hear. “Jesus preached away more people than he won.”

Shift scenes, now, fast forward to a church of Jesus Christ, in the year 2018. The following encounter is very typical: “Pastor Jim enters a supermarket and runs into Jan, a woman who the Sunday before had visited with her husband and three children in the church that Jim serves. After exchanging pleasantries, Jim tells her how much the church appreciated her visit, and how he hopes they will return. Jan replies, ‘Well . . . we enjoyed the service, but for now we’re just shopping around for the church that meets our needs.’ End of conversation.

“After all, that is what church is all about, right? Meeting our needs.” Isn’t that why we come to church? To get what we want?

“We live in a day when many are convinced that the church should get into a particular kind of marketing, that the church should take its cue from business and be more ‘consumer-oriented.’ Worship leaders are told to create ‘user friendly’ worship, to match whatever the people want. Churches should devise their programs, it is said, after they have first identified peoples’ ‘felt needs.’

“In this view, worship is a product, that congregations offer for consumption, with the primary concern being how to attract and satisfy more customers, and to keep the ones you’ve got. The supermarket doesn’t tell you that you should prefer romaine lettuce over iceberg. No, the grocer discovers the products you want and offers them to you cheaply and efficiently.” Is that the way we should design church, too—send out a survey, and whatever people want to see and hear, that’s what we offer?

“What if . . . a congregation believes worship is not just another product for consumption, like lettuce, but an activity that it engages in for the glory and honor of God? Could it be that a church might serve a larger goal or purpose than conforming itself to whatever people say their needs are?” Just why are we here?

“Say, for instance, that you tell me that you are left cold by the reading of those two lessons from the Bible every Sunday.” It’s such an old book, you say, with outdated material; why can’t we read from something current instead? (And this happened to me, by the way, to me Rodger, not Rev. Willimon, at a previous church: one of the people regarded as a church leader kept after me about how we shouldn’t use the Bible as a starting point for sermons so often – why can’t we use some of those great self-help books that are out now instead?)

In this mindset, “If we refuse to offer a more appealing ‘product’ by cutting out the Bible parts, then we appear to be incredibly insensitive to the needs of those ‘customers.’ But there may be reasons for not letting the ‘customer’ and what he or she wants/determines the total shape of our Sunday mornings.

“We live in a society in which most daily choices are consumer choices, so people have come to view their relationship to the church in the same way. And once people come to view choosing a church in ways similar to choosing among competing brands of basketball shoes, then enormous pressure is exerted on the church to think of itself as having to please its customers too.”

So some people come to church saying “I want worship to be the same format it’s always been. Everything else in the world is changing; I need worship to stay constant.” Or “I just want to sit and watch for an hour Sunday morning; I’ve been running around all week and I need to just sit.” Or “I get terribly bored just sitting. I need to actively participate in most of worship, to be talking, singing, moving, engaged. “ It’s “I need upbeat music to make me feel like praising God,” or “I need all old hymns or it just won’t feel like church.” “I need the pastor to talk about this topic that’s weighing heavily on my mind in his sermon today.” “I need to be reassured today, and not challenged; don’t ask me to think, or change, or work today.” “I need a happy service ‘cause I’m in a great mood today.” “I need a quiet service ‘cause I’m kinda down.” C’mon church, you have to meet my needs. And in a culture where fewer people are going to church, the church feels the pressure to agree, to go along.

 “But what if . . . the church serves people, not as an individual market transaction, but as a whole collection of the people of God? What if the choir works hard on their anthem, not because they want you to like it, but because they want to praise and glorify God as best they can?” What if the worship committee designs our order around what’s good for all of us to do, not just what feels fun? “What if I’m preaching this sermon, not because I believe it’s uppermost on your list of weekly wants, but rather because I believe it’s something God wants? Whether we got what we wanted here should not be as great a concern among us as faithfulness to the pursuit of God’s kingdom.

“What is the greatest service the church can render the world? Perhaps the service we render is not necessarily what the world thinks it needs. The church is not only about meeting my needs, but also about re-arranging my needs,” giving me a different set of priorities, “and giving me needs I would never have had. While our culture tells each of us, ‘nothing is more important than you,’ the Gospel of Christ, while it is about you, is also about something larger and more important than just you. It’s not just about meeting ‘my needs;’ it’s about finding needs to meet more interesting and more numerous than my own.

“So yes, we need comfort, reassurance, a sense of peace. But we also need truth and honesty. And in church, when it’s at its best, we get not what we think we need, but what God thinks we need—which is, of course, what we really do need. While we are tempted to ask, ‘What do the people want’, the question we have to ask is the more frightening one ‘What does God want?’ Or in the prophet Micah’s words, ‘What does the Lord require?’

“The church is not here to meet what people say they need. The church is called to the countercultural activity of serving God in a world that often does not worship God.

“Instead of {a particular survey-driven kind of} marketing, then, our primary metaphor ought to be formation: how can the church form its community and its members to be embodiments of the gospel.” Even if it means reading from the Bible

“How many times have we come to church: seeking confirmation of what we already think; or help with this week’s problem; or fellowship with people just like us? Many of you can testify that, thank God, church often turns out to offer more than our expectations. In worship, in the life of the church, God tends to take any wrong reasons for coming we may have brought, and reform them, redirect our desires, give us more than we would have known how to ask for. In the reading and preaching of God’s Word, those preconceptions we brought get challenged and changed. What we thought were this week’s problems turn out to be handled easily by God, and we begin to consider problems we would have never had before we met Jesus – things we need to change, people we can help. We come seeking mere fellowship with other people like us, and are astounded to receive friendship with God.

“Surely at least a few people left Capernaum that day described by Mark 6 saying ‘I’m sorry, that new  preacher just didn’t do a thing for me. That’s not what I wanted to hear; he didn’t meet my needs.’

“But surely some – a few, not everyone—realized that Jesus was about something even more significant than trying to give them just what they want.”

Let us pray: God, we thank you again for the privilege of coming to worship; and we ask you to guide us as we plan, carry out, and come to worship. Keep our worship directed toward you, for your praise and glory, not just about our petty preferences. Help us to seek what you want for us, since you know what we need most, rather than fighting for what we think we want. Lead us to higher aspirations than getting our own way, than thinking only of ourselves – namely, thinking of the good of the whole people of God, and how we can best together witness to the world of your love and sovereignty. Bring us here to worship you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.