July 9, 2012

Serving Without Pandering

The best beer in the world is made by Trappist monks in Belgium. Or this is what I was told by 99% Invisible, a podcast I listen to occasionally. The beer is called Westvletern 12, and in order to purchase it you must call one of the monks and make a reservation. If you are able to get through (the line is often busy), you must drive to the monastery in Flanders, Belgium, and pick your case. One per person. Except for a growing black market, there is no other way to get the beer.

Lots of people want to buy the beer, but they monks aren’t really interested in making more. The podcast concludes that, “The ‘customer service’ is not designed to provide convenience for the consumer of their beer, it is designed for monks themselves. Their ‘customer’ is God, so to speak.” The monks make beer so that they can afford to be monks. They are monks first, brewers second.

We can learn something from these monks. They demonstrate an ability to discern between what others want and what God is calling them to do. People want more beer, but brewing is neither their mission nor is it going to help the world significantly. To change their way of life in order to produce more beer would be pandering to those around them. People can often tell when they are being pandered to, and they generally don’t like it (especially if the quality of the beer suffers).

People in the church and outside of it may be calling for many things – a new liturgy or a certain new ministry, changes to Sunday music or a new building. How do we know how to proceed? How do we address the true needs and desires of the community and the rest of the world without pandering to shifting desires?

As Frederick Buechner said, “The place to which God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.” Where the needs of the customers – God, and those in need around us – and our talents and abilities intersect is where our ministry lies. We should ask ourselves these questions often: Who are we serving? What do they need? What does God want? And what are our abilities and talents? Then we should pay attention to the place where these intersect, and allow our ministry and our worship to be true expressions of our calling and ourselves.