How Motivations for Church Life Changed

Most of the New Testament, after the Gospels, was written about the church life of the first several generations of Christians. What prompted them to come together? Roman cities offered many hundreds of clubs and mystery cults to join, not unlike American cities today. Easiest to understand are the Jews already accustomed to synagogue life who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and moved on to a Christian house church (Acts 18: 7). They acted on conviction.

But Luke tells us there were many non-Jewish God-fearers, too. What
motivated them? They probably had the same kind of mixed motives found among church-goers today. Most gathered out of conviction. Others were probably neighbors who liked the fellowship. A few knew they could get a meal. Others sought the protection of the influential leader and enjoyed the status that went with this patronage.

We do know that in the earliest years, they regularly shared a meal during which they usually also remembered the Lord’s last supper. We know they were expected to help each other out because Paul scolded the Corinthians for not taking care of the hungry in their midst.

I am offering these descriptions to illustrate motives within the categories of classic motivational psychology.

People are motivated into action by opportunities to satisfy needs they see as basic to a better life. Christian churches in America used to be seen as such: a way to a better life. Increasingly many are now being ignored. What changed? Look for a shift in needs that motivate behaviors, especially for newer generations.

In motivation theory the basic categories of needs are as follows: first, needs to satisfy bodily requirements (like food and shelter), and then (in ascending order) for security, affiliation, status, and self-actualization. Needs already satisfied do not motivate much new behavior. Over the centuries, Christian churches, at one time or another, proved effective in satisfying all those kinds of needs.

Meeting bodily needs, the first generations pooled their resources to feed the widows in their community. In more recent times, medical missions have been a basic form of outreach in poorly developed countries.

Church life that satisfies the need for security is most evident among immigrants, who seek out opportunities for community and security with others of like mind and language. The Apostle Peter addressed his first letter to aliens living in strange lands and encouraged them to find their new home in the fellowships of the Christian house churches that were emerging.

Churches have always served as social centers. For my farm-raised parents, their village churches were the only social center available. In the 1950s, migrants from center cities to the suburbs sought out congregations to fill their personal social needs, and new churches blossomed. Millennials today think they satisfy that need through the use of social media. Most of them see churches as irrelevant.

The human need to feel different from and superior to others should not be a factor in church life. But, it is, and seeking higher status can be powerful in selecting a church. Early in the 20th century, Pentecostals were looked at as low-class “holy rollers.” But as they became more middle-class, they toned down their exuberance and became more accessible. I can recall discussions with Lutherans who congratulated themselves on being different from (and superior to) Baptists.

The fifth need is for self-actualization. What that means is hard to define in business motivation, but it should be clear for churches. We can focus on helping participants grow in the fruit of the Spirit and become closer to God.

Only churches that appeal to the need for self-actualization will do well in American culture in the future. Raised on evolutionary theory, many in the newest generations no longer know who they are and why they are here. Their suicide rate is rising. But the biblical Gospel will have to be presented more directly and winsomely in ways that call for a response.

Traditional church cultures developed to address basic needs that are no longer compelling for most Americans. But the need for love, joy, peace and hope do remain, especially today. To be effective, churches will need to focus more on engaging participants in behaviors that reflect these basics.

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