Ministry Myth: Jesus Always Addressed Felt Needs

April 25, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Jesus Heals ParalyticA while back, I was in a meeting with church leaders from across the country who are devoted to bringing Christ’s gospel to all nations.  In our discussions, one of these leaders pointed out that, as important as church programs and friendly atmospheres may be for engaging people who don’t know Christ, ultimately, what reaches people is the preaching of the gospel.  “It is the Word of God,” he said, “that touches and transforms hearts.”  To this, another person replied, “Yes, the gospel is important.  But we can’t start with the gospel because the gospel alone won’t reach people.  We need to begin with people’s felt needs. Jesus always began with people’s felt needs.”

Well, yes He did…except when He didn’t.

Like the time a paralytic’s friends brought him to Jesus.  Jesus saw that they had faith enough to bring their friend to Him for healing.  But He did not respond to their felt need for healing – at least not right away.  Instead, He said, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5).  Jesus dealt with this man’s deeper need – his need for forgiveness – before He dealt with this man’s felt need – his need to be healed from his paralysis.

Or how about the time one of Jesus’ dearest friends – a man named Lazarus – fell ill?  His sisters, Mary and Martha, begged Jesus to hurry over and heal him.  But Jesus did not meet their need.  Instead, He intentionally let His dear friend die.  Why? So that Jesus could address humanity’s deeper need – the need to be rescued from death – which far outweighs the felt need of being temporarily healed from a frustrating ailment.  This is why Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26).

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that Jesus never began by addressing people’s felt needs.  After all, He fed a crowd of 5,000 by miraculously multiplying loaves of bread before declaring Himself to be the bread of life (cf. John 6:1-35).  He began with a felt need for physical food before He moved to a deeper need for heavenly food.  Jesus does sometimes initiate an engagement by addressing people’s felt needs.  However, Jesus does not always begin this way.  Indeed, sometimes, He flat out denies people’s felt needs as He challenges them with their deeper needs.

The problem with felt needs is that, often, felt needs are not helpful needs.  Sometimes, felt needs can even be sinfully selfish needs.  Jesus has little interest in meeting our felt needs for riches, for ease, and even for happiness.  Thus, for us to begin and base our ministries on what people think they need, and then to try to meet those needs before we share Jesus, can devolve, if we are not careful, into merely enabling sin.

I have learned over the years that Jesus has a funny way of resisting the easy ministry models we like to apply to Him.  To those who say that Jesus always begins by addressing people’s felt needs so they will be open to the gospel, I must say, “I think you’re wrong.”  But then again, to those who say that Jesus never begins by addressing people’s felt needs as a foray to share the gospel, I also must say, “I think you’re wrong.”  Jesus does both.

We should too.

Perhaps we would do well to learn to pray a slightly modified version of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous, though contested, Serenity Prayer as we seek to faithfully reach the world with the gospel: “God, grant me the tenderness to address people’s felt needs at certain times, the boldness to challenge them with their deepest needs at other times, and the wisdom to know when to do which.”

That’s my prayer as I seek to reach out with the gospel.  Will you join me in praying the same?

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