Posts tagged ‘Reinhold Niebuhr’

Ministry Myth: Jesus Always Addressed Felt Needs

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?

April 25, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Pew Survey On Christianity: It’s Not As Bad Or As Good As You Might Think

Church and CrossThe Washington Post led with a headline that sounded nearly apocalyptic: “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion.”[1] The faithful quickly jumped in to temper the premature reports of Christianity’s cardiac arrest with op-ed pieces like this one by Ed Stetzer that ran in USA Today: “Survey fail – Christianity isn’t dying: Ed Stetzer.”[2]

The topic of discussion and debate is a new Pew Research Center poll that finds:

… the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%.[3]

Taken by themselves, these statistics sound dire and dour. But, as Ed Stetzer helpfully points out in his article, there is more to these statistics than what first meets the eye:

Rather than predict the impending doom of the church in America, this latest study affirms what many researchers have said before. Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified. Churches aren’t emptying; rather, those who were Christian in name only are now categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction and engagement …

Nominals – people whose religious affiliation is in name only – are becoming nones – people who check “none of the above” box on a survey.

Those who value their faith enough to wake up on Sunday morning and head to their local church are mostly still going. What I have described as “convictional Christianity” will continue. Those who say their faith is very important to their lives are not suddenly jettisoning those beliefs to become atheists.

According to Pew, unaffiliated Americans grew from 16 to nearly 23% in the last seven years. That increase largely came from the ranks of Catholics and Mainline Protestants, religious traditions with high numbers of nominals.

Stetzer’s point is well taken. By no stretch of the imagination should we read the Pew survey as a funeral dirge for Christianity – especially for Evangelical Christianity, contrary to this misreading of the Pew survey.[4] Still, even if Pew’s numbers do not portend the sure demise of Christianity, they do indicate a real shift in Christianity. Here’s how.

For better or for worse, the nominal Christians who once warmed the pews in Mainline Protestant churches and are now hemorrhaging to the “nones” had as their counterparts the academic Protestant Christians among the elites. Names such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Paul Tillich, and Karl Barth once held court as America’s public intellectuals – their books being widely read and disseminated not only into Protestant Christendom, but into society in general. These men enjoyed unrivaled cultural gravitas – so much so, that each of them took their turn gracing the cover of Time Magazine. And though none of these men can be considered orthodox in their doctrine in an Evangelical Christian sense, they nevertheless passed down to American society some generally and even genuinely Christian concerns and insights. Reinhold Niebuhr defended a robust doctrine of original sin, thundering against the pride of society and those who thought they were generally good people. Harry Emerson Fosdick, though he firmly espoused a liberal Protestant ethos, was not afraid to critique it by warning the Church against a blind cultural accommodation to the spirit of the age. Paul Tillich served as an apologist of sorts, explaining how life’s deepest existential questions can be answered by divine revelation. And Karl Barth bequeathed to us an 8,000 page series on church dogmatics that still informs – and occasionally irritates – Christian thinkers to this day. The work these and other men did kept Christian concerns in the forefront of people’s minds and Christian ethical commitments in the center of people’s worldviews.

The latest Pew survey reminds us that these Christian concerns and ethics are disappearing in broad society. The Protestant lions of old are being replaced by the secularist elites of today. The Pew survey, then, does not just tell the story of a non-committed Christian-esque demographic that, in a twist of delicious justice, is deservedly disappearing; it tells the story of a broader Christian influence that – even if it was of the liberal variety – is waning.

This, of course, is not all bad. The heterodoxy and, in some instances, the outright heresy of these Protestant theologians posed a serious challenge to orthodox Christianity. But, then again, the disappearance of influential Protestantism is also not all good. After all, these Protestant theologians did serve broadly, even if unintentionally, as a tenuous bridge between orthodox Christians on the one hand and powerful elites on the other, enabling the two sides to talk to each other.[5] But this bridge has now collapsed, leaving a yawning canyon between a group of orthodox Christians who are increasingly frightened by and hostile to secularism and a group of powerful elites who are increasingly uninformed about and uninhibited by a generally Christian view of life. Our challenge, then, is to bridge this canyon. And that is no easy task.

I agree with Ed Stetzer that Christians should not respond to the Pew survey apoplectically. But the survey does make me miss some of the Protestant leaders of yesteryear, no matter how much I may have been at odds with them theologically. They may have not always been right, but sometimes, they were helpful.

_______________________________________

[1] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion,” The Washington Post (5.12.2015).

[2] Ed Stetzer, “Survey fail – Christianity isn’t dying: Ed Stetzer,” USA Today (5.13.2015).

[3]America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center (5.12.2015).

[4] Although I share many of Matt Walsh’s concerns with what he saw of Evangelical Christianity and would agree that many Evangelical churches need more robust and Christocentric teaching and preaching, his stated cause of Christianity’s losses is not specifically born out by the Pew data.

[5] For example, Billy Graham and Karl Barth were friends and were comfortable enough with each other to spar with each other on occasion.   See Mark Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 47.

May 18, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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