should we preach to felt needs?

some of the most prolific writers/speakers/leaders in the blogoshpere (who will go unnamed) have made comments recently that startled me.  one guy posted an article on his blog entitled. “ten keys to better series planning.”  while there are some good things in the article, this writer/speaker/leader’s  thinking is flawed (in my humble opinion).  another guy makes a comment in response to an interview question, and i want to point out what i see as a couple of systemic problems with what both guys have to say.  please do not think i am taking shots at any particular individual (if i had a problem with the man, i would simply stop visiting his blog), i am taking exception with some commonly held principles that are (in my humble opinion) unbiblical and harmful.

in the first guy’s post about series planning, he says:

Find the right balance between “reach people” series and “grow people” series. There will always be tension here, but the objective is to try to balance out using services to attract a crowd and help people take their next steps in their spiritual journey.  At ( unnamed megachurch ), we’ve actually color-coded our teaching calendar to make sure we maintain a healthy balance.

Deliver biblical truth and life application.  Your teaching will not produce life change unless you also provide life application.  Without application people may experience conviction or inspiration, but they won’t know what to do with that.  Make it a goal in every message to clearly identify one next step for people to take to apply what they’ve learned.

i stumbled on the phrase, “Your teaching will not produce life change unless you also provide life application.”  either this guy puts way too much confidence in my teaching, or way too little confidence in the word of god to change lives (to say nothing of the ability of the holy spirit to make application).  in acts 2, peter stood up and preached jesus (he basically quoted old testament scripture) without application, and the people said, “brothers, what shall we do?”

too, would someone please tell me what a “reach people” series is?  is there such a thing as preaching “to attract a crowd”?

another well-known and uber popular preacher (one of my favorites, in fact) said this in an interview:

Guys that preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible– that is just cheating. It’s cheating because that would be easy, first of all. That isn’t how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that. There’s not one example of that.  All Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally applicable or relevant to every stage of life. My challenge is to read culture and to read an audience and ask: What is the felt need? Or perhaps what is more important, what is an unfelt need they need to feel that I can address? Because if they don’t feel it, then they won’t address it.

granted, this is one comment taken out of context, but i just couldn’t disagree more.  first, because i believe scripture is sufficient and capable of standing on its own.  second, because i believe it is wrong to allow my focus to be on people rather than on the word (when choosing what to preach/teach).

mostly, though, i am ruined because of personal experience.

i don’t want to sound all weird, but god spoke to me very clearly a few years ago.  i had gotten into the habit of trying to perceive the needs of my people, and then develop messages to speak to those needs.  i love my people with all my heart and my motivations were completely pure, but god came to me and said (and i paraphrase): “you just preach the word.  you can’t know what these people need, but i do and the solution to their problem is in the word.  you just preach the word.”

the first eight months of that year, i walked verse-by-verse through the sermon on the mount.  while i worked hard (and still do) to apply each passage to real-life issues, i basically tried to let scripture speak for itself.  my life (and, i believe, my preaching) was revolutionized, and i was amazed by the “life application” i found there.  scripture covers all kinds of real-life issues (marriage and parenting and finances and emotional issues) and scripture covers discipleship (bearing fruit and loving each other and embracing servanthood) and scripture covers doctrine (sin and grace and prayer and baptism).  could that be the “healthy balance” my brother is referring to?

when i seek to meet “felt needs” or “attract people” with my preaching, then my focus is backwards.  i am catering to consumers.  but when my preaching begins in the word (with what it is literally saying to us) and flows out of a fresh encounter with god, then needs will be met.  and people will be engaged and changed (the gospel is the most compelling story in history.  as paul told timothy, it is my job to…

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. (2 Timothy 4:2-3)

and…

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture (what? no application?), to preaching and to teaching. (1 Timothy 4:13)

i’m gonna’ preach the word and trust the lord to work out the details.

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7 thoughts on “should we preach to felt needs?

  1. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture (what? no application?), to preaching and to teaching. (1 Timothy 4:13)

    I guess you’re supposed to stop every so often and go off on some “rabbit trail” that drives home the application aspect of the verses…lol

    Lets face it, for some people that would be a true statement…and for others it wouldn’t be at all. Jesus used parables that related to the everyday elements that the people of that day knew didn’t He?

    Isn’t that application?

  2. Wow Randy! Excellent post! I ran the “felt needs”/purpose-driven gamut a few years ago and found myself wanting. Lot of personal app but little content. I have challenged myself to preach through the book of Colossians in ’11 and am finding it rich and full as I study. No need to work hard on app because it is already there. Great thoughts.

  3. i’m with you on most everything, randy. but i didn’t like the application bit. NOT because i don’t believe the Holy Spirit has the power to convict us and show us personal applications when we read the bible. he does.

    but it seems odd for a preacher to want us to trust the Holy Spirit for personal applications from scripture, but he doesn’t want us to trust the same Holy Spirit to help us understand the scripture to begin with? the preacher shouldn’t have to be involved in explaining how a text could be practical, but he doesn’t mind at all being the only one involved in explaining what that text means?

    i feel like, if we’ve resigned ourselves to sit and have someone else preach to us what the bible says and means, then he ought to go ahead and make the application for us as well.

    it’s not a secret that i believe we should be interpreting scripture together as often as we can.

    if we’re going to insist on one guy doing all the teaching (which involves most of the interpreting, thinking, and understanding as well), then he for sure better make some good applications while he’s at it. what else are we paying him for?

    if i were one of these churches who had small groups meeting weekly, though, i think that’d be a great place for group interpretation and practical application discussions. which would leave room for the preacher to preach the word more without making application. though i still don’t get what he’s doing in that case. what’s his job?

    • thanks for the input, brett. for the sake of clarification (and not to be defensive), i am not suggesting we do not/should not seek to help people apply scripture. i wrote, “i worked hard (and still do) to apply each passage to real-life issues.” you know how it is when you preach expositorially: you try to perceive where the passage naturally falls into sections/divisions, you ask, “how does this teaching apply in our culture,” and you try to present the material in an engaging manner. i use that manner of “application,” and i’m sure most preachers/teachers do the same.

      my issue is with the premise that god wants us to ascertain the felt needs of our people, and preach to them. and that we we grow our churches by giving people what they need.

      i would argue that sermon formation/inspiration that begins with the object rather than the subject will be misguided at best. comments like “the objective is to try…using services to attract a crowd” and “My challenge is to read culture and to read an audience and ask: What is the felt need?” i’m simply saying that god knows what my people need, and i need to begin my sermon preparation in his presence with his word open before me. in fact, god may want to say something to my people that is diametrically opposed to their “felt needs,” and i want to be sensitive and obedient to that.

      • yeah, randy, sorry. i guess i missed that sentence. or maybe i read a “not” into it for some reason. i suppose that’s what i get for reading and writing while i’m on baylor watch. or i should say… i suppose that’s what you get for me reading and writing while i’m on baylor watch.

        i did, though, understand your main idea — and agree with it. the concept of felt needs as always bothered me more than a little.

  4. Jesus, seems to me, was both deductive and inductive: He would quote Scripture (OT), but often also explain/apply it – especially to His disciples. He did like to be inductive, to challenge people to listen and think things through, to ask questions that would challenge their motivations, use parables to challenge their perceptions of life and God. He didn’t just walk around only quoting Scripture and leave it to the Spirit to do application. Matter of fact, most of Jesus’ words were what we now call Scripture, but were certainly His own definitions, explanations and application of Old Testament prophecies, Genesis accounts of the patriarchs, etc. I suppose this is why the Pharisees were so critical of Him then – He didn’t just stick to quoting Scripture without any interpretation shared – which is what got Him in trouble with them. His own examples of personal and group speaking revolve very much around His listeners’ concerns and needs; yet He was superb, of course, at using more superficial needs to indicate the deeper spiritual need of relationship with God and His work in their lives. The beatitudes are prime example, for they each speak to, and could be interpreted as, addressing His listeners’ immediate needs of poverty, living in oppression of the Romans, having little political and religious freedom, and physical maladies: yet everyone one of these have spiritual implications, which we find easy to perceive and preach on today (since we don’t suffer the same outward circumstances) – i.e., physical blindness means spiritual blindness; political oppression means sin’s oppression within; etc. I wonder if there’s a balance here – that it doesn’t have to be ONLY deductive preaching/teaching to be “right”; nor, purely inductive, needs-oriented. I’ve been in ministry for 43 years, 4 church plants, cross-cultural ministry, chemical-dependency ministries: my own growth in effective ministering in preaching and teaching, as well as personal ministering, evidenced by fruit produced, has moved from strict verse-by-verse teaching (which, between verses, as we expound on each, we fill with illustrations, associations, and even application) to discerning, with the Spirit’s help, who knows all hearts, the needs of those He’s called me to minister to and the Scriptural truths and principles needed to share that relate to those needs, and open hearts and minds to understand the deeper, underlying spiritual needs in the context of their relationship with God in Christ.

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