Much has been written recently about the pros and cons of need-based preaching, need-based evangelism, and need-based church programming. Need-based ministry has been quite a trend in recent decades, and congregations have spawned program upon program to follow through on the need-based empathy that dominates many pulpits. Speaking to the felt needs of people has been akey element in the growth and influence of many congregations. In this vein, preachers have taken up themes like:
These are important themes, of course, and give occasion for the gospel preacher to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the life experiences of people. People need help in coping with failure, marriage, and temptation. This attention to the social emotional, and spiritual needs of the people is an essential component of effective preaching of the gospel.
Need based anything can be overdone, of course. We can end up simply catering to the whims and desires of people, of indulging our self-centeredness, of intensifying the fundamental disease of this me-first generation. There are many examples of this in every corner of our culture including religion; in fact, what is known as the Prosperity Gospel has overtaken much of the Christian community, in America and around the world. It promises that faithful, holy living will result in physical, social, and financial success, a notion far from the message of the Lord Jesus Christ who lived without home, or family and died without justice or (worldly) success.
But sermons that do not connect in some way with the hopes and despairs of the people, with the grit and glory of life as it is being lived by the people, with the victories and defeats of those who sit in the congregation—sermons that do not connect with this, with these needs, will fail to move and comfort and warn and instruct. n reality, all successful leadership and ministry has addressed the needs of an audience or congregation. This is why pastoral care, which is a form of professional listening, is essential to competent preaching. When speaking to committees seeking an interim pastor I frequently point out how pastoral contact with the congregation is needed even by interim preachers in order to make the Sunday sermon useful in the life of the church.
In the midst of national struggle or turmoil, people need to hear a word about the sustaining power of God “who is with you always to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20) or about the call for people to rise above self-interest to “strive first for the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). After a local teenager dies in an automobile accident, people need to experience the comfort of God expressed through friendship, service, and worship, as described by the apostle Paul in his appeal to Christians “to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God (2 Corinthians 1:4). When an ethnic community is transplanted into the ministry field of a congregation, people need to be reminded of the ministry of hospitality as expressed in the words of Jesus, “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).
These and a thousand more life situations come up unexpectedly to a Christian congregation, and the preacher has the wonderful opportunity to bring to bear on such dilemmas the mercy and grace of God as reflected in the life of our Lord. Jesus himself, you recall, dealt with empire and taxes, food and clothing, friendship and forgiveness, and success and failure. Jesus discerned the needs of people and addressed them in public and in private. No wonder they heard him gladly (Mark 12:37).
It is tempting for ministers to preach to and from our own needs, thinking that the issues and episodes that roil our own souls are also burning down the barns where our people live and work. I have done this often, especially early in my ministry. I look back and bemoan the lost opportunities to bring the gospel to bear upon the things that matter most to those who heard me preach. I was so caught up in my own world of ideas and issues that I failed to understand and appreciate the situations and struggles of my people. This is a deadly sin.
Here are a few practical ways to keep attuned to the needs of your people.
Keep in mind this old question often put to professors: “What do you teach?” The expected answer is, physics, or language, or history; but the truest answer is, students: “I teach students.” Likewise, a preacher focuses primarily, not on ideas, or texts, or even truths, but on people. We preach to people and for people, and knowing them well makes our preaching rich, relevant, and rewarding.