July 11, 2008
Felt-Needs and Messianic Marketing
A fresh look at Jesus’ miracles may change the way we do outreach.
Conventional ministry wisdom goes something like this: When launching a new church, first analyze the felt-needs within the target area or population. Then construct ministries to address those felt-needs. Felt-needs based ministries will draw people to your church, and simultaneously positively predispose seekers to the gospel message. In this scenario, caring for peoples' felt-needs plays a supporting role in the mission.
What if this conventional wisdom is wrong?
The idea outlined above is what I was taught in seminary, it's what I read frequently in ministry books, and it's what I see practiced virtually everywhere I go. But I increasingly suspect that the theological foundation for felt-needs based ministry may be sand rather than stone.
The biblical rationale comes primarily from the gospels. Jesus, it is thought, performed miracles in order to confirm the content of his preaching. His "acts of power" (the word "miracle" is rarely used in the Greek-language gospels) function as validation for his verbal proclamation. In other words, you should believe what Jesus says because look at what he can do.
Translating this principle into contemporary ministry, we are told that identifying and satisfying felt-needs will confirm and validate the gospel we preach - and hopefully draw a crowd the way Jesus' miracles did. But there are a few problems with this understanding.
1. If his miracles play the supporting role of validating his message, one would expect to see Jesus performing miracles in conjunction with teaching. But this is rarely the case. There are some exceptions, but for the most part the gospel accounts of Jesus' miracles do not include teaching. Most of the gospel writers separate sections of dialogue and teaching from stories of miracles.
2. If the miracles were to validate his message, why does Jesus frequently command people not to report the miracles he has performed? Some argue Jesus was trying to postpone the discovery of his identity until the appointed time. That may be true, but the secrecy undermines the notion that his acts of power are to confirm his proclamations.
Theologian N.T. Wright, among others, has suggested a different way of understanding Jesus' miracles. Rather than supporting his preaching, Jesus' acts of power should be seen as accomplishing the same thing as his preaching - namely, restoring exiled sinners to God. Wright:
Most if not all of the works of healing, which form the bulk of Jesus' mighty works, could be seen as the restoration of membership in Israel of those who, through sickness or whatever, had been excluded as ritually unclean. The healings thus function in exact parallel with the welcome of sinners (Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 191).
If theologians like Wright are correct, and Jesus didn't address felt-needs to win a hearing or confirm his message, then how and why we address felt-needs in our present ministries needs to be reconsidered. For example, if Jesus' healed blind Bartimaeus and the bleeding woman not to win their approval or validate his teaching, but rather to restore them to full communion with God and his people (something their handicaps prevented), then our good works need to be more than smart PR or marketing. They too must have some intrinsic gospel validity - a worthiness beyond validating our verbal proclamation.
Similarly, no one doubts that Bartimaeus or the bleeding woman had legitimate felt-needs. But in our context what some may interpret as a felt-need may actually be a felt-want. If surveys show that people in my community really want an after school sports program, should my church create one? Why not a day spa or car detailing service? Who defines what is a legitimate felt-need? If we believe acts of service exist to validate or incentivize our message, then anything our audience deems valuable will do.
Jesus appears more discerning. He healed people with ailments or handicaps that excluded them from Israel or the worship of Israel's God. And when people requested miracles outside these parameters, he refused to perform (see Matthew 16:1-4). As Wright observes, "[Jesus] never performed mighty works simply to impress."
Does this mean we shouldn't love our neighbors, seek justice for the oppressed, or let our light shine before men? Of course not. Many of the outreach activities practiced by churches (liking handing out bottled water at summer events, a growing trend in my area) may be acts of kindness that help improve the public perception of Christians - and heaven knows we need that. But we shouldn't equate what is essentially marketing with Jesus' mighty works.
Contradicting the gospel message is another danger of a hyper-felt-needs based approach to outreach. The gospel calls us to surrender our desires, take up our cross, and follow Christ. How can a church effectively invite people to "die to self" while constantly appealing to their self-interests? Whereas Jesus' miracles of restoration were completely in sync with his message, our acts of service - particularly in an affluent, consumer culture - run the risk of undermining our message of personal sacrifice by promoting the satifaction of felt-needs/wants.
I don't pretend to have covered every aspect of this issue. With just 800 words, one can only hope to scratch the surface of a tremendously complex topic, but I hope my thoughts and questions ignite your own.