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Felt-Needs Preaching

An interview with Wheaton College president Duane Litfin about speaking to felt needs and real needs.

It's almost a mistake to be asking "What are the felt needs of my audience?" and use those as my take-off point. As an expositor, I work the other way around.

PreachingToday.com: What's the difference between felt needs and real needs, and how should this distinction affect our preaching?

Duane Litfin: Often there isn't a difference. The felt need is a real need. Our difficulty comes when a distinction is to be made between the felt need and the real need; in other words, when people have a felt need but that's not their real need.

Good preaching speaks to both of them, but sometimes the felt need is where you need to begin. Sometimes you need to zero in on the real need and raise it to the level of a felt need. A good introduction will often do that. People walk in on a Sunday morning, and they don't start out with this as a felt need. But by the time you're through with your introduction, you have taken the real need your text is going to speak to, and you have raised it to the level of a felt need. You'd be hard pressed to find a better definition of what an introduction is supposed to do.

In this culture, people are talked into certain kinds of felt needs that bypass what their real needs are. The Scriptures are not speaking to the superficial. They are always speaking to the real needs. We let the text determine for us what the real need is, and then we seek to surface that in our introduction.

Sometimes people speak with derision about felt-needs preaching. You're saying all needs are real needs.

Yes, although there are ways in which, for example, advertisers create false needs to sell their product. The Bible is always dealing with the deep needs people have. Often those deep needs are the most profoundly felt needs of all. Those are the needs we're going after. So I don't disdain the felt need, although we always want to be going after the real need.

C. S. Lewis and others have over the years made a strong point that all of our sinful lusts and desires are really misplaced attempts to answer deep-seated needs. The human is driven by some of those large needs. Again, those are the needs the Scriptures regularly speak to. Our task is to come to the text, to understand at a profound level what needs it's speaking to, and then help the listener get in touch with that need.

I don't like talking about creating a need. Again, that's what advertisers do. We're talking about bringing it to the surface so it becomes a felt need. If you can bring the need to the surface in your introduction, and then the passage speaks to that need by the time you're through, people come away genuinely impacted. They're impacted by the passage of Scripture that is speaking to their needs, and they're reminded again that the Scriptures are relevant to where real life is lived. All of that comes when we think our way through to the needs this truth is speaking to and let the text address that need.

That is a primary goal of a good introduction, but it's hard to do on a consistent basis. People come in with their minds and hearts all over the place. It's hard to corral their thinking and emotions in the space of that introduction and bring it to bear on this particular need, so by the time you're through they're saying, Boy, am I glad I showed up this morning; this is going to speak to me. That's what a good introduction does, but I don't have any illusions that's easy to do.

It's a matter of attention or consciousness. There are all sorts of things going on in my life that I'm not thinking about right now. You begin helping me think about it and raise it to the level of consciousness and focus, and by the time you're through I am genuinely back to feeling that real need. You didn't create it; you simply surfaced it for me in those few moments.

I have sometimes threatened to do an experiment with seminary students where we would take students' sermons on videotape. Then we would take another set of students and have them watch those tapes and evaluate the introductions. We would stand over to the side and watch how many of those student evaluators, once they finished the introduction and accomplished their assignment, would keep watching the tape. If they would think, My assignment is over, but this is speaking to me; I want to hear what this is about, that would be the mark of a good introduction.

Is it possible to overemphasize felt needs or not deal with them in a proper way?

It is. Felt needs can distract us because of the misdirection of our society, the pop culture, the advertising. People think they need all sorts of things they don't need, and they are distracted from the things they do need. It's almost a mistake to be asking, What are the felt needs of my audience? and use those as my take-off point. As an expositor, I work the other way around. I come to the text, and I ask, What is this passage saying? What is the truth here? Why does God want us to know this? What is the need in our lives this passage is speaking to? That is the need I'm going to try to raise in my introduction.

I don't start with my audience. I'm big into preaching to needs, but I don't begin with my audience and ask, What are their needs? I start with the passage and say, This is the answer. Now what question might someone pose to me where I would say, "Let's turn to this passage and look what God has to say"? In other words, you let the passage determine what the need is. Then that's the need you raise in your introduction and deal with.

That comes out of a confidence in the profitability of all Scripture. All the graphe, all the writings, are profitable for doctrine, correction, reproof, instruction in righteousness. God wants to grow us into the people he wants us to be through the graphe, through the writings, through the Scripture. It is God breathed, profitable for us. Now the question is, Here's a passage. How is this profitable?What needs to be reproved, corrected, and instructed? How do we need to grow in our walk with the Lord? How is this passage helping us do that? What is it speaking to? Why does God want me to know this? When I've answered that question at a deep level, I'll know what to do in my introduction.

I remember a student preaching a sermon on the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is casting out demons. The student preached a sermon basically on how to cast out demons. When he was through, we began probing what he had done with the text. I asked him, "Do you think Mark was trying to tell us here how to cast out demons?"

He said, "Mmm, no, probably not."

"What do you think Mark was doing?"

"Well, Mark was teaching us about Jesus."

"What was he teaching us about Jesus?"

"That he had power over the occult, the forces of evil, and the universe."

I said to him, "Why didn't you preach it that way?"

He said, "I couldn't think how to apply it."

And I said to him, "How about if we apply it this way: 'Let's all get down on our knees and worship Jesus'?"

And he said, "I didn't think of that."

That's what I mean about felt needs. He's thinking he's got to have some sort of how-to, so he's going to what he thinks are felt needs. Our society has taught him you have to have some how-to, three things to do on Monday morning, whereas the real felt need is to get down on our knees and worship Christ. He was missing the force of the passage and the profound difference it needs to make in our lives.

Should we approach this any differently when we're dealing with non-Christians in evangelistic preaching?

Yes. There are those who do expository evangelism, and I've heard it done. Larry Moyer is a fine evangelist who does expository evangelism. That's unusual. Usually when you're doing evangelism, you are not expositing Scripture. You're dealing with people who have not yet embraced the authority of the Word of God.

When you have a passage of Scripture in front of you, you let the Scripture tell you what need it's addressing. By definition if you move into evangelism, you probably aren't working with a passage of Scripture. Now you're coming with the fundamental issue of the gospel and the human needs to which the gospel speaks. Again, you're letting the message determine the need you're speaking to, but the message in this case is the gospel and the profound need every human being has to come and acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

So there is a place with nonbelievers to first have a subject we're going to talk about, and that subject is going to take us to various texts or a text? Rather than beginning with the text and working backwards, we're beginning with the people and their needs.

Yes. It's a lot trickier when we're talking about evangelism, because I can see doing evangelism and not doing exposition of any passage at all. Billy Graham is famous for saying, "The Bible says The Bible says" You're citing Scripture all the way through, even in good evangelism. When you're dealing with evangelism, it's much more legitimate simply to start with where the people are, to capture their attention and say, "I'm going to speak to things you're interested in." But where you're always headed is to make a beeline for the gospel. Just giving them various moralistic messages isn't what their real needs are.

We think of a seeker church model in which the sermon talks about how to have a happy marriage, how to have a happy home, how to raise your kids, how to get your finances under control. You would see these as legitimate doorways that speak to the felt needs those unbelievers feel right now, and then you would move them in a direction toward the cross, not just towards how to have a happy financial situation. Would you agree with that?

Yes, I would. Although that's not preaching as the Bible would talk about it. It's not even didaskein; it's not teaching. You're dealing with seekers and unbelievers, and you're giving them a how-to-live-a-more-effective-life thing. It's more a form of pre-evangelism; that is, wooing them toward something, giving them little glimpses into something stronger and better than anything they know.

I think of the Willow Creek seven-step strategy: To build a friendship, give a verbal witness, but early on get them to the seeker service. That's one of the early steps. The goal is to move them toward New Community, so they would come to understand the gospel, embrace the gospel, and want to start growing as a Christian. The whole thing you do in a seeker service is early on in this process. It's a form of pre-evangelism rather than evangelism itself.

This article is a transcript of the Preaching Today audio workshop #245. To order this Preaching Today audiotape, e-mail your request to store@ChristianityToday.com.

Duane Litfin is a writer and speaker. He served as president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and is author of Public Speaking (Baker).

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