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).
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