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).
July 11, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 14 comments

Woz

August 20, 2008  11:33am

The holistic approach seems to make the most sense. We musn't forget that Jesus' ministry sought restoration, but also that a man was born blind so that "the acts of God may be revealed through what happens to him." The other thing that I believe the seek-sensitive movement has wrong though, is that even if the sole reason for Jesus' miracles was to prove his power...it's Jesus with the power, not us. We have no power aside from Christ in us, and so pragmatism falls on it's face next to the power of God to reveal himself to those who are lost.

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Richard Dennis Miller

July 12, 2008  11:42pm

Bill, Are you speaking of Christians of the lost? The conditions you list are all symptoms of our lostness. They are not what seperates us from God. However, Christians may struggle with any of those things. It is sometimes when I am struggling with my temptations, and even when I am failing, that I am drawn closest to God.

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Bill Harnist

July 12, 2008  8:04pm

Recovery ministry sounds exactly what you are talking about. Healing alcoholics, drug addicts, sex addicts; healing eating disorders, depression; healing from gambling, debt, emotional difficulties, relationhip issues. All of these conditions, and many more, keep us from knowing Jesus, and each other, in an intimate sense. Those suffering from the above conditions are certainly analogous to Israel's separation from God. This is the true work of the universal church: healing the sick.

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sheerahkahn

July 12, 2008  11:40am

"Sheerakahn, I don't think anyone wanted to convey that God rejects the handicapped, the comments were made in relation to the fact that the Jewish religious leaders of the first century certainly excluded those who didn't fit their perceptions of who was suitable for the kingdom." ???uh...what??? I think you mean Christian David.

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Pastor Kip

July 12, 2008  8:12am

"How can a church effectively invite people to "die to self" while constantly appealing to their self-interests?" Says it all. Great article. But is anybody preaching "die to self" these days?

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Christine Ballard

July 11, 2008  9:09pm

Sheerakahn, I don't think anyone wanted to convey that God rejects the handicapped, the comments were made in relation to the fact that the Jewish religious leaders of the first century certainly excluded those who didn't fit their perceptions of who was suitable for the kingdom. The woman with the bleeding problem certainly would have been excluded because under the Law she was considered ritually unclean and therefore would have been isolated from mainstream society because of her continuing problem. Jesus showed the love and mercy of God to those whom mainstream society had rejected and welcomed them into the Kingdom, something that we all need to continually keep in mind with the 21st century equivalent of these outcasts.

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Hal Hester

July 11, 2008  5:32pm

iIke any point that can be made in contrast to the prevailing church culture, there is truth to what the author says, and there is the ability to overstate it. Wright nails it, Jesus heals, because of who he is. Yet even Jesus told John the Baptist's disciples go back and tell John, The blind see, the lame walk, how happy are those who have no doubts about me. Hence validation. The point is when we meet needs the greatest impact is on the church. We look at the world around us, and go out to love them- evangelizing our hearts afresh, but also learning like God to love the world (John 3.16)Rather than sit in our churches and judge the world.

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Rob Dunbar

July 11, 2008  5:17pm

I think the way the Gospel of John presents the miracles (seven, which John specifically calls "signs") most clearly validates Wright's view. Here, the miracles are explicitly connected to Jesus as Lord of a new Kingdom. He is "the Resurrection and the Life," the "Bread of God. . . who comes from Heaven and gives life to the world," Who has entered the world "for judgment. . . that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind" (John 11:25; John 6:33; John 9:39 respectively). And, of course, the first and most joyful: bringing wine at a wedding, "the best wine" brought only through His work.

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Christian David

July 11, 2008  2:33pm

Are you kidding...?? "if Jesus' healed blind Bartimaeus and the bleeding woman... to restore them to full communion with God and his people (something their handicaps prevented)..." How can you say that physical handicaps prevented communion with God? I hope they arent' teaching that in seminary today! Sure, their handicaps excluded them from the misguided synagogues, but physical handicaps don't separate people from God. His miracles proved who Jesus was, and the miracles helped those he healed and those who witnessed the healings (at leat those who were willing to see beyond their own human rules and customs)to know God, and that knowledge restored them to communion with him. Jesus' healings and teaching worked together for the glory of his Father, and we ought to emulate his words and work for the very same reason.

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sheerahkahn

July 11, 2008  10:14am

"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." I have to admit that I read this part and I was ready to bail from the thread without reading further. I'm glad you qualified that with... "What if this conventional wisdom is wrong?" I personally find K.W. Leslie's statement to be convincing enough for me... "The miracles validate the teachings, which validate the acts, which validate the fruit of the ministry, which validate the miracles. All these things validate one another. It's not "Jesus is Lord because He did miracles," it's "Everything about Jesus points to His Lordship." However, there is one aspect I would like to throw in the ring which is Y'shua's compassion...just casually reading the NT reveals a very passionate and compassionate messiah. I would not overlook compassion as a motivator...it can be a very strong attractant.

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