If you were in seminary or in active pastoral ministry in the 1990s and 2000s you probably remember what the big trend in pastoral training was.
Back then it seemed like every church leadership book, article and conference was telling pastors that the way to reach the people in our community was to understand what needs they were feeling, meet those needs, then leverage the goodwill from that to build a bridge to share the gospel more directly.
So we started addiction recovery classes, divorce workshops, parenting seminars and the like.
A lot of good was done that way, but we don’t hear much about meeting felt needs any more. And it’s more than just the term that’s disappeared. We’ve moved on from meeting people’s felt needs to being relevant.
I don’t know if that’s a forward or backwards move. At best, it feels lateral to me.
When Churches Met Everyone’s Needs
In previous generations, the church was often the center of town. Physically, spiritually, socially, economically, and more. Especially in smaller communities, the church was where almost everyone went for almost everything:
- From getting important needs met, like addiction recovery, feeding the poor, and education
- To the everyday, like youth sports and church picnics
- To the trivial, like entertainment (admit it, that’s a big part of why we put on those Christmas cantatas)
In small towns, the church chimes were even how a majority of the townspeople set their clocks. And some churches were known as the place to see and be seen if you wanted to be a mover and shaker in town, get elected to public office, and so on.
Without using the term, churches of previous generations were meeting the felt needs of their community. But too often, instead of being a bridge to the gospel, meeting felt needs was where many churches stopped.
Maybe that’s why the push to meet felt needs has dried up. While most churches still do a lot of need-meeting, the drive to meet people’s felt needs isn’t the onramp to the gospel it was once believed to be, for one reason – we no longer have a monopoly on any of those aspects of community life.
Even in small towns, almost everything people relied on the church for can often be found elsewhere – often faster and better.
The Slippery Slope Of Meeting Felt Needs
Meeting people’s needs is a big part of the church’s mandate. Tasks like feeding the poor, caring for children and widows, and helping addicts find freedom is essential to loving our neighbors as Christ has loved us.
But meeting people’s “felt” needs has always been a slippery slope because people tend to feel their most immediate needs, but often have little or no understanding of what their truer, deeper needs really are.
Since the church is no longer the only place for people to get their physical, social and emotional needs met, what role do we serve now, if any?
The One Need Only The Church Can Meet
The church’s primary message should never be “tell us what you need and we’ll get it for you”, but “you know that deep, gnawing ache beneath your immediate feelings? The one you don’t even have a name for, and may be trying to ignore? Jesus wants to meet you there.”
That’s the one need the church can meet that no one else can. We can introduce them to hope and healing through a life in Christ, and into the fellowship of believers.
After all, people who love Jesus and love each other in Jesus’ name is the very definition of church.
Jesus didn’t give us the Great Commandment by mistake. It’s the only essential we have.
That’s what people have always and will always need the church for – whether they feel that need or not.
Copyright © 2018 by the author or Christianity Today.
Click here to read our guidelines concerning reprint permissions.