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Felt needs

A biblical way to open closed minds

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30

“You never know till you try to reach them how accessible men are; but you must approach each man by the right door.”
– Henry Ward Beecher

The concept of ministering to people’s ‘felt needs’ is sometimes misunderstood. “Surely we should be speaking to their real spiritual needs?” is a potential criticism and valid question.

What are ‘felt needs’?

A felt need is simply that – something in any area of my life that I perceive as a need. In the broadest sense, it can be just about anything; a need for: In web ministry, using these as a starting point is called the Bridge Strategy. However, we prefer to apply the term ‘felt needs’ in the more restricted sense of deeper personal needs – the life issues that all of us face, either in our own lives or for family and friends (and to classify the list above as ‘affinity interests’): In addition, there are four basic human needs that we all have: support, stability, self-expression and signifance: how to minister to these needs.

Pain

A Barna Research report concluded that at any one time, one third of a population are suffering enough pain and stress from one or more of these issues, that they perceive it as not just the regular ups and downs of life, but a painful crisis. And one in eight people (figures apply to US, not likely to be much different in most western nations) have a drug or alcohol problem. (The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale helps us to roughly quantify the pain and stress that someone is suffering.)

Think about it! About one in three of the people around us are feeling a moderate to severe level of pain. Maybe not all may seek help online, but many will. Health is one of the most-searched for topics online. For many stressors, there may be no specific answer. A family worried about a serviceman or woman serving in a war zone is not looking for answers, just love, support and understanding.

C S Lewis has pointed out that pain is God’s megaphone to get our attention. And the Bible speaks from beginning to end of God’s compassion for those who are hurting. Incidentally, only Christianity reveals that suffering can be redemptive, and also points out that our experience of suffering a particular life problem enables us to help others with the same problem (2 Cor. 1:4).

If you wish to minister to hurting people, you’ll need to learn to listen, understand, and never, but never, offer this unbelievably wrong crass advice.

A valuable research study on How Adults Become Christians shows that for many lasting adult conversions, the trigger that started them on their spiritual journey was a life crisis.

None of the list above may be directly what we might call ‘core spiritual issues’: sinfulness, fallen human nature, rebellion against God, and the need for salvation, though all of them are impacted by the Fall and our own sin and self-centered nature. But they are precisely the amplifier that God very often uses to begin a process that ends in conversion. Of course, God is sovereign throughout this process. But it helps us to understand this progression – and the Gray Matrix graph is a remarkable and biblical insight into God’s plan. When we understand the methods that God uses to speak to people at different levels on this scale, we can work with Him to communicate appropriately. Felt needs can then be seen as a way in, a first step on the road. At a later stage, the full and balanced Gospel must be shared. It is very important to understand how not-yet-Christians think.

There is, for instance, a debt-counseling ministry in UK which operates in a co-operative integrated role within local churches to reaches out into the community. A very high percentage of counselees become Christians as a result. Such ministries aim to minister to the whole person – meeting the conscious need is not the end of the story, but an introduction to the Gospel.

Is it biblical?

Obviously, our primary guideline is the ministry of Jesus. If we look at the different encounters that Jesus had with people, in almost every case he first addressed a felt need. In many situations, the overwhelming need of sickness was met by healing, often followed by ‘spiritual’ advice (even though that was not always apparently taken). And, incidentally, his starting point in spoken evangelism was never scriptural exposition except when preaching in the synagogue. Instead, he used the medium of story-telling.

There are (depending how you classify them) 1000-3000 verses in the Bible which express God’s concern and compassion for those suffering poverty, bereavement, and life problems. Jesus’ invitation in in Matthew 11:28-30 is an appeal, and a promise, to those who are struggling with any life issue. The yoke imagery is about no longer pulling your load alone, but having a second haulage animal harnessed with you.

Yet some Christians may still feel concerned that starting with felt needs is somehow promoting a ‘me-centered gospel’. And we should be rightly concerned about any presentation of the gospel which is merely, for instance, “Come to Jesus and be a more successful business-person.” Or, indeed, the dishonesest and untrue “Come to Jesus and all your problems will be instantly solved.” A balanced and biblical presentation of the gospel contains a number of strands, and as someone gets closer to a point of commitment, will include what God-centered discipleship really means. But we contend that meeting people in the area of their felt needs, with compassion and help, is totally biblical.

The woman at the well

How did Jesus treat the woman at the well? First, as the great bridge builder, he asked for a drink. This was the beginning of an interesting conversation. Following a brief discussion about living water, Jesus put His finger on both the need and problem area of her life. Without judging her in any way He told her that He knew she was living with a man who wasn't her husband and that she had already had five husbands. Jesus knew this woman's deepest need – her need for acceptance – and when He met it she believed in Him and automatically became a most enthusiastic witness – and probably laid the foundations for the later revival in Samaria (Acts 8).1

Zacchaeus also had a deep social need for friendship. Jesus met it by going to his home to offer the real friendship and fellowship that a home visit and social meal implies.

In only two instances in all the gospels did Jesus meet initially and directly a point of spiritual need. The thief on the cross, about to die, had a real felt need – his sinfulness. And Jesus met it. Nicodemus' felt need was also spiritual. He was searching for spiritual answers, so Jesus supplied them.1

Starting point

Whether a person's need was physical, social, emotional or spiritual, Jesus always met each individual where he was in terms of his or her spiritual understanding and always started at their point of felt need. To be an effective communicator the formula is therefore simple: and always target your message to meet their felt needs. However, doing this is complex, but it was the way Christ communicated. I doubt if we will find a better way.1

Example of Spurgeon

While we cannot always compare (or use) methods of evangelism which God used in previous centuries, it is worth noting that Spurgeon's approach in his sermons and writings was frequently to offer advice that met felt needs as a starting point. His ability to identify with where people were at, is one reason why his sermons are still so readable (and so frequently read) today. Another main reason is his use of humor. His launching by faith of an enormous orphanage project was also a direct meeting of felt needs. He was aware that this compassionate ministry also contributed to a positive initial sympathy to the Gospel, as the Gray Matrix illuminates.

Felt needs versus real needs1

One problem many Christians struggle with is that they feel we need to minister to a person's real needs, which they usually interpret as being a spiritual need. This is to ignore the fact that God is interested not only in a person's spiritual life, but in his total person (James 2:14-17). It also fails to understand that the felt needs or perceived needs are at the conscious level of a person's mind while his real needs spiritual or otherwise – are usually at the subconscious level.

Therefore, the way to reach the real needs, whatever they are, is through the felt needs. It is the felt needs that lead to the real needs. As the conscious felt needs are faced and met, other needs will rise to the level of awareness and in turn become felt needs. As these are faced and met, eventually and spiritual and other real needs will surface to consciousness and in turn become felt needs. Only then can they be dealt with and met.

To ignore a person's felt needs and aim at other needs is a sure-fire way to guarantee that his mind will close and remain closed to our message. On the other hand, to understand and identify with a person's felt and perceived needs is a sure-fire way to guarantee that his mind will be open to what we have to say and will remain open as long as we offer hope to meet his needs. If he senses that we don't have the answers to his needs, his mind will close again to us and he will look elsewhere for a solution to his needs and problems.

We also see how Jesus befriended people – a key to effective communication.

Felt-needs success story

Reader’s Digest is a publishing success story – a multi-language format that succeeds internationally. Why is it so successful? It uses the journalistic principle that “people are interested in people”, with exciting real-life stories. There are humor and trivia. It uses a popular middle-level vocabulary defined as accessible to a 13-year-old reader. But a major key to the success of Readers’ Digest is the offer of practical answers to many life issues – i.e. felt needs. We can use this strategy in Christian communication.

Servant Evangelism strategies are frequently meeting felt needs. They can help us find creative ways of sharing the Gospel online (and offline). The insights of permission evangelism also apply to effective online outreach.

Meeting felt needs online

Because the Web is a unique medium, it allows us to target any group of people by interest or need: those things which they are searching for online. So it is ideally suited to touching people through their felt needs or special interests.

We can address deeper personal needs with sites that minister sensitively to, for example, life problems, women's worries, teen/student needs, health issues and many more. The tragedy is that there are so few such sites, and many of those about life issues tend to position themselves as ‘help for Christians’.

We believe that felt needs as a starting point for compassionate sensitive evangelism is a biblical strategy, and one of the few ways that we can reach unchurched people who are not seekers.

Tragically, many Christian health or problem-related sites online position themselves as being for Christians suffering these issues, in a way that may exclude non-Christians.

Special interests

We can also reach them through the broader area of interests such as hobbies, sport, music, games, literature, films, student life, women’s interests, business practice, community information and many other things.

1Insights on this page are frequently drawn (and the paragraph marked1 are direct quotes used by permssion) from the book I Hate Witnessing by Dick Innes. An excellent 70-minute talk by Dick, taking up many of the themes of the book, is available here:
mp3 icon Part 1  Part 2

Two chapters from the book are online, and cover this subject in depth. They are freely available for re-publication subject to conditions specified, and can also be syndicated directly into your own website:
Opening Closed Minds | Jesus the Communicator

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