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Needs-based evangelism

A biblical way of opening closed minds

This article is Chapter 8 in Dick Innes’ book I Hate Witnessing and is carried here in grateful partnership with him. You may reproduce this article without permission in print publications, or incorporate it into your website, subject to conditions explained in page footer.
Chapter 9, The methods of Jesus is also online.
See also our shorter introduction to felt needs.

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

felt needs – the key to unlock closed minds

“Hey, Dad, what do you think of that?” asked my teenage son as I was driving him to school one morning recently.

“What do you mean?” I queried. “What do I think of what?” I didn’t have the faintest idea what he was talking about.

“That advertisement on the radio,” he replied rather surprised.

“I just didn’t hear it,” was all I could say. “What was it about?”

The radio was at a reasonable volume. My ears were only inches away from the speakers, but I didn’t hear one word the announcer said.

I’m sure you can readily identify with this type of experience. How often have you spoken to your husband, your wife, or your children – they were right there in the same room – but they didn’t hear a word you said? Or how often have our wives, husbands, or children spoken to us and we were completely oblivious to what they said? Too often, I’m afraid. When I talk to my wife and she doesn’t hear me, I answer myself out loud. She gets the message. When my three-year-old talks to me and I don’t hear him, he grabs my face, turns it around to face him and says in no uncertain tone, “Dad! I’m talking to you.” Bless him.

Why do we tune out? Because we all have what the communicators call a God-given filter system. This is a kind of survival or defence mechanism In our mind which processes all incoming stimuli, blocks out all unwanted messages, and allows through only what we want to hear. Unconsciously, we choose to see and hear only what we want to see and hear.

In this day and age we are bombarded with so many incoming messages from newspapers, magazines, fliers, brochures, signboards, billboards, storefronts, posters, leaflets, bumper stickers, bulletins, radio, television, breakfast food boxes, the mail, school, church, work, friends, other people ... that it is absolutely impossible to take them all in. The mind would literally boggle if it tried to process all this stimuli. But it can’t, so it filters out all the unwanted messages.

We simply cannot escape the fact that people see and hear only what they want to see and hear. This is one of the most important factors to come to grips with in the whole area of effective communication. It’s like the missionary in India. He didn’t see any tigers and the hunter didn’t see any missionaries. People see what they’re looking for and close their minds to anything they don’t want to see or hear.

How then do we overcome this problem? If people close their minds to messages they don’t want to hear, how do we reach them for God?

To do this, the effective communicator will accept the fact that every person has a filter which processes all incoming messages all of the time. He will seek to understand how this process operates. He will appreciate that the only way to open closed minds is by meeting people at their point of felt need. He will realise the importance of meeting felt needs before even attempting to meet real needs. And he will understand how people make a decision to act or change their way of life.

Filters Are a Fact of Life

It wasn’t unusual for me to not hear the radio advertisement my son asked me about. It would have been unusual if I had heard it and paid any attention to it. Just think of all the radio and television commercials you hear and see. How many do you actually hear and remember?

Jim Engel says that “on the average, this is what happens: Out of every one hundred people who are actually exposed to a television commercial:-

“Thirty actually attend to its content; that is they know what is being said;
“Fifteen understand the content (one half of those who attend to it initially);
“And only five retain its content in active memory twenty-four hours later.
“This is a graphic illustration of how the human perceptual filter selectively screens incoming information. These kinds of effects are not confined to the commercial world. There are thousands of published and unpublished studies documenting selective screening in all phases of life.” [1]
This principle applies to all communications including Christian communications. It needs to be accepted and appreciated by any Christian who seriously wants to share God’s message with others, whether on a one-to-one basis, in teaching a class, leading a group, preaching a sermon, writing a book or magazine article, or presenting a message via the mass media such as radio, television, and newspapers.

As individual witnesses, speakers, teachers, or writers, we only deceive ourselves if we think that people are waiting to hear what we have to say or write.

Eighteen years ago I had just completed several years of training and preparation for Christian ministry I was filled with enthusiasm and vision and loved to preach. What a shock it was to discover in my very first pastorate that not only was the local community not interested in hearing what I had to say but neither were some of my own members. I had learned a lot about many things but I did not know the art of effective communication.

Because we have sent out a message is no guarantee that we have communicated.

Let’s be honest, how often do you and I tune out public speakers, teachers, and preachers? And of all the printed material that passes through our hands, how much gets thrown aside – unread? The sooner we learn that people hear only what they want to hear, the sooner we can learn how to become effective communicators.

Just because we have sent out a message is no guarantee that we have communicated. Only if the message is heard, attended to, understood, and acted upon, have we actually communicated. And only if the message is comprehended as we intended it to be have we communicated effectively.

Because we have read or proclaimed even the Word of God is no guarantee that our message will be heard. The Holy Spirit cannot convict a person if that person hasn’t heard or attended to the message. Effective communication involves much more than proclaiming Bible passages.

The classic Bible reference used to justify much of our witnessing and proclamation is Isaiah 55:11, which says that God’s Word will not return to Him void. I have heard it quoted many times. I’m sure you have too. I have been guilty of quoting it, or rather misquoting it, many times myself. Only a few weeks ago, in an adult class where we were discussing this subject of communication, I was again challenged with this Scripture verse. “All we’ve got to do is preach the Word and God will do the rest. He has promised His Word will not return to Him void,” one man stated with conviction.

“The problem is,” I explained, “this Scripture doesn’t actually say what many of us have come to believe it says.”

“What does it mean?” he asked.

According to Engel this passage “makes reference to the great promises God has given Israel, especially those to be fulfilled after the return of the Messiah. It asserts that God stands behind His covenants, and the purpose was to give comfort.” [2] In other words, God was saying to Israel, “I am making you this promise. And I never break my promises.” It had nothing to do with proclaiming God’s Word.

For years as a teenager I stood on a street corner every Sunday evening helping to proclaim “God’s Word” through a loudspeaker, without any consideration of the audience’s needs or interest. Nobody gathered around to listen to us, but the justification always was, “God’s Word will not return to Him void.” I’m not saying that we shouldn’t proclaim God’s message from a street corner. On some street corners this is still appropriate, on others it isn’t. What I am saying is this: Preaching God’s written Word, as we will see, is not necessarily proclaiming God’s message. Enthusiasm does not make an approach valid and “zeal without knowledge” (see Rom. 10:2) can actually drive people away from Christ.

Unless we speak to the needs of our audience, we don’t stand a chance of gaining a hearing.

This principle of filtering out unwanted messages was applicable not only in Christ’s day but is even more applicable in our day. This is because of the ever-increasing amount of incoming stimuli that we are all faced with, to say nothing of the continuing explosion of the world’s body of knowledge which is doubling every five years. We simply cannot begin to contend with it all. By the time many university textbooks are written and published, they are already out of date. Even the most brilliant minds can only receive and process a limited amount of the messages that are vying for the mind’s attention.

Another challenge to the Christian communicator in his attempt to gain the attention of people’s minds is the fact that the older generation was trained to learn primarily through the ear gate, while the younger generation has been trained more to learn through the eye gate. Today’s communicators need to use both methods. Furthermore, living in an educated and enlightened society, the average person can take in 700 words per minute, while the average speaker can give out only 120. This means that almost sixth-sevenths of the average speaker’s time is lost time. If a listener’s mind begins to wander it is difficult to regain his attention. [3]

Therefore, unless we’re speaking to the needs of our audience we don’t stand a chance of gaining a hearing. Our messages will be filtered out.

Information Processing

According to specialists in market research communication theory, in processing all incoming information, people exercise what is known as “selective exposure, selective attention, selective comprehension, selective perception, selective distortion, and selective retention.” [4]

Selective exposure. Because people see and hear only what they want to see and hear, they tend to expose themselves only to messages that strengthen their present beliefs and attitudes, and avoid any messages they perceive to be irrelevant to their needs or threatening to their personal views, opinions, or convictions.

The evidence shows that more often than not a person will avoid a message he needs to hear while the same message will be listened to by those who don’t need it but already believe it. In one study, for example, there was an interesting reaction to articles pointing out the connection between smoking and lung cancer. “Data showed that 67 percent of the non-smokers claimed high readership of the articles, versus only 44 percent of the smokers.” [5]

This principle is also demonstrated by the average gospel service in churches. Those who expose themselves to the message are mostly believers. This helps strengthen their existing beliefs, while those who need to hear it generally avoid it.

Many authorities will confirm that people self-censor or filter out messages that attack their beliefs and practices; that they will actively expose themselves to communications that strengthen their existing beliefs and practices; and will especially do the latter if their beliefs have been challenged or attacked. [6]

This of course poses a challenge to the Christian communicator. He needs to be aware of the fact that if people don’t want to hear his message they will either avoid him or close their minds to what he has to say.

Selective attention. Kenneth E. Anderson, in his book Introduction to Communication Theory and Practice, says “attention is a mental process by which a stimulus or a set of stimuli becomes distinct in consciousness while other stimuli tend to disappear.” [7]

In other words, once a person has been exposed to a message he then either consciously or unconsciously (mostly unconsciously) makes a choice to attend or to not attend to that message. For example, if I call my boys to come and help clean out the garage on a hot day, they may show a totally different reaction to my calling them to come and have an ice cream and a cold drink.

We are all basically the same. We hear what we want to hear and filter out the rest.

People can distort a message to say even the opposite.
Selective comprehension. This is similar to selective perception. Because a message has been initially attended to and accepted as being pertinent is no guarantee that it will be fully comprehended or perceived correctly.

For instance, “Have you ever seen a player argue with an umpire’s decision in an important situation even when it was obvious to everyone else that the call was correct? The player wants the call to go the other way so badly that he might actually have perceived it differently from the umpire. I remember one case where a player even swore to his team-mates that a called third strike was a ball. Later, when he was shown videotape of the pitch, which was right down the middle, he couldn’t believe it. He wanted it to be a ball so badly that he had actually perceived it to be a ball.” [8]

felt needs – the key to unlock closed minds Selective distortion. Not only can people see in a message what they want to see, but they can also distort a message to say even the opposite.

If, for instance, a person has a very poor self-concept, he will have a distorted filter that has a tendency to negate other people’s words. If someone gives him a genuine compliment he may misconstrue this and see it as a form of manipulation. Because he doesn’t believe in himself he can’t accept that other’s belief in him either. To match his feelings he distorts their messages.

Selective retention. Memory is also known to be highly selective. Not everything that is heard and understood will be committed to long-term memory. The most difficult things to remember are those things that are not pertinent to our particular needs and interests, or those things that threaten our lifestyle or beliefs.

As I said before, the mind is like the eye. The moment a foreign object threatens to intrude, the eye closes. So does the mind. It will close to anything that threatens a person’s self-esteem, his personal lifestyle, his strongly held attitudes, values, and beliefs, and to anything that is not relevant to his felt or perceived needs.

As Myers and Reynolds say, “An idea, object, or event tends not even to enter the conscious mental stream unless it conforms reasonably well, not only with the things we have come to expect in our culture and society, but also with our own personal interests, goals, and objectives of the moment. If it does not, it tends to be overlooked, ignored, forgotten immediately, or otherwise rejected; as far as our conscious mind is concerned, it simply doesn’t exist.” [9]

Selective exposure shows that people will only be open to messages they wish to receive.
Selective attention shows that people hear only what they want to hear.
Selective comprehension or perception shows that people will perceive things the way they want to see them.
Selective distortion shows how people may change messages to match their self-concept.
And selective retention shows that people remember only what they want to remember.
Everything else is filtered out.
felt needs – the key to unlock closed minds

The Key to Opening Closed Minds

The mental filter is a God-given protective device. A person cannot even begin to process all the constant barrage of stimuli that comes to him, so he filters or screens out what he perceives to be irrelevant or what he doesn’t want to hear. (See Fig. 3.) God knew that this would cause His message to be filtered out too. Therefore, if God wants people to hear His message there must be a way through the filter system. There must be a key to open a person’s mind and heart to God.

And there is. I believe that Jesus held it. Without exception, whenever He ministered to individuals In the New Testament He always reached them at their point of felt need. Jesus, being the Master Psychologist par excellence, fully understood people, knew their strongest need, and knew that the only way to gain a hearing was to reach them at their point of felt need. However, He didn’t do this merely to get people to listen to Him and gain converts. He ministered to and met people’s felt needs because He loved them. Jesus’ goal was to make people whole, not just save their souls. To miss this is to miss the whole point of the gospel. But the starting point was always the individual’s felt needs, and that is the key for gaining a hearing with any audience.

In the course of the past ten years I have driven down a particular road hundreds of times on my way to and from my office. There are at least two tile shops on this road, but for several years, even though I had driven past them hundreds of times, I had never seen them and didn’t know they existed.

Then I began building my own home. When I got to the bathroom I had a felt need – tiles. As soon as I had that felt need I began to search for an answer to that need and found those two shops and several other tile shops almost immediately.

That’s the way the mind works. When we have a felt need we seek a solution to meet that need, and our minds become open to all possibilities.

felt needs – the key to unlock closed minds

Gearing your message to the felt needs of any audience is the key to unlocking closed filters.

Think of yourself sitting in church. You can be looking directly at the preacher but your mind may be a million miles away. But let him start talking about one of your felt needs (e.g. love, sex, marriage relationships, teenage tangles, or whatever) and you’ll be all ears.

The secret then to gaining an audience’s attention and effectively communicating Christ’s message is to identify with the felt needs of the audience and target your message to meet those needs. This is the only known way to open closed minds. (See Fig. 4.) Gearing your message to the felt needs of any audience is the key to unlocking closed filters. In fact, extensive research and documentation confirms that “people will not listen to the gospel message and respond unless it speaks to felt needs.” [10]

Felt Needs Versus Real Needs

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 (Jas. 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. (See Fig. 5.) 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 spiritual and other real needs will surface to consciousness and in turn become felt needs. Only then can they be dealt with and met. felt needs – the key to unlock closed minds 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.

The Decision Process

Extensive research has also shown that people go through a basic process in arriving at a decision to act. Whether this decision is to stop smoking, buy a new car or house, or change job or way of life makes no difference. The steps are the same. The effective communicator needs to understand and follow this process.

This process is seen in Figure 6 and is based on the Engel, Blackwell and Kollat model of motivational change. [11]

Identification of felt needs. As has already been seen, identification of the felt needs of the audience or individual, and tapping into that need, is the very first step and starting point for all effective communication. This and this alone is the key for opening closed minds and for getting through a person’s mental filter system. It is also the starting point of the whole decision process.

Problem recognition on the part of the hearer or audience is the second step in the decision process. Until a person recognises or has a felt need to change, there isn’t any motivation or desire, to change. This recognition of a need to change is called problem recognition.

felt needs – the key to unlock closed minds

People change only when they recognise and, feel their need to do so.

Knowledge alone is not sufficient to cause a person to want to change his or her life. This is why doctrine, theology, and even Bible teaching in and of themselves do not change people’s lives. This is also why knowledge about the dangers of smoking and risk of lung cancer doesn’t stop millions of people from smoking. People change and grow only if they are hurting sufficiently and are uncomfortable enough with their present situation to want to change.

Pain is the great motivator. What is it that gets a person to the dentist quicker than anything else? Obviously, a toothache. A mild toothache will get him there in reasonable time. But a throbbing one will get him there immediately. Thus, the greater the discomfort a person has – the stronger his felt need and problem recognition – the greater will be his desire to find help and change.

The effective communicator will realise that he cannot change anyone. In fact, the only person he can change is himself. It is true that as he changes, those around him will tend to change also, but only because they want to change. To change, people have got to want to change and they want to change only when they recognise and feel their need to do so.

A search for information is the third step in the decision process. When an individual’s personal beliefs, values or way of life no longer satisfy or meet his needs, his mind becomes open to change and he begins to search for answers and solutions to meet his needs and solve his problems.

It happens like this. If a person’s lawn mower, washing machine or vacuum cleaner breaks down, he has an immediate felt need. He recognises his problem and begins to look for a repairman to meet his need. As long as this equipment is working okay he has no interest in looking for help.

The same is true in all areas of life. If a person doesn’t have a felt need for change he will not be looking for solutions to problems he doesn’t recognise. This is why it is so difficult, if not impossible, to communicate the gospel to the self-satisfied and to those “who are rich and have need of nothing” (see Rev. 3:17). These are the “non-responsive soil” and are not white unto harvest.

Evaluation of alternatives. Once an individual recognises his problem, his mind becomes open and he searches for the information he needs to resolve his problem. In his search he looks at various alternatives which promise to meet his need, and after evaluation of these alternatives he chooses the solution which he feels will best meet his need.

Decision to act. After the evaluation of the alternatives, then comes the decision to act or not to act.

One family I know about left their mainline denominational church to join what many would consider to be a false cult church. The reason for making this change was not any consideration of truth, but a consideration of needs. This family felt their family needs were not being met in their own church while the other church offered a program that would meet these needs.

This family had a strong felt need. They recognised their problem which opened their minds to change. They looked for answers to solve their problem. They evaluated the alternatives. Then they decided to act. They changed churches.

Post-decision evaluation. Immediately following a person’s decision to act comes his post-decision evaluation. “Did I make the right decision? Did I do the right thing? Is this what I really wanted?” he asks himself. If his needs begin to be met he will feel he has made the right decision. If not, he is likely to reverse his decision and start the whole process over again until he finds a way to meet or handle his needs.

Behaviour change and growth. For the Christian, once he has confirmed in his mind that he has made the right decision to receive Christ, his level of commitment or the reality of his decision will be seen in his actions, his way of life, and his growth.

When one set of needs is met, then a new set of needs is felt. Once again he looks for solutions, chooses and evaluates the various alternatives, and acts on the choices he makes. As this process is repeated, he grows. If the process ceases, he ceases to grow. These steps, of course, are not conscious, but they happen nevertheless. The effective communicator will realise this.

As much as we would like to think that people go to church to search for God and truth, or to hear us preach or teach, it just isn’t so. They go to have their needs met. Even if the need is spiritual, people don’t search for God for God’s sake. They search for Him for their sake – to have their need for God met or to have their inner “God-shaped vacuum” filled. People also go to church to have all sorts of other needs met: friendship, fellowship, warmth, love, understanding, acceptance, a sense of belonging and many other personal needs.

And even if people did come to church to hear me preach, it wouldn’t really be to hear me preach at all. It would be because, for some reason, my preaching happens to meet a need in them. Some of us have a need to preach, to teach, to speak, to write – a need to be heard; and that’s perfectly acceptable so long as we recognise that others have needs too. Only as we speak to and minister to those felt needs can we be successful communicators and ministers.

Speaking to people’s felt needs is the key to opening closed minds and effectively communicating the gospel. And meeting those needs is the whole purpose of the gospel. Only as people recognise their needs and problems do they become open and respond to the gospel.

Only when a nation has a strong enough felt need does its people turn to God and be open for revival.

felt needs – the key to unlock closed minds Consider the countries where God is moving in a profound way today – countries where many thousands have and are continuing to turn to Christ: Latin America, Indonesia, South Korea, Africa and Bangladesh. They all have one common denominator – suffering. They have been torn apart or disrupted by political upheaval, war, bloodshed, hunger, famine, and so on.

Their problems have upset their way of life, their values, their beliefs, and their philosophies of life. They have suffered greatly, become very unsettled, and had strong felt needs for change. This is what has made them open to looking for solutions, and they have turned to Christ and the Christian way of life in order to have their needs met. It is their suffering that has made them “white unto harvest."

When we pray for revival in our lands, we often don’t realise for what we “are praying“. Without national upheaval there isn’t too much hope for revival. Only when a nation has a strong enough felt need does its people turn to God and become open for revival.

With all of our problems in the West, we still do not have any national crisis with sufficient suffering to turn us to God as nations. However, there are millions of Individuals who are facing or going through personal crises and living “quiet lives of despair.” These are the ones who are open to the church’s message and are more likely to be “white unto harvest.“

Only as the church understands these needs and becomes effective in ministering to and meeting these needs will we effectively communicate Christ’s message of love and hope and relevance to our own nation. Only then will we be and remain a viable force in the community.

As someone else has said, “If you find a need meet it. If you find a hurt heal it.” When we do this we will see much growth in the church and will never run out of business. We may not be great public speakers or great sharers of our Christian faith, but if we know how to understand and speak to people’s felt needs, we can be great communicators.

As Jim Engel so aptly puts it, the key to all effective communication is to “scratch people where they itch.”

To scratch people where they itch, the effective communicator obviously needs to know where they itch. That is, he must know and understand their felt needs. How to do this has been explained at the end of chapter 6 – through getting to know people, by informally asking people what their needs are, by contacting schools, social and other community agencies, and through conducting formal surveys.

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