Felt-Needs Preaching vs. Consecutive Exposition: What’s Best for God’s People?

I recently spoke with a pastor who describes the rationale for his church’s preaching:

“Each week we think through needs in the congregation and preach a message to meet those needs.”

This approach, what many call “felt needs” preaching, appropriately seeks to help their congregation grow spiritually and overcome issues they are facing. In this particular pastor’s case, it stems from a love for his flock and a deep knowledge of their lives—something every pastor should strive for.

Occasions exist when needs-focused preaching should be preferred, at least in the short run. For example, when a congregation has experienced a major tragedy, or if there is a serious struggle in the congregation, the pastor might want to preach to the situation.

But is preaching to felt needs the best practice for preachers over the long haul? I don’t think so, especially when contrasted with consecutive expository preaching through entire books of the Bible. Here are four reasons:

  1. God knows our needs better than we do.

The God who created us knows us better than we know ourselves. His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). His Word alone meets our every spiritual need and exposes thoughts and intentions of the heart (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 4:12). Our attempts to faithfully diagnose needs cannot compare to God’s: we need God’s Word to shine its light into our blind spots and expose our true needs.

Just as preventative medicine is better than treating a health issue after it appears, preaching through books of the Bible meets a variety of needs that the congregation and the preacher might not know they have. Otherwise, we depend on our limited knowledge to diagnose needs and prescribe solutions.

  1. Our felt needs are often not real needs or our deepest needs.

A great danger in having felt needs as your starting point in preaching is man-centeredness. Our felt needs may actually be “first-world problems” that expose our shallow, myopic state. Often what we consider “needs”—like significance, prosperity, or even health—are expelled by having a more Scriptural view of God and how He works in the world.

Sinners have the true need of a Savior who transforms hearts and lives as people repent and believe the gospel. How many sinners would say that’s a need they are conscious of? A temptation for felt-needs preaching is to give people self-help Band-Aids when they really need a heart transplant that only Christ can give.

  1. We miss deeper contours of biblical passages/books.

God gave us the Bible in book format, not random collections of verses and stories. If preachers only preach topical messages or one-off expositions, they will miss deeper contours of the passage and books of the Bible. Preaching the big message of a book helps us teach our people to read the Bible better and treat it less like a book of inspirational quotations or a self-help manual.

For example, not preaching through the big ideas of Genesis will lose the overarching story of God preserving His creation purposes to bless the world in spite of the sinfulness of humanity. That probably doesn’t meet a felt need, but it meets the real need of humanity to know that evil isn’t something that hijacks God’s sovereign plan.

This is why LRI recommends preaching the Bible as it was given: in complete books.

  1. We communicate that the Bible is primarily about meeting our needs instead of receiving the revelation of God.

The Bible does meet our needs, but it does more. The Bible is not primarily about us, it is about Jesus (Luke 24:24). Human history is not primarily about us, but about God and His actions to redeem sinful humanity through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:3–14). Approaching the Bible as God’s revelation of Himself to humanity puts God in the center of our lives and not ourselves. This means approaching the Bible with the question, “How can I fix my problem?” is useful, but incomplete. When we put God in His proper place, everything else in life will certainly fall in line (Matthew 6:33).

A Better Way

Some argue that preaching to felt needs helps you immediately gain the attention of your audience. While that may be true, we don’t have to choose between meeting needs and preaching the Word. We can simultaneously preach through a book of the Bible, keep our listeners’ lives in mind, and make our message engaging for a 21st-century audience. This way, God sets the agenda, and needs are met organically.

Here are a few suggestions for preaching through books of the Bible while keeping real needs in mind:

  • Consider preaching through books that deal with issues confronting your congregation. If your congregation lacks evangelistic zeal or harbors bitterness, try preaching Jonah. If your congregation needs training on the Christian worldview, try Genesis. If your congregation lacks unity, preach Philippians.
  • When a need becomes obvious, find a biblical text (or several) addressing the issue, and preach it in an expository fashion.
  • As you consider each text you preach, think through the overlap between your congregation’s needs and the text’s main ideas. With the Spirit’s help, you should find more relevant application than at first glance. You may find the 9Marks application grid or Tim Keller’s list of people to consider as you apply Scripture helpful tools to use.
  • Just focus on preaching the Word—God has a way of responding to needs. For example, at the height of the #MeToo headlines exposing sexual abuse, Colin Smith was preaching through 2 Samuel and reached 2 Samuel 13—the story of Amnon’s rape of his sister Tamar. In preaching it, he drew powerful attention to how Scripture speaks to our deepest pains and instilled confidence in his listeners about Scripture’s sufficiency.

Kevin Halloran

Servant of the Word. Husband. Blogs weekly at Anchored in Christ. Content Strategist/Trainer in Latin America with Leadership Resources International.

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