Ministering to Felt Needs

There was this nice, new family who was visiting your church for the past month or so. But you haven't seen them now for a couple weeks, and so you ask someone who was more connected with them: "What happened to the Jones family?"

"Oh," your friend responds, "they didn't feel our church was meeting their needs."

You exchange eye rolls, and the conversation moves on.

Now, I don't know the Jones family, but in another sense, I do. Because I'm the Jones family. And you're the Jones family. I don't mean that in some sort of pantheistic, or V for Vendetta revolution kind of way, but in the way that makes us a little slower to roll our eyes at a family leaving (or joining) a church for that reason. First we should understand what these felt needs are, and then distinguish the category into which they fall. Are the felt needs something that:

  1. Our church should meet, but doesn't
  2. Our church would like to meet, but can't (usually for reasons of size and resources)
  3. Our church does not want to meet, and therefore will never meet

If we examine the reasons by these categories, we will probably find most people falling into the first two. In Reformed circles though, because we are allergic to the phrase "felt needs", we automatically place many people hungry for those to be met into the third category. Then we will happily reclaim them once they have matured in their appetite for "solid food".

There is good reason behind this visceral reaction against ministering to felt needs. We want to affirm the primacy of the glory of God, which, as fallen human beings, seldom cracks the top five on our list of felt needs. So instead we strive to show people that we have misaligned desires, and that in order to flourish fully, the Lord Jesus Christ must take the throne at the center of our desires, and we must work with His Spirit to subordinate all of our other felt needs, channeling them towards knowing and enjoying Christ.

But what we miss in that above declaration is the little motivational phrase: "in order to flourish fully." That's a felt need. We dare not set up the Christian life as a set of doctrines and imperatives abstracted from the "why" of fulfilling our purpose as human beings. The truth is we all seek Christ in order to satisfy felt needs, the most basic one being our need for relationship with God. Jesus was not shy about satisfying even the crassest of felt needs as a pointer to the fact that Christ has come to satisfy our deepest, most eternal needs.

When large crowds gathered to hear Jesus preach (Matthew 14,15), he did not scoff at them because, by the end, they were less interested in redemptive history than getting some bread and fish. Jesus was continually healing people of diseases, and casting out demons. He did warn people not to stop or be content with seeking for that superficial level of satisfaction, but he urged them to go on to want more, to want not just water to quench thirst, but to have the source of thirst-quenching inside of you. The fact that Jesus and His church meet simple, low level felt needs is not an obstacle, but a pointer towards Jesus' capacity to meet the deeper needs we are less aware of.

Let's take two extreme examples to see how we can affirm "wrong" felt needs people attempt to satisfy when they come to worship.

1) Entertainment. We do not want worship to be entertainment, right? But is it wrong if someone is entertained by a worship service? What are the underlying desires which cause people to seek out more banal entertainment outlets? Is there any good desire God has placed within the human heart which entertainment satisfies, and which therefore points to God? People want to be part of something engaging, exciting, relatable, and which takes them out of themselves. Are we so sure we want none of that in worship?

2) Chore. We never want worship to feel like a chore, right? We don't want people simply showing up to church because they think they have to, do we? Or is there anything underlying someone's desire to do something as a chore, which we can affirm as good in how we relate to God? Is there any sense of obligation or duty which we owe to God, or of doing something we know is good and right, and helpful, even when we don't always feel like it in that moment?

Felt needs can serve as a starting block, or even guideposts along our life, as we see how Christ provides the answers to the things we care about the most, not necessarily because we've latched onto the absolute best things, but because all things are in Him and through Him. (Rom 11:36). 

Justin Poythress is the Assistant Pastor of Student Ministry at Christ Community Church in Carmel, IN.