Editors’ note: This article is part of a multi-part series on expository preaching that will run through December. The series is part of our new Expository Preaching Project. TGC Council pastors are preparing free instructional resources on expository preaching in both video and print formats in six strategic languages. We are prayerfully seeking to raise $100,000 this month to fund the project. Generous partners have offered a 50 percent match ($50,000) of all dollars given up to $100,000 by December 31. To make a donation, please click here and select “Expository Preaching” from the designation list.
The Gospel Coalition champions expository, Christ-centered preaching. TGC also believes leaders should address the issues of the day. Their commitment to this is visible in its articles on pressing topics such as sex and race, as well as the arts, culture, and work.
Historically, however, some have seen a tension between Christ-centered preaching and an interest in pressing needs. The fear is that a concern for current issues will compromise authentic exposition. To overstate it, what one calls a dedication to the questions of the day another calls pandering to felt needs. Can a preaching ministry be both Christ-centered and sensitive to pressing needs?
Need-sensitive preaching is imperative. The Bible is God’s Word to humanity, and we are needy—sinful, alienated, and dying. If a preacher fails to show how God addresses and solves our needs, he has delivered a lecture, not a sermon. Further, as Moisés Silva observes, an awareness of our needs makes us better exegetes. Therefore, it’s “proper and even necessary to approach the Bible with a strong sense of our needs.” Our problems “often alert us to truths in Scripture that might otherwise remain veiled to us. Proper exegesis consists largely of asking the right questions from the text.”
So while need-oriented preaching focuses on (or possibly panders to) perceived needs, need-sensitive preaching focuses on God’s Word but does so with an eye to our needs. Need-sensitive preachers aim to meet real needs and assess whether felt needs are genuine.
Jesus Redefined Perceived Needs
The defense of need-sensitive ministry begins with Jesus. When the blind and leprous came to him, and when friends brought the crippled and demon-possessed, Jesus responded to their needs. Sometimes he gave people exactly what they wanted. In Matthew 20:29–34, Jesus passed beside two blind men. Hearing he was near, they cried, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” Moved by compassion, Jesus gave them exactly what they wanted. He touched their eyes, they saw, and they followed him.
Jesus also redefined perceived needs. One man thought he needed a better division of his inheritance; Jesus knew he needed a warning about greed (Luke 12:13–21). A rich young man believed he needed to earn eternal life; Jesus reintroduced him to the first commandment (Matt. 19:16–22). Jesus wholly refused some petitions, including requests for miraculous signs (Matt. 12:38; 16:1). The apostles too met some needs while adjusting or refusing others (Acts 5:15–16, 3:3, 8:18–23).
Need-sensitive preaching is imperative. Scripture addresses us above all—and we are needy. The church is a hospital. It’s also a rescue society that seeks the lost and welcomes the found. Need-sensitive preachers know the journey to faith can begin with selfish desires.
Consider the (younger) prodigal son of Luke 15. He needed food, so he resolved to go home and say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” We see self-interest (“I perish with hunger”), genuine repentance (“I have sinned against heaven”), and confusion (“Treat me as a servant”). The prodigal’s repentance began with a sense of need. Yet he thought he needed a job, when really he needed loving grace.
Correcting Felt Needs
Preachers can follow Jesus in addressing and correcting felt needs. Again, we distinguish need-sensitive from need-oriented preaching. The latter fixates on the audience and its perceived problems. Though such need-oriented preaching may especially appeal to the unchurched, it addresses disciples too, generating sermons on topics like conflict, sex, work, money, race, friendship, politics, and identity.
Critics accuse need-oriented preaching of pandering to a consumer mentality. They say it twists the Christ-centered gospel into a man-centered counterfeit: we no longer exist to serve God; God exists to serves us. Besides, critics say, fallen humans misconstrue their needs. If preachers don’t question felt needs, they’ll indulge the thin desire for more pleasure or less pain. People assume they need counsel about what to do, when in reality they need to hear they must change or they’ll never be able to do the right thing. They think they need answers to their questions when in fact they need new questions. Their questions show they have set their minds on “the things of man,” not “the things of God” (Matt. 16:23).
Connecting Felt Needs to Real Needs
Faithful pastors will connect desires—felt needs—to real needs. For example, the desire to be rich connects to the legitimate desire for life’s necessities. The desire for dominance exaggerates the legitimate desire for agency. The hunger for prestige is an idolatrous version of the need to belong. Even the desire to justify oneself distorts the proper desire to be right with God, as both Douglas Schuurman and Cornelius Plantinga, point out. So we can connect perceived needs to real needs, including soteriological ones. Justification cures guilt, adoption meets the need for love and community, and sanctification liberates us from the grip of sin. Felt needs and real needs do connect.
The central danger in need-oriented preaching is man-centeredness. At worst, worship shifts from an assembly seeking to please God to an entertainment venue designed to please us. This method can narrow preaching until the the congregation hears not the whole counsel of God but the whole litany of human complaint, Dennis Johnson observes. At worst, need-oriented preaching abdicates pastoral leadership, threatening to obscure the austerity of God’s demands and neglect the salvation we most need.
Exegeting Both Text and Audience
Need-sensitive preaching can avert these hazards. Healthy churches know their pastors hear their questions and will address them. But they also expect their pastors to preach on texts and topics that may initially seem irrelevant, trusting that all of Scripture is profitable (2 Tim. 3:16–17). They believe their pastors strive to know their church’s needs, if possible, better than they do.
The best expository preaching speaks to needs without letting them set the agenda. If the expositor exegetes both the Bible and the audience, he addresses genuine needs and redefines perceived ones, just as Jesus did.