Communicating More Like Jesus: Part 2
By Rick Warren

In part one we discussed how there has never been a more appealing and interesting preacher than Jesus and the importance of modeling him when we preach.

Jesus began with people’s needs, hurts, and interests and our basic message to the lost must be good news.

Because preachers are called to communicate truth, we often mistakenly assume that unbelievers are eager to hear the truth. They aren’t! Unbelievers aren’t that interested in truth these days. In fact, surveys show that the majority of Americans reject the idea of absolute truth.

This is the source of all the problems in our society. People don’t value truth. Today people value tolerance more than truth. People complain about crime, drug abuse, the breakup of the family, and other problems of our culture, but they don’t realize the cause of it all is their rejection of truth.

Moral relativism is the root of what is wrong in our society. But it is a big mistake for us to think that unbelievers will race to church if we just proclaim, “We have the truth!”

Their reaction will more likely be, “Yeah, so does everybody else!” Proclaimers of truth don’t get much attention in a society that devalues truth. To overcome this, some preachers try to “yell it like it is.” But preaching louder isn’t the solution to this apathy. It starts by being wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16b ESV). While most unbelievers aren’t looking for truth, they are looking for relief. This gives us the opportunity to interest them in truth. I’ve found that when I teach the truth that relieves their pain or solves their problem, unbelievers say, “Thanks! What else is true in that book?” Sharing biblical principles that meet a need creates a hunger for more truth.

Jesus understood this. Very few of the people who came to Jesus were looking for truth. They were looking for relief. So Jesus would meet their felt needs, whether leprosy, blindness, or a bent back. After their felt needs were met, they were always eager to know the truth about this man. He had helped them with a problem they couldn’t solve.

Ephesians 4:29 says, [Speak] only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (NIV). Notice that who we are speaking to determines what we are to say — this has nothing to do with compromising the message and everything to do with understanding the needs of your listeners. The needs of those listening decide the content of our message. We are to speak only what benefits those we are speaking to. If this is God’s will for our conversations, it must also be God’s will for our sermons.

Unfortunately, it seems that many pastors determine the content of their messages by what they feel they need to say rather than what the people need to hear.

One reason sermon study is so difficult for many pastors is because they ask the wrong question. Instead of asking, “What shall I preach on this Sunday?” they should instead ask, “To whom will I be preaching?” Simply thinking through the needs of the audience will help determine God’s will for the message.

Since God, in his foreknowledge, already knows who will be attending your services next Sunday, why would he give you a message totally irrelevant to the needs of those he is intending to bring? Why would he have me preach on something unhelpful to those he’s planned to hear it? I believe that people’s immediate needs are a key to where God would have me begin speaking at that particular occasion.

What I’m trying to say is this: The crowd does not determine whether or not you speak the truth. The truth is not optional. But your audience does determine which truths you choose to speak about. To unbelievers, some truths are more relevant than others. Can something be both true and irrelevant? Certainly!

If you’d been in a car accident and were bleeding to death in the emergency room, how would you feel if the doctor came in and wanted to talk about the Greek word for “hospital” or the history of the stethoscope? All he said to you could be true but irrelevant because it doesn’t stop your hurt. You would want the doctor to begin with your pain.

Your audience also determines how you start your message. If you are speaking to the unchurched and you spend the first part of the message on historical background, by the time you get to the personal application, you’ll have already lost your audience. When speaking to the unbelievers, you need to begin where your sermons normally end up!

Today “preaching to felt needs” is scorned and criticized in some circles as a cheapening of the Gospel and a sellout to consumerism. I want to state this in the clearest way possible: Beginning a message with people’s felt needs is not some modern approach invented by 20th century marketing! It’s the way Jesus always preached!

It’s based on the theological fact that God chooses to reveal himself to humanity according to our needs! Both the Old and New testaments are filled with many examples of this.

Even the names of God are revelations of how God meets our felt needs! Throughout history when people have asked God, “What is your name?” God’s response has been to reveal himself according to what they needed at that specific time:

  • those who needed a miracle, God revealed himself as Jehovah-Jireh (“I am your provider”)
  • to those who needed comfort, God revealed himself as Jehovah-Shalom (“I am your peace”)
  • to those who needed salvation, God revealed himself as Jehovah-Tsidkenu (“I am your righteousness”)

The examples go on and on. God always meets us where we are — our point of need. Preaching to felt needs is a theologically sound approach to introducing people to God.

Preaching that changes lives somehow brings the truth of God’s Word and the real needs of people together through application. Which end of the continuum you begin with is irrelevant as long as you bring them together!

Please join me next time for Part 3 of Communicating More Like Jesus as we discuss how Jesus related truth to Life.