It is axiomatic among many to teach that the hearer should guide the topics and content of the sermon and ministry in general. In this model, we go to the people to find out what they want and then give people these things. By doing that we are sure to give relevant ministry, it is argued. Likewise, we can go to the people to learn what people really want to hear in the sermon. Such methods give us the “felt needs” of the people. Such preaching is alegedly “helpful” to them.
It is this kind of preaching that caused William Willimon to state:
Jesus doesn’t meet our needs; he rearranges them. He cares very little about most things that I assume are my needs, and he gives me needs I would’ve never had if I hadn’t met Jesus. He reorders them.
I used to ask seminarians, “Why are you in seminary?” They’d say, “I like meeting people’s needs.” And I’d say, “Whoa. Really? If you try that with the people I know, they’ll eat you alive.”
Now, if you’re a pastor in Honduras, it might be okay to define your ministry as meeting needs, because more people in Honduras have interesting biblical needs â€“ food, clothing, housing. But most people in the churches I know get those needs met without prayer. So they’ve moved on to “needs” like orgasm, a satisfying career, an enjoyable love life, a positive outlook on life, and stuff the Bible has absolutely no interest in.
In our day when the American dream is seen as our birthright, Willimon’s counsel is much needed. Certainly the heresy of the “prosperity Gospel” tempts us to preach that God guarantees us an American upper middle class lifestyle. And yet the truth of the matter is that God has made no such guarantees. The truth of the matter is that John the Baptists head ended up on a plate. The truth of the matter is that Jeremiah was thrown in jail for teaching the truth. The truth of the matter is that we may not get the new car, the promotion, or the American version of the Good Life. We do our people a disservice when we preach lies to them. We do our people a disservice when we placate their desires rather than preaching a gospel that will transform those priorities to be in line with God’s priorities.