http://www.freebibleimages.org/ Nancy Cunningham/Rachel Coate/BasicTrainingBible Ministries
Our starting point when we share the gospel with someone in most cases shapes that person’s understanding of the Christian life. When I was in the early years of my ministry, I heard advice that I tried to put into practice. To a great extent the advice shaped my ministry for far too long but eventually I came to realize that the advice was bad.
Bad advice can be a dangerous thing and in this case it not only caused me to go in a wrong direction but helped shape the whole evangelical world in Canada. I realize that that is a strong statement but I believe it is true.
So what is the advice that I was given: discover the felt needs of people in your neighborhood and then meet those needs.
There it is.
“Discover the felt needs of people in your neighborhood and then meet those needs.”
Peter Wagner in his book Leading Your Church To Growth suggests doing a survey of your community asking people what those needs are (p. 203). Rick Warren in his book The Purpose Driven Church describes how he did this before his church even held its first meeting (pp. 39, 40). Others have copied Warren and carried out similar surveys in the homes around their churches.
If the goal was to build a large church, this approach certainly worked for Warren. Saddleback Valley Community Church grew and Rick Warren went on to become one of the best known pastors in the world. I am not criticizing Warren’s ministry but pointing out potential problems when we begin with people’s felt needs.
The starting point determines the end point
I am not an apologist by any stretch of the imagination but I have learned one important fact about discussing my faith with people. Before I can enter into a discussion about miracles, the resurrection, creation, or a host of other topics, it is important to determine the other person’s starting point. The key questions are not whether miracles are possible, or if Jesus could have been raised from the dead or whether the virgin birth makes sense or if creation explains the beginning of the world.
The question that overrides all the other questions is whether or not there is a God. If one believes in a God who is active in our world, then answers for the the other questions all fall into place. If there is a supreme God who brought everything into existence, then that God can produce a miracle. If there is a God who created the reproductive system within the human body, then he can supercede that system and produce a supernatural conception. If there is a God, then everything is possible.
The key question
So what is the key question that we need to consider when we share the gospel if we are going to be true to the heart of the message? I would suggest that the key issue is our starting point. Do we start with the felt needs of the listener or do we start with the centrality of Jesus Christ?
First, let me say that Jesus will meet the deepest needs that we have in this life. Purpose and fulfillment are only found in a life surrendered to Jesus. Forgiveness only comes through Christ’s death on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin. Relationships only reach their pinnacle when they are lived out as part of God’s family.
Jesus does meet our needs but that is not the starting point of the gospel. When we begin with the felt needs of people, we run the risk of them seeing the gospel as being about them. When we begin with their needs, it is a short step to them believing that meeting their needs is what the gospel is all about. The result is churches filled with people concerned primarily with having their needs met. The number one reason that people give for leaving a church is that the church is not meeting their needs. That attitude goes all the way back to how the gospel was presented to them in the first place.
The gospel is all about Jesus. It is about who Jesus is, the eternal Son of God, the Lord of lords and King of kings, the sovereign ruler of the universe, the one who commands our total commitment and loyalty. The gospel is about surrender, service and sacrifice. When our gospel presentation reflects this reality, it will produce Christians with a Christ-first mindset instead a me-first mindset.
Do we talk about the lions?
Some time ago I listened to a dialogue between two Christian leaders presenting an interesting question. Suppose you could go back in time to the first century of the church era. You are in ancient Rome and many of your friends have suffered for their faith. Some have been expelled from the city. Others have had their property confiscated. The most severe cases saw your friends being exposed to the lions in the coliseum. Rather than be unfaithful to Jesus, they died torn to pieces by hungry animals.
The question that was being debated was this. If you were there in the first century and you were sharing your faith with family and friends, would you tell them about the lions? Would you tell them that their decision to follow Jesus could cost them their lives? Not telling people about the lions produces Christians with a me-first understanding of what their faith is all about. Talking about the lions is an indispensable part of producing disciples who are totally surrendered disciples of Jesus.