There has never been a more appealing and interesting preacher than Jesus. Why not model him?
Jesus’ preaching attracted enormous crowds, and the Bible often records the positive reactions of those crowds to his teaching.
- Matthew 7:28 (NIV) — “The crowds were amazed at his teaching.”
- Matthew 22:33 (TLB) — “The crowds were profoundly impressed.”
- Mark 11:18 (TLB) — “People were so enthusiastic about Jesus’ teaching.”
- Mark 12:37 (NASB) — “The large crowd enjoyed listening to Him.”
These crowds had never heard anyone speak to them the way Jesus did. They were spellbound by his delivery.
To capture the attention of unbelievers like Jesus did, we must communicate spiritual truth the way he did. I believe that Jesus—not anyone else—must be our model for preaching. Unfortunately, some homiletics classes pay more attention to Aristotle and Greek rhetoric than to how Jesus taught.
In John 12:49 Jesus admitted, “The Father who sent me has commanded me what to say and how to say it” (NLT). Notice that both the content AND the delivery style were directed by the Father. This is extremely important to note. We often overlook the manner in which Jesus preached.
There’s so much we can learn from Jesus’ style of communication, not just his content. But for now I want to briefly identify three attributes of Jesus’ preaching.
Jesus began with people’s needs, hurts, and interests
Jesus usually taught in response to a question or a pressing problem from someone in the crowd. He scratched where people itched. His preaching had immediacy about it. He was always relevant and always on target for that moment.
When Jesus preached his first sermon at Nazareth, he read from Isaiah to announce what the preaching agenda of his ministry would be: “The Lord has put his Spirit in me, because he appointed me to tell the Good News to the poor. He has sent me to tell the captives they are free and to tell the blind that they can see again. God sent me to free those who have been treated unfairly and to announce the time when the Lord will show his kindness” (Luke 4:18-19 NCV).
Notice his entire emphasis on meeting needs and healing hurts. Jesus had Good News to share, and people wanted to hear it. He had a message that offered practical benefits for their lives. His truth would “set people free” and bring all sorts of blessings to their lives.
Our basic message to the lost must be Good News. If it isn’t Good News, it isn’t the Gospel. We must learn to share the Gospel in ways that show it is both “good” and “news.” The Gospel is about what God has done for us and what we can become in Christ. A personal relationship to Christ is the answer to all of man’s deepest needs. The Good News offers lost people what they are frantically searching for: forgiveness, freedom, security, purpose, love, acceptance, and strength. It settles our past, assures our future, and gives meaning to today. We have the best news in the world.
Crowds always flock to Good News. These days, there is plenty of bad news in the world. The last thing people need to hear is more bad news in church. They’re looking for hope, help, and encouragement. Jesus understood this. That’s why he felt so compassionate toward them. He knew that the crowds were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 NIV).
By beginning with people’s needs when you preach, you immediately gain the attention of your audience. Practically every communicator understands and uses this principle except pastors!
Wise teachers know to start with the student’s interests and move them toward the lesson. Effective salesperson knows you always start with the customer, not the product. Smart managers know to begin with the employee’s complaint, not their own agenda. You start where people are and move them to where you want them to be.
Pick up any textbook on the brain and you’ll learn that at the base of your brain stem is a filter called the Reticular Activating System. God graciously put this filter in our minds so we don’t have to consciously respond to the millions of stimuli that we’re bombarded with on a daily basis. It continuously sifts and sorts the things you see, hear, and smell—forwarding only a few of those stimuli on to your consciousness. This way you’re not overloaded and overwhelmed. If you had to consciously respond to every stimuli your senses pick up, you’d go crazy! Your Reticular Activating System determines what gets your attention.
Now, what does get people’s attention? Three things always make it past your Reticular Activating System: things you value, things that are unique, and things that threaten you. This has profound implications for the way pastors preach and teach. If you want to capture the attention of an uninterested group of people, you must tie your message to one of these three attention-getters.
While sharing the Good News in a unique or threatening way can get attention of unbelievers, I believe showing its value to people is most consistent with how Christ taught. Jesus taught in a way that people understood the value and benefit of what he was saying. He didn’t try to threaten unbelievers into the kingdom of God. In fact, his only threats were to religious people! As the cliché goes, he comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.
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 value tolerance more than truth. They complain about crime, drug abuse, the breakup of the family, and other problems of our culture, but they don’t realize that 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. The solution starts by being “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16 NKJV).
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 it was leprosy, blindness, or a bent back. After their felt needs were met, they were always anxious 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 sell-out 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 man according to our needs! Both the Old and New Testament 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’re at—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!