One of the most uninteresting claims in the preaching literature is that preaching should meet human needs. The claim is uninteresting because it is obviously true and does not need repeating. To my mind, what would be more interesting is discussion on how preachers can recognize legitimate human needs when they see them.
That kind of discussion would be helpful for several reasons. First, such conversation would help us out of the “emotivist mire” which so captivates society and the church. Emotivism teaches us that we need go no further than our own feelings to distinguish desires and actions as either right or wrong. Second, that dialogue would help us through the various ways in which the word “need” is utilized in American culture. Third, that discussion would help us preach in ways that really do meet legitimate human needs.
The concept of need is a highly contested concept in certain philosophical circles. Some, on the psychological left, argue that certain kinds of need are biologically-based and therefore universally present. Others, members of the free-market right, have pointed out that any attempt to identify universal needs is destined to fail. They opt for the idea of “felt needs,” those requirements that people simply feel they have.
Some thinkers have advanced the concept of need as a way to bridge the notorious “is/ought” problem and argue that if a need can be established, then society is morally obligated to meet that need. Others have countered that claim by suggesting that such a project is inherently authoritarian and works against the expansionist ideals of capitalism.
However, apart from the philosophical difficulties inherent to the concept of “need,” we face the practical problem of preaching to people convinced by Madison Avenue that their needs simply exist, that they are the best judges of what their needs are, that their needs must be met, and that they deserve to have their needs met since they have worked hard and achieved a certain level of affluence.
Because of philosophical problems inherent to the word “need” and the pragmatic problem of preaching to people who are so need-driven, we preachers face a real challenge in trying to carry out that very basic dictum: “preaching should meet human needs.” How are we to distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate need?
I suggest that legitimate needs are those which must be met for people to realize the ends consistent with the Christian faith. That claim implies that Christian preaching should not concern itself with just any needs that people express but only those requirements which must be satisfied if people are to realize the ends toward which Christian faith is oriented.
For this reason, Christian preaching cannot afford to be captivated by either the psychological left’s “biological needs” or the free-market right’s “felt needs.” Instead, Christian preaching must proceed from deep reflection upon the Christian story and the essential practices of the church.
For example, most non-Christian accounts of human need presuppose ends not necessarily compatible with Christian faith. Those secular theorists, whether from the right or the left, suggest that human needs are oriented towards the ends of “surviving and thriving.” They argue that human beings are entitled to whatever is necessary for survival because survival is essential to the accomplishment of the projects that humans wish to pursue. As an extension of that argument, some theorists suggest that needs must be met for individuals to become “fully functionall” or self-actualized.”
However, Christian faith cannot presuppose surviving and thriving as fundamental human ends because Christ called His disciples to take up crosses and follow Him. Such a call elevates faithfulness above surviving and thriving, requiring that Christian preaching articulate the virtues and practices necessary to that kind of fidelity.
Such preaching requires that preachers always hold some well-articulated end that they are striving to meet in the sermon. For me, that end is leading people to the worship of God through Jesus Christ. In preaching, I mean to assist in orienting people back toward their Creator’s purposes through the mediation of Jesus. When I fail to do that in the sermon, I have both failed to define and failed to meet the legitimate needs of my congregation.
Further, such preaching requires that we preachers spend time with those to whom we preach. Preaching is informed by pastoral care. However, such pastoral care must be molded by the Great Commission and not by the dictates of contemporary psychology, as each of those define human need differently. The crises that members of our congregations face and the needs attendant to those crises must be conceived as occasions for growth in Christian discipleship, both for the member and the preacher.
Finally, such preaching requires that the preacher be skilled in discernment. We preachers become discerning only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be immersed in the constitutive practices of the church. One such practice is the Eucharist in which we are called to discern the Lord’s body. Through participatory contemplation of the Eucharist, we are reminded of the redemptive and reconciling death of Christ and of the intrusive acts of God which by their very nature direct us to our legitimate human needs. Such contemplation directs us outward to discern the Lord’s Body, the church, so that when we preach we preach in ways that serve the legitimate needs of our congregations.
Preachers, intent on preaching to meet human needs, must learn to discern real need and distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate. Such discernment is only possible as we allow ourselves to be formed more by the story of God and the practices of the church than by the stories and practices of contemporary society.

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