Tuesday, January 22, 2013

True Christian Ministries Must Address Real Spiritual Needs

I hear a lot of pious, platitudinal happy-talk these days from well-meaning Christians in ministry about how we need to minister to people’s spiritual needs. Most of that kind of talk seems to come from the "seeker friendly" crowd and when I hear it, I often wonder, “What do they mean by that? Do they know what spiritual needs are? What are the real spiritual needs of people?”

For seventeen years, I managed a Christian home for the elderly. One of the sentences in our purpose statement said, “Our mission is to minister to their (the residents’) physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.” I thought about that for a long time. After all, if that is our mission, we should know what it means. So, I often quizzed my employees to see if they had any idea what those needs were.

Physical needs are easy to identify. When I asked people to list what they thought those needs are, their lists generally all agreed with mine. Everyone knows that people need food, shelter, clothing, healthy environments and they need exercise and stimulation.

When we considered emotional needs, although those are slightly less concrete, most people quickly identified the need for personal contact, sympathy, empathy, acceptance, approval, and love.

However, when I asked about spiritual needs, they usually responded with cricket noise and blank stares. Most people just simply don’t know what to say. This, they think, is too subjective or uncertain or ethereal or mysterious.

I know how most operators of other homes for the elderly approach the subject. They use the phrase for marketing purposes. They will ask a potential client questions like, “Do you have any religious preferences or traditions?” And then, based on the responses they get, they attempt to show the customer how they can be assimilated into a spiritual community, a special interest group, or a religious activity of their own preferences. They might plan for special services, meditations, readings, or moments of silence.

Basically, the erroneous assumption that most people make is that our spiritual needs are unique to every individual and so they are based upon whatever we want to believe or feel. Sometimes youth workers fall into this same trap of thinking that young people have different spiritual needs than older people. But really, spiritual needs have nothing to do with age, culture, preference, social status, religion, or even our personal beliefs. Our real needs are more about absolute truth and what God says we need.

Everyone has the same spiritual needs. Our supreme need is to know the existence, nature, and character of the One, true, sovereign God. We need to hear a straightforward and complete message of the truth of the Gospel. We need to know that we are sinners and enemies of God deserving of eternal judgement and that salvation is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ alone. We need to repent and trust the Lord Jesus Christ for the saving of our souls and to obey Him as Lord. We need to be discipled and taught about separating ourselves from the world and its system and how to live a holy, sanctified life of service before God. Those are the real spiritual needs of all people young and old alike.

So all true Christian ministries, (i.e. crisis intervention, Christian education, elder care, pro-life pregnancy counseling, child care, homeless shelter, food distribution, et. al.) must address those spiritual needs.  Anything else might make us feel warm and fuzzy all over, and they might even produce some positive, temporal social benefits, but they are illegitimate Christian ministries; it doesn't do a bit of eternal good for those whom we serve, and it dishonors God.



Pastor John Carlson said...


These are just some thoughts I was compelled to share in response to your blog post, “Real Spiritual Needs.”

Yes, today there is a lot of talk about spiritual needs. That’s not a bad thing! And, it’s legitimate to ask what is meant by it. Ralph, I agree with you about what are the general spiritual needs of all people. Paul stated in Philippians 3:7-11:

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from {the} Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which {comes} from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

The “pious, platitudinal happy talk” and the subsequent apparent ignorance on the subject, seem to be pervasive with most Christians, regardless of church affiliation. There are two issues here. One, you can’t expect people to know what you haven’t taught them. Perhaps these things are not taught in many churches. Of course it is possible that on some level people could be well taught to know God, to understand correct doctrine, about His nature and character, about sin and the cross, repentance, grace and forgiveness, and at the same time not put together the philosophy of ministry in their minds. At some point, however, believers need to “get it.” They also need to be in the Word on their own, studying and learning. Secondly, people don’t listen! I have asked many pastor friends and acquaintances, “What would happen in your church, if 20% of the people, got 20% of your messages, took them to heart, and were changed by them?” The response is normally something like, “It would be revolutionary!” I think that the testimony of the Christian community bears this out. Those who call themselves Christians are often the worst advertisements for the faith.

Unfortunately, “Seeker friendly,” churches are often the target of these kind of charges. Knowledge of “Seeker friendly” churches often comes to “other” churches through hearsay or biased press. I am a pastor in my second “Seeker Friendly” church, and I am closely associated with many pastors in like churches on the west coast and a few scattered around the country. With very few exceptions, these churches are strongly devoted to teaching the purity of God’s Word without compromise! The idea behind this ministry concept is simple; communicate the timeless truths of God’s Word in a culturally relevant manner. Billy Graham has been doing it for years! Jesus modeled it consistently. He used images, illustrations, and parables to communicate His message clearly.

Where did we get the idea that the longer we do it, the holier it becomes? I have no problem with history and tradition, and I thank God for my personal Christian heritage. But it became clear to me, way back when I was in high school, when I brought one of my non-Christian friends to church with me. All the things that I grew up with, the things I was used to, and understood, were completely foreign to my friend. And it wasn’t the theology of it all; it was the church’s culture! What became clear to me was that he was not rejecting Christ; he was rejecting my church and its culture. He no longer considered the real issues of Christianity because he couldn’t get beyond the fa├žade of church.

The quick to judgment sentiment that some have concerning “Seeker” churches, is the same sin that I deal with when I equate traditional churches with dead orthodoxy. It is not fair, and while it may be true in some cases, each church should be seen individually and not bunched in a group.

We should be vigilant to proclaim God’s Word without shame or compromise. There are plenty of real and serious issues plaguing the church today and threatening its integrity. And we should not be afraid to speak to those issues. But I wonder if there is more common ground among believers scattered throughout the many churches than we are willing to admit. We have a great enemy. He seeks to destroy the church, nullify Christians, and deceive the world. I don’t want to be one of those destroying agents in sheep’s clothing.

1 John 2:17 The world is passing away, and {also} its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.


Anonymous said...

As you so clearly pointed out in another post, "seeker friendly" and "seeker sensitive" are nonsense terms, since the Bible tells us that there are no seekers - they don't exist.