Poor Sermons or “Bad Listeners”?
Written by Paul Race
Let me start by pointing out that pastoring is hard work and many pastors put in long hours with little recompense. Also, many pastors who are quite gifted in the personal counseling and comforting (“pastoral”) part of their ministries are less than stellar preachers (and vice versa).
And finally, let me add that mature Christians do not depend on Sunday morning sermons for all of their spiritual growth. The sermons that the pastor gives to a general audience may not - should not - attempt to meet all the specific spiritual needs of people who’ve been in Christ for a long time and who should be studying the Bible for themselves, involved in an appropriate Sunday School or small group, and otherwise seeking out the “meat” of the word.
So it’s quite possible that someone who has been a Christian for years, or involved with a specific church for years will go home on most Sunday mornings without hearing anything particularly new. There is nothing wrong with that. Complaining to the pastor that the content of his sermons (meant for a general Christian audience including new believers) hasn’t kept up with your spiritual growth and specific needs is self-centered and short-sighted.
That said, there have, sadly, been many cases where a pastor begins to “coast,” to put almost no thought, prayer, or preparation into his sermons. Worse yet, there have been just as many cases in which the pastor has abandoned the attempt to provide general, biblical spiritual guidance in favor of sermon after sermon advancing some agenda that is important to the pastor but no one else.
Then, when someone has the nerve to complain that they’re not getting anything out of the sermons any more, the excuse comes out: If you’re not getting anything out of your pastor’s sermons, it’s your fault. You didn’t come prepared to hear from God, or your heart isn’t right with God, or you’re not “spiritual enough” to grasp God’s truths, or some such.
When a longtime church member says, “Pastor, I’m just not getting as much out of your sermons as I used to,” the pastor could respond any number of ways. The pastor could ask for more explanation and try to determine if he needs to make some adjustment. If the pastor is doing everything he can already, he could try to find out if other people in the congregation feel that way, and consult his support group for suggestions. If the pastor is open to admit that he is weak in that area or that he needs more training, he could pursue more training.
But, as often as not, the pastor blames the listener. That’s an easy way to put the burden back on the member without having to examine anything about the pastor’s own process or attitude. Frankly it’s not far removed from the abuser who blames his victims for the things he is doing.
NEVER in my life have I heard a pastor who gives thoughtful, Biblical, edifying, informative sermons use this excuse. In fact, I have never heard an inadequate preacher who had worked hard to deliver a thoughtful, Biblical, edifying, informative sermon use this excuse.
I have frequently heard this excuse from people who step into the pulpit woefully unprepared week after week.
Worse yet, I have heard it even more often from people who step into the pulpit to promote their personal agendas as “God’s word” for this congregation.
(“Pastor, I’m not getting anything out of your sermons about why we need a building program when the sanctuary is half empty every week.” “Well, you haven’t been coming prepared to hear from God.”)
Let’s face it, even the best preachers have “off days.” But blaming the congregation because they didn’t respond to a string of failed or misguided efforts?
This Wouldn’t Fly in ANY Other Scenario
Ironically, the church is the only place where this kind of excuse gets any traction at all. For example, I’m a songwriter. If I write five good songs that my core supporters love, then I write one that leaves them cold, my response is to go back and figure out why that song didn’t work.
I’m also a teacher. I’m used to giving lessons that get people involved with the subject matter and help them leave knowing at least a little bit more about the subject than they did before. If I teach a “lesson” that nobody in the room “gets,” my response is to go back and figure out how to do it better next time.
I’m also a writer. If I write ten articles that people “get” and appreciate, then I write one that people say doesn’t make any sense, I go back and rework it.
I’ve also been a preacher. Some sermons I preached have had people “in the palm of my hand,” and some sermons I preached had people looking confused from beginning to end. Why would I assume that everybody else in the room had come to church spiritually unprepared that day?
Don’t Make Assumptions about People who “Don’t Get Anything Out of Your Sermons.”
I confess, that as a preacher, I have occasionally misjudged my target audience, usually assuming they knew more about the Bible than they did. And, probably even more often, I have confused people who have only heard certain passages used as proof texts for some fringe doctrine by giving the orthodox interpretation.
If I, say, compare a New Testament figure and an Old Testament figure, and the congregation has never heard of the Old Testament figure, I could blame every Sunday School teacher they ever had. Or I could work harder to find examples they would understand the next time I preached. But claiming that the members weren’t as spiritual as they should have been that morning rather misses the point.
In my case, I am a student and professor of both Literature (MA) and Bible (M.Div.). If I don’t see eye to eye on something the pastor says is in the Bible (and really isn’t there at all, even in the Greek), him telling me that I would see it, too, if I was just as spiritual as he is doesn’t really address the issue.
Again, I understand that every preacher has an “off day,” or fails to get a perfectly Biblical point across some times. But I have sat under pastors who simply gave up working hard on their sermons, or who’ve started working truly fringe doctrines into their presentations, and it doesn’t take two masters’ degrees to figure out that something has changed.
I might say, “Pastor, you got three doctrines out of that passage that aren’t there at all, even in the Greek.” A lay person with a modicum of Bible background might say, “I’m not getting as much out of your sermons as I used to. Either way, the knee-jerk response “Well, you just didn’t come spiritually prepared to hear what God would say to you this week” is defensive and inappropriate.
I’m Not Saying to Constantly Second-Guess a Good Man
Having been involved in local church ministries at every level, I know that every congregation has at least one avocational fault-finder, and that many criticisms are the result of a sermon hitting home or members with deep-seated resentments or other issues that have nothing to do with the pastor projecting them onto him nonetheless.
But I also know that a pastor who brushes off the same criticism from multiple sources can sooner or later expect the people whose concerns he has disregarded to start voting with their feet.
In the forty-six years I’ve been a Christian, I’ve seen dying churches brought back to life (albeit with growth pains) by good preaching. I’ve also seen poor preaching drive previously healthy churches into the ground.
And I’ve heard countless excuses from lazy, inadequate, or agenda-driven pastors for why their church is losing members every year. No, the pastor isn’t the church, but he’s the most visible member and ostensibly a leader or the leader, depending on your church polity. If week after week he lets people down, and subsequently acts like it’s their problem they’re not “getting it,” how can he complain when members give up complaining and stop attending?
What if You’re a Member Who Isn’t “Getting it”?
If the church is healthy otherwise, and give you outlets like Adult Sunday School or well -led “small groups” where you can get spiritual food, that’s great.
On the other hand, if there are no other opportunities for spiritual growth or if the sermons are becoming increasingly agenda-driven and less spiritual, you might need to say something to someone in leadership you trust.
For most people “voting with their feet” is a last result, but it’s not one you should feel guilty about if a church isn’t meeting your spiritual needs at all.
God bless and guide you,
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