In a previous post I wrote about the real spiritual crisis some people have with regard to their pastor’s preaching. Wanting to be fed, convicted, helped, and encouraged, there are those who week-by-week struggle to benefit from the preaching they receive. Sympathetically, that’s a difficult place to be spiritually. Whether I was successful or not I attempted to redirect people to acknowledge that many of the problems don’t begin at the pulpit but in the pew. In doing so, I said very little with regard to how a pastor should respond. But it is often the case that not all the problems are sitting in the pews. Some of them are standing in the pulpit. That too can be a real dilemma. After all, preaching is the center of a pastor’s ministry and something he should pour himself heart and soul into. When congregants struggle with that preaching it’s not easy to face their concerns–yet it is absolutely necessary.
Allow me, by way of preface, to say two things so you know the direction from which I am coming. First, in my short experience as a preacher–I stood in a pulpit for the first time a little over ten years ago–I’ve dealt with a good bit of critique and criticism. Some of it has come from godly men and women who sincerely desire my growth. Some of it, however, has verged on the hypercritical. I once had a fellow publicly comment right after a sermon that Judas Iscariot could preach better than I. Ouch! Second, I regard myself as a rather sensitive person. Almost nothing rolls off my back. Without saying anything about the nasty criticisms I’ve received, even the best intended critique has the ability to waylay me for days. I only say this to mention that I have had to think long and hard about how to receive and respond to people who struggle with my preaching, and it hasn’t been easy.
Nevertheless, it’s necessary. Rightly or wrongly–I suspect the former–preaching will do a lot to set the tone and depth for the spiritual growth of a congregation. Any preacher worth his pulpit’s weight in gold will do as Paul instructed Timothy: “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:15). The pain of progress is often felt in hearing and responding to the concerns of the congregation. So what should I do if my congregation is struggling with my preaching? Here’s a few thoughts–:
- Cultivate Humility: In his excellent book Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, John Bunyan wrote: “The best prayer I ever prayed had enough sin in it to damn the whole world.” If the holiest of all exercises–prayer–is not immune to the effects of sin than neither is your preaching. Simply because you’ve been to seminary, read some books, got ordained, preach week-by-week does not mean you’ve attained a level of perfection. All of your preaching is marred with weakness, ignorance, foolishness, and even sin. Isn’t that the wonder of preaching? Through such weak and foolish means the Lord does a sovereign and saving work. A humble estimate of your preaching will not cost as much as a prideful one.
- Cultivate Openness: It has always struck me that in Colossians 4:17 Paul writes: “And say to Archippus, ‘See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.’” Notice, Paul doesn’t say it to Archippus himself, he tells the “saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Colossae” (Colossians 1:2) to exhort this minister. There is a mutual obligation between a pastor and a congregation and part of that—from the congregation’s side—is to encourage their pastor to fulfill his ministry. I don’t think it’s an overstretch to apply that to the ministry of preaching. Congregants should be in communication with their pastor about his preaching and encouraging him to fulfill it all the more and, if he isn’t, they should do what they can to help, strengthen, and support him to that end.
- Cultivate Gentleness: For some people it’s not easy to put voice to their concerns. I remember a number of years ago someone asked if they could come and share some of theirs with me. Again, I’m a bit of a sensitive fellow and so I wasn’t looking forward to the meeting. Much to my surprise, they weren’t either! They admitted that the very thought of speaking to me about my preaching had terrified them and caused them to hesitate for some time. I guess I realized that not everyone comes as a playground bully excited and eager to castigate. You can either validate their fears and anxieties, or, taking Paul’s advice, you can be gentle “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7).
- Cultivate Patience: A number of months ago I spoke to a local doctor who said the most frustrating part of his job were patients who came in with all kinds of medical ignorance they had found doing “research” on Google. I asked him how he responded and his answer struck me. He said, “I use my knowledge to patiently instruct them.” As a general rule a pastor has probably thought and read more about preaching than his congregation. It’s not surprising to find, at times, that congregants don’t always have well thought out models of preaching, they can’t always prescribe solutions, sometimes they’re driven by pragmatism, and sometimes a pinch of ignorance and arrogance lies behind their criticisms. A pastor should use his knowledge, learning, and experience to patiently work through those what, why, and how questions.
- Cultivate Focus: In his inaugural address at the University of Franeker, Herman Witsius said to his students: “Whatever I have, if I have anything, for you henceforth, I will have it. Whatever I can do, for you I will do it. In all that I am, I will be yours. For you I will study; for you I will labor; for you I will write. You will I set before me; you will I carry in my bosom. I shall shrink neither from weariness nor exhaustion if only I can subserve your improvement.” That should be the heart of your preaching to your congregation–“To you and for you.” The people directly in front of you–the men and women, young and old; the hurting, sinful, fearful, sorrowing, tried and tempted–are the ones who have called you to communicate God’s truth to them. If there’s a breakdown in that communication every preacher should do what he can to remove unnecessary hindrances, obstacles, and hurdles if it will clear a way to their hearts. In that sense, a pastor’s task is to be a bit chameleon-like, to “become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
Criticism can be difficult especially when it’s targeted at something you’ve poured your heart and soul into with fervent prayer. No, not every criticism is valid but, of course, neither is every one hollow. As C.H. Spurgeon wrote, a preacher needs to have “one blind eye and one deaf ear.” To sum it all up simply, if your congregation is having difficulty with your preaching, rather than stroke a wounded ego and try and save face, be willing to do the difficult work of striving to do the most good to the most amount of people. In that way, hopefully the Word of God will increase to the gathering and perfecting of the saints.