Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What to Do if Your Pastor Doesn't Preach Jesus

Christless preaching is epidemic. What can we, the people in the pews, do about it?
Is it as simple as just going to a new church? I don't think so. At least, that should not be our first resort.

Here are some thoughts on how the laity can approach the problem of Christless, gospel-deficient preaching in their church.


1. First, are you sure the problem is as bad as you think? Make sure your problem is not that you don't like your pastor's sermon style or delivery. If it is not just a matter of preference, can you demonstrate that the problem is consistent, pervasive? Has he just had an off few weeks? Or is the through-line of the body of his preaching demonstrably not the gospel?
Be very clear in your mind and heart about the source of the problem; if you just don't like your pastor's personality or presentation, that is not reason to do anything.

2. Can you articulate the problem well? For instance, if you were to explain your concerns to someone, would it sound more like, "I just feel like he doesn't talk about Jesus enough"? or would it sound more like, "Two weeks ago, when he spoke on such and such, he had an opportunity to talk about Jesus' finished work, but he didn't, and this is a constant pattern"? Can you cite numerous and ongoing examples of errant teaching or of the absence of Christ-centered teaching?
Be able to mark the difference between your impressions/feelings and actual, documented failures to present Jesus and the gospel.

3. What is the spiritual temperature of the church? Are people growing? Are they serving? This is not about whether the place is full during the services; this is about whether the people attending are doing more than attending. If you don't have a reliable grasp on this aspect of your church's health, don't spend too much time on it and don't guess (ie. Well, the preaching stinks so the people must not be growing spiritually.). But if you're in a position to know (privy to leadership's analysis, privy to surveys your church has done of such things, in a position of leadership yourself to know, privy to the relative success of your church's community efforts of small group program, etc), factor actual data (not impressions) into this assessment.

3. Will this be a matter of conscience for you? Can you endure in good faith and in good hope? Without grumbling or being divisive?
Decide if you can stay in peace or if the matter is too great a pang in your conscience for you to be an asset to the body. If thoughts of leaving recur and won't let go, try to think more in terms of what is best for the body, not what is best for you. Without thinking arrogantly, would leaving be a greater detriment to the church than it would be a benefit for you?

4. Do you have small children or teenagers who are actively involved in the life of the body? If you're thinking of leaving, what will the ramifications of this be? Weigh whether it will be worth it. Weigh also whether the problem is consistent enough that you would think twice about your kids growing up into "inheriting" it.

5. What is the trajectory of the church's message? Is it better than it was five years ago? Worse? The same?


6. Talk about your concerns with fellow laymen generally and hypothetically. Instead of saying, "Don't you think Pastor Bob's message was Osteen-esque?", have general conversations about what sermons should be like, how they affect the life of a church (or don't), etc. When discussing your pastor's messages, stick to the sermon content, not to the speaker's character. Gossip and division are sins. Ask "What did you think of Pastor Bob's saying that God wants to bless us but we have to speak those blessings into existence?", not "Don't you think Pastor Bob is a heretic?" :-)
Be peaceful, be respectful, be concerned.
Don't say anything about somebody that you wouldn't say to them.

7. Talk about your concerns with church leadership. Get a meeting with elders or deacons, with ministers, or with the pastor himself. Express your concerns and be specific (see #2). Be respectful.
Don't give ultimatums or make accusations. Ask for explanations, be receptive and responsive. Ask if they share your concerns.
This is really important, because someone who has a problem with something but never addresses that problem at the source becomes a whiner to be ignored.

8. Blog. Seriously. Blogging is the grassroots voice of the new reformation. Same biblical rules of discourse apply (avoid gossip and division, be peaceful and respectful, let your words be full of grace and seasoned with salt). It would be wise to avoid talking specifics about your church and your pastor's sermons, but examine and explore the issues generally and thoroughly. Be another voice crying in the wilderness that something is not right and ask others to join you calling for change. If more are saying it, it will be harder to ignore.

9. If you lead a small group or teach a class, or if you're a part of a group or class, suggest studying a book on biblical ecclesiology or parts of Paul's letters dealing with what's most important for churches to do.


10. Go back to #3. Can you stay in good conscience? Then do so. Stay, and peacefully and prayerfully hope and work toward reform. Be salt and light within your body. This should be your first inclination.

11. If your conscience will not permit you to stay, pray and discuss with those close to you. If you decide to leave, do so quietly but not silently. By that, I mean tell someone who's in a position to care. I'm not saying they will care; I'm just saying they're in a position to be someone who should. Tell an elder or your pastor and explain you don't want to be divisive or contentious, but be honest. Don't make it an ultimatum (I'm leaving unless you do this . . .); make it your decision (I am leaving, and this is not an easy decision for me, but I believe it is necessary). Make it clear you wish the congregation the best.
Don't leave lightly. Breaking membership with a covenant community is a huge thing.
Make it clear you're not leaving in a huff and that it's not a rash decision but something you've arrived at prayerfully and deliberately. Make sure they know you're not asking them to do anything, just that you didn't want to leave without saying why.
They need to know, because if people leave without ever saying why, leadership will always default to an imagined explanation that puts itself in the best light (ie. They just didn't get what we do; They're too lazy to serve; etc). I say that as someone in leadership myself. :-)

12. Are you invested in your church? Do you have relational connections there? Does your pastor or do any of your elders know who you are? Do you volunteer and serve? Would your absence create a leadership or position gap in your church?
If the answer to all of those is "No," if you're merely an anonymous attender, don't worry about telling anyone anything (in fact, don't tell anyone anything). Just leave quietly and find another church to attend, one that preaches Jesus and where you plan to commit to serving.


Pete Wilson said...

Awesome Jared. What a great check list. Love your blog and ministry. Looks like you guys are doing some awesome things. We should hook up some time.

Jared said...

Pete, thanks so much! We definitely should meet up some time.

Phil Walker said...

Thanks, Jared. It's a really difficult line to walk, and I struggle with it on a constant basis. Last time I tried number 7 (admittedly, it was a phone conversation, but if there's a next time it'll be face-to-face) was after a good deal of number 6, and it didn't really work. If you're familir with Dave Gibson's essay, the "assumed gospel" has a vice-like grip.

I do, however, have another thing a layperson can do in some situations, although this requires a particular confluence of talents and circumstances. You can take opportunities to preach, and do it properly. As I say, it requires particular circumstances and gifts, but it's entirely possible.

Jared said...

Phil, that's an important addition.

I'll have to check out that piece by Gibson; I hadn't heard of it, so thanks for the recommendation.

I should mention that my family got to #11 ourselves. I didn't want to make this post autobiographical, but I do want to mention that this stuff isn't just theoretical for me either. I have nothing but admiration and awe for those who choose to stay, and I have nothing but understanding and solidarity for those who've made the difficult decision to leave.

Jared said...

Shoot. Meant to say that we got to #11 ourselves after journeying through #'s 1-9. Didn't mean to imply we just jumped to leaving without deliberation. :-)

Anna A said...

Let me tell you of the two times that I tried it. (And I was active at the churches at the time.) The first, no problem, just a gentle mentioning to a student preacher that some of the words he was using might be hard to understand. (We were a church in a college town, but many members were town's people, not university people.)

The second, very different. It was a different church and years later. I was bothered by a sermon, so I did some investigation on my own, to make sure that my understanding of the Scriptures was at least within the realm of accuracy. So, I wrote a letter, had another Christian review it, and suggest changes, and put it in the man's mail box at church. A few days later I got a phone call at work to talk about it. I got raked over the coals about everything, including not going to him in person (Not Scriptual, you know.). I honestly don't think that my concerns were heard at all. I felt physically battered by the end of the phone call. Fortunately for me, I was already exploring where I would be going when my service was done at that church.

I lost my pastor at that phone call.

I do hope that no hurting woman was at the church when he preached that Sunday. I was doing it for her, not me.

Phil Johnson said...

Good thoughts. But I'd switch the order of 6 and 7, and I'd talk to the pastor himself before going to other church leaders. That might not always instantly yield the desirable results, but it seems the right first step in the "converse" stage of the process. And you might be pleasantly surprised at the response you get.

A few years ago I preached a sermon on Psalm 8 that I was really excited about at the time. In retrospect, it was really lame. I did a long riff on something that was only peripheral to the psalm, and barely touched on the central point of the passage. A guy (whom I had never seen before and have never seen again) came to me quietly afterward and asked, "Is it your assumption that all the people you're preaching to are Christians?"

And I said, "No, of course not. Why do you ask?"

And he said, "Because you didn't really give the gospel in that sermon. I don't see how a non-Christian could get enough gospel from it to be convicted." He explained he was a seminary student who was thinking through biblical theology and the importance of Christ-centered preaching, and he was more or less curious about the thought process I went through in the preparation of that sermon. He said he wasn't trying to be critical; just asking.

Of course, my first thought was self-defensive. But fortunately, I didn't actually argue with him. I thanked him for the feedback, promised to review my message with his question in mind, and re-evaluate it.

And when I did that, I knew he was right. I was shocked at how little I had said about why Christ made Himself lower than the angels. That was Psalm 8—a classic Messianic psalm—and there wasn't enough gospel in my sermon to have converted an earnest seeker!

That realization changed the way I preached. I never saw that guy again and haven't had an opportunity to thank him for his candor, but I still hear his question in my head every time I prepare a sermon. Feedback like that, offered in the right spirit, might be just what someone's pastor needs.

Jared said...

Phil, thanks for that. And thanks, on behalf of the guy who talked to you, on being open to feedback like that.

I should mention that the numbers here aren't necessarily meant to be chronological steps, although I've obviously tried to imply a certain thinking-through in the logic of their arrangement.

I'd also mention, and I'm sure you're aware of this, that many Joe and Jane Congregants cannot get meetings with their senior or teaching pastor.

I worked on staff at a mid-size church twelve years ago and couldn't get a one on one with my pastor. I know for a fact that many laymen/women today can't get meetings with their pastors in a timely fashion (if sometimes at all), but I agree with you they should try.
"Settling" for elders or other leaders/ministers is often the only option.

Which leads me to a point I didn't include:
If nobody will meet with you to hear your concerns after several attempts, if after meeting they are dismissive or insulting, that's a good sign it's okay to leave.

Anonymous said...

Yep, yep and yep.

#7. I think it's always a good idea to go directly to the source if you at all can. Maybe what seems like theological gaps is actually just lack of communication skill. Not that, that too can't be extremely dangerous to the many listeners who will never crack their Bible on their own. But it's still good to know, are you leaving because this guy is purposely omitting the gospel, or teaching false doctrine? Or is he just really not great at communicating his ideas?

But here is a question. What if your lead pastor doesn't know you as well as others in leadership such as elders or other staff people? People who know you, better understand that you aren't just a whiner or a trouble maker. They will most likely respect your insight because they already respect you.

Also what if you have had several conversations with your lead pastor on unrelated subjects and you found him to be a really bad listener? Someone who takes what you say and twists it into something else.

Do you think it's then ok to take your concerns to someone else? I just don't know about talking about someone behind their back?

And if all the people who know better leave a church, what will become of it then? Of course God doesn't need us to accomplish his plan in any particular church. But he may be calling some to stay and become an agent of change.

Jared said...

What if your lead pastor doesn't know you as well as others in leadership such as elders or other staff people?

Sure. There's no "rules" here except for the biblical parameters for godly speech and resolving conflicts. If you think it would be more prudent to discuss primarily with leaders you know, go for it.
I'd try to be aware of how far that will go, though. Will these leaders then communicate your concerns to the pastor? Or will they try to protect him from any criticism?

Also what if you have had several conversations with your lead pastor on unrelated subjects and you found him to be a really bad listener? Someone who takes what you say and twists it into something else.

I still think you give him the benefit of the doubt on this. When it comes to his preaching, he will likely listen more intently.
If you find him restating your views incorrectly, gently correct. "No, what I'm trying to say is ..."

Be as clear as possible, making it as difficult as possible for him to misunderstand you.
If he persists in misunderstanding you, I don't see why couldn't bring your concerns to someone else, particularly to an elder or a leadership team member. Who has authority over your pastor? The elder board?

Biblical rules apply. If you're addressing something with him and he's willfully (whether incompetently or not) refusing to address it or listen, take it to a third party like the elders. That way it is not about talking behind someone's back (although you've already approached the someone, so you've done your best to rectify the issue personally with him) but the next proper recourse in resolving a conflict.

And if all the people who know better leave a church, what will become of it then? Of course God doesn't need us to accomplish his plan in any particular church. But he may be calling some to stay and become an agent of change.

Absolutely. If you can do that in good conscience, do so. Leaving is a last resort.

The only spin I'd add on your comment is that whatever becomes of the church isn't necessarily the fault of those who leave, especially if it is precipitated by a designated shepherd who has abdicated his responsibility to feed the sheep on the gospel of Jesus.

If someone withholds bread, it is his fault that the starving have had to look for it elsewhere.

Rob said...

Jared, thanks for this; I think you've laid it all out beautifully. I did have a few additional comments, but they turned out to be rather longer than appropriate for a comment box, so I posted them instead.