Systematic Theology. Exegesis. Church History. Contextualization. Liturgy. Pneumatology. Hebrew and Greek. Pastoral counseling. These are all subjects that most pastors are either familiar with or have taken seminary courses on. Transitioning from seminary to pastoral ministry is pretty crazy. You go from writing huge papers on how postmodernism challenges the epistemological assumptions of one’s praxis to writing sermons for diverse groups of people that range from being forced to attend to those who have been followers of Jesus for longer than you have been living. Try crafting a sermon for that type of audience versus your seminary classmates!
After some time, you’ll hit your stride and some experience will help you exegete your audience in a helpful way. You’ll start writing sermons that are Christ exalting and applicable and people will be really encouraged and challenged by your ministry.
And then you’ll talk to someone who tells you that your preaching doesn’t do anything for them.
Your first instinct will be to either punch them in the face, laugh nervously, cry, or quit. If you are wise, you’ll remember James 1:19 and will do your best to listen, be slow to respond, and slow to anger. Of course, the vision of choking that person out may be tempting, so it needs to be constrained by the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
Over the years I’ve heard this statement a couple of times and I’ve talked to a lot of other pastors who have also heard this or similar statements. Here are three observations I have about people who say these things:
(1) You need to understand how to properly evaluate whether or not your sermons are “feeding the sheep.” I fear that some pastors are more concerned with keeping their congregations happy than with keeping their congregations fed. But most of the pastors that I know are very concerned with being faithful in what they teach/preach. Yet there’s something very peculiar about how devastating one person’s criticism can be! We will actually take that one person’s opinion and elevate it above and beyond the dozens or even hundreds of other people who think differently.
After encountering the “you-don’t-feed-me” person, you may even find yourself canceling sermon plans you’ve had and jumping to the conclusion that you need to preach totally different than what you’ve been doing. After all, someone told you that you aren’t feeding them!
It isn’t necessarily wrong to consider making changes, but your concerns should primarily be in regards to how God feels about the matter. Are you talking about the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27)? Are you faithfully preaching the word (2 Tim. 4:2)? Is your preaching focused on exalting Christ, clarifying the gospel, and helping form the spiritual lives of those you serve? Questions like these are far more important.
So should you do a series that addresses marriage and serves the majority of your congregation or do a series on the “deeper” things of God like the “revelation of God’s seven spirits and how this all proves both the pretribulational rapture and young earth creationism.” While the former may not meet everyone’s alleged needs (though it’ll meet most), the latter is a complete waste of your time. Yes, I did just say that a sermon on the seven spirits of God proving the pretribulational rapture and young earth creationism is vastly inferior in comparison to doing a sermon on what God has to say about marriage. More on this…
(2) What people often want you to “feed” them is simply a way for them to reinforce their stereotypes and bad theology. I’m not kidding about this one. As I already alluded, those who talk about not being fed will generally give you ideas of what would feed them. In my experience, these suggestions are generally not related to primary doctrinal subjects (e.g., Christology, the gospel, missions) or the “main and the plain.” Most of the time these requests for “depth” are on things so speculative that you won’t find any theologians throughout the history of the church who have addressed them!
Of course, the kind of person that says “your sermons don’t feed me” has zero time for church history and believe that the reason why no one has talked about their favorite subject is simply because no one in the history of the church has been either smart enough or spiritual enough to know those things. Oh, and by the way, you are obviously not smart enough or spiritual enough to know about it either, which is why they are informing you that you haven’t “fed” them.
Pay close attention here. What these people often want is for you to reinforce what they already believe, no matter how disconnected from life or how unbiblical their beliefs are. I had a person once tell me that they wanted me to do sermons on why Christians who used Christmas trees was sinful idol worship!!! The fact that they were mishandling Scripture to “prove” this novel position didn’t matter to them at all. But when I couldn’t agree with their horrific eisogesis of Jeremiah 10:2-4, they left our church with no discussion and response to the questions I had. After all, I wasn’t into “depth.”
(3) The person who says they get nothing from a sermon is likely a prideful person. Pride is almost always the sine qua non of this statement. In other words, without pride, people rarely say that they aren’t getting anything out of a sermon. I say almost and rarely because I will acknowledge that there are some preachers out there that could stand to be better teachers and spend more time in preparation or be aware of the needs of their congregation. But by and large, the statement that someone isn’t getting anything from your sermons is a sign of pride. If you are publically reading portions of Scripture à la 1 Tim. 4:13 and preaching Christ à la Rom. 16:25, there’s something for people to be encouraged by and learn from.
In my experience, 99.9% of the time, this statement is being made by someone who is unteachable. So you need to be aware of the fact that all of the discussion and attempts to evaluate your teaching and ministry are almost always a waste of time simply because the person assumes they know more than you and are more spiritual than you. So it’s fruitless.
Except for when it isn’t, ha ha!
- How would you respond to someone saying this to you?
- Do you think it’s a waste of time to try and engage people who say this?
- What are other reasons that people may say this?
- For those who have serious concerns about the teachings in their church, how can they best address those concerns?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.
In my experience, I get this sort of feedback (thankfully usually in a kinder way that makes it easier to accept as legitimate) when I go topical, especially when I do a topical series. Most of the time I preach straight from a chunk of text (preferably from the Gospels). I take time to read the whole passage and then wind up re-reading a good bit of it in the process of explaining it. This may be a purely anecdotal point, but I have never gotten an I’m-still-hungry complaint after serving up a good helping of expository preaching.
That’s crazy, Michael. I’ve had the exact opposite. I haven’t had this happen a lot over the years but the few times it has happened has almost always been in the middle of an expository series. Crazy…
I agree with your conclusions though… expository preaching makes it REALLY hard to pull the “I’m not being fed” card…
Luke…I would generally agree with you concerning the attitude and heart of the “feed me, feed me crowd” – a good percentage are prideful and unteachable…the only problem is that my wife and I came to the same conclusion some time ago about a particular pastor…and so, of course, I MUST conclude that I am not just pride motivated or “unteachable.” lol There are so many pastors giving a steady diet of nothing but life improvement messages, or the “Jesus as genie” bit – I just wonder if the reason SO many are not going to church on Sunday on a regular basis, or at all, is that they are not sufficiently edified with solid spiritual food.
Sometimes I think it’s a style/personality thing. Someone likes a particular pastor’s way of preaching and if yours is very different from it, they feel like they’re not getting anything from you. This is often the case with the pastor who was there before you.
#2: I find that it comes from wanting a direct prescription for how to make x, y, or z better. Just tell me what to do pastor, so I can deal with my issue.
I think that constructive criticism is important in helping a pastor develop his menu. The problem arises when the critics use angry inflammatory accusations rather than gracious concern. The delivery method is often an indication of the type of person who takes a great pride in being spiritually superior.
I would actually like to say that to my pastor because his sermons follow the definition — a talk about a religious subject. I don’t want a talk. I want him to break down the text and leave me with some applications for how to apply.