Recently I offered posts on gospel preaching (here and here), including one piece that argued preachers should endeavor to be clear and plain with the most important message ever given to the world. “Almost” preaching the gospel or coming “close” is not good enough (see here).
Not surprisingly, that raises some questions for faithful Christians. One reader joined us on the porch with a few questions:
For one, practically, how is a church member to proceed if he or she realizes that the preaching in their church doesn’t meet these standards? Should they consult their pastor?
If so, what kind of ideas might this church member hear in defense of Biblical preaching that is not always explicitly gospel-centered? In other words, what are some of the reasons well-intentioned, well-educated, experienced, Christian preachers might give for not subscribing to these ideas?
And, finally, what if / when the congregant and the pastor/preacher don’t see eye-to-eye? (It’s somewhat difficult to imagine a pastor changing his entire approach to preaching based on a conversation with one member.) Do you then suggest that the member leave the church?
How to Proceed if the Gospel Isn’t Clear
First, assume the best. Assume the pastor intends to preach the gospel and intends to be clear enough that people may be saved. Too often we fall into the trap of assuming bad motives when, in fact, most pastors entered the ministry because they want to make the gospel known. So until you’re proven otherwise, assume the best.
Second, approach your pastor in person. Let them see your smile, hear the appreciation in your voice, and be reminded of your support over the years. This should be a conversation held between Christian family and friends. And in that spirit, approach at an appropriate time. The first time you raise this, don’t make it a public confrontation. No one wants to be accused of “not preaching the gospel”—especially when they had every intention of doing it.
Third, be gentle. Don’t say, “You don’t preach the gospel.” Keep in mind that a number of these near misses were efforts at communicating the good news. Instead, ask a humble, specific question. “Pastor, do you think the gospel was clear enough for someone who is unfamiliar with the Bible?” The specificity about clarity and audience frames the question in a way that assumes a good evangelistic motive and makes it more about winning people than criticizing pastors. So, be gentle in your approach.
Fourth, be ready to receive feedback on your listening. Remember: preaching is two-way communication. And your pastor has responsibility for tending your soul, a significant aspect of that is challenging you to hear better. So, be ready and willing to hear the pastor say that the problem might be, at least in part, with your hearing.
How Might a Pastor Defend Their Preaching?
Well, first, you gotta recognize that most pastors are sensitive about their preaching. It’s not because they’re prima donnas (always) or they think their preaching is perfect. It’s usually because we put a lot of ourselves into our preaching and we mean to “leave it all on the floor.” So preaching is a vulnerable act of faith—one man standing before many to proclaim the truth of God in a hostile world. That can make those few minutes at the door after the service a nerve-wrecking time! And the first response you get may be self-protective or defensive.
Apart from an initially defensive response, you’re likely to hear a simple, “Yes, I did.” Or and “I meant to.” Then there’s likely to be a reference to a part of the sermon where he alluding to Christ or the gospel as evidence of the gospel being there. Keep in mind: He intended those parts of the sermon to communicate the gospel. He may not recognize that the listener experienced it as a near miss.
Beyond the initial reaction, you may hear more thoughtful and theological reactions, too. Some pastors simply don’t believe the gospel must be preached in every sermon. They wouldn’t perceive a problem if a sermon omitted it. Other pastors maintain that preaching Christ or the gospel from every text is actually imposing Christ on the text. That’s a hermeneutical objection that, on the one hand, looks to be fair to texts in their context, but, on the other hand, fails to read the Bible the way Jesus did (see Luke 24, for example). Christ is the ultimate point of the entire Bible.
Other pastors may argue that members should normally do the work of evangelism. There’s merit to that. But the two are not mutually exclusive. Or, there are pastors who have special programs, revivals and outreaches where they aim to do the bulk of their evangelistic work. Those efforts can be good. But, again, the two are not mutually exclusive. And if we’re not preaching the gospel during a sermon, what are we doing really? Still other pastors may say that they present the gospel separate from the sermon in an altar call. Many good men do that. But I think adding the gospel as a conclusion can suggest that what’s happening in the altar call is something different from what was happening in the 30-60 minutes of preaching, that the gospel is something being tacked on rather than the point of the passage. And I fear many times we train an audience—including the unsaved—to stop listening and close their Bibles when we present the gospel this way. It’s better to have them see Jesus in the scriptures.
Finally, perhaps a pastor looks out on a congregation that he considers to be entirely Christian and doesn’t think he needs to preach the gospel every sermon. That’s a failure to understand that Christians need the gospel for their assurance and sanctification as much as the unsaved need to hear it for their salvation.
What If You and the Pastor Don’t See Eye-to-Eye?
Recognize that he’s the one called to shepherd the congregation. As members, we’re not in a position to reform the church and we should be careful before we challenge our shepherds—especially those who are not opposed to the gospel but may have ways we’d hope to see them grow. I love the little quip that says, “If you want a better pastor, pray for the one you have.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that. An encouraged and prayed for pastor—though imperfect, as we all are—provides more to a congregation than the pastor churches sometimes imagine when they’re without a shepherd or unhappy with a shepherd.
While you’re being patient and prayerful, think about the difference between weakness and wickedness. If the pastor preaches another gospel or denies the biblical gospel, then Galatians 1 says, “Let them be accursed.” That’s wickedness. Have nothing to do with such a teacher. The church should act to remove an unfaithful leader. And, if not, you should leave that church for the sake of Christ’s name, the gospel, your soul and the well-being of others who might otherwise continue under false teaching.
But if it’s simply a matter of understanding some things differently, then I think there are two possible courses before you. If the differences—though not heretical—are significant, then you may wish to graciously resign your membership and find a church more in keeping with your understanding. Do not be divisive. Do not sour others on the church. Peacefully communicate your appreciation for ways the Lord has used the church in your past, then find a gracious way to move to another congregation, hopefully with the pastor’s blessing.
If you can stay, then you want to patiently pray and wait. Don’t become a critic. Instead, encourage the pastor with specific comments about things you appreciate. Dwell on the evidence of grace in his life and ministry. And trust that the Lord may do slowly what you would rush. But don’t be faithless. Believe. Preachers do grow and change.
I love the anecdote one of my mentors, Mark Dever, often tells. He had just preached a sermon when a young member of the church, Bill, approached him at the door afterwards. He asked Bill what he thought of the sermon and Bill replied, “It was a good sermon. But I don’t think you actually included the gospel.” At first, Mark was certain that he had. But he went back to the audio, listened to the sermon, and sure enough he had not. He recommitted himself to making sure the gospel is clear every time he takes the pulpit. Many years later, Bill became an elder and they labor together with great unity and joy. Humble pastors receive constructive feedback and they grow as a result.
Give your pastor the benefit of the doubt. Serve him in kindness. Pray for him and his preaching. See what the Lord does. He may do more than you can even ask or think.