It’s hard not to take complaints about our Sunday services personally. Pastors wince when people gripe about how we preach or how our church looks or feels. What’s a pastor to do? One thing I have found helpful is categorizing the complaining. Below are three sorts of critiques, arranged in order of importance from highest to lowest.
This is the most serious sort of criticism, because it may indicate a real failing in the preaching and teaching. When a person criticizes your theology you must take it seriously if for no other reason than because you owe it to the Lord and to your congregation to present sound doctrine. This will mean evaluating what caused the offence. Many times I find that I misstated something and gave the wrong impression. At other times the presenting issue is theological, but unimportant in the larger scheme of the gospel. On more than one occasion I have had to defend my position with the equivalent of a pastoral/theological paper. If you cannot give a reasoned, biblical, gospel-centered answer to a serious theological critique, you either need to think more deeply on the subject or you need to change your theology. This type of interaction can be very productive and enlightening if you receive it as an exercise in biblical thinking. You will almost always come away from this interchange with a sharper understanding of the issues and a firmer grasp of what you teach and why. And a gentle but clear theological response to a serious disciple (the only ones I ever respond to) will usually elicit respect if not agreement.
These are critiques of your teaching and preaching style. There are different learning modes and some folks just can’t think well in the pattern you use. Most good preachers teach in the style that they themselves like. Because it is so intuitive it doesn’t occur to them that it might not be user friendly for everyone. So when a criticism pops up it tends to blindside the pastor. A good way to respond to homiletical criticism is to be clear in your own mind how and why you organize and deliver your messages the way you do. For instance, I am committed to contextual expositional preaching that produces long series’ through whole books of the Bible. Even my occasional topical messages are usually verse-by-verse expositions through larger passages. I routinely spend a third of my pulpit time just reading and explaining the text in its context before I apply it. This can make for long sermons (around an hour). Frankly this is too much for some listeners. They prefer a shorter, more application-heavy message. But I believe that serious meditation on the scripture is crucial to spiritual formation, so I am patient but essentially unrepentant when people think I’m giving them too much to think about. There are plenty of churches that offer short homilies. Some folks have visited our church and moved on. I am not offended. Whatever your style is, know it and be able to defend it.
On the other hand, if you get a lot of the same sort of complaint about your preaching from mature Christians in your own congregation, you should look at your style more closely. Preaching should improve with practice. If it doesn’t then perhaps you aren’t paying attention to the group you are serving. A pastor should generally “feel” the connection with the congregation.
These come from people who have a certain stylistic fixation about how the church ought to look, sound, feel and present itself. What they are usually doing is unconsciously comparing your church with their previous spiritual root system. One classic cultural beef comes from people who insist that your church is either too Pentecostal or not “spirit-filled” enough. Some people don’t think the Spirit is at work among us until somebody falls over. Others bolt for the door if anybody moves after the service has started. The abundant grousing about music styles fits in this “cultural” category, too. Though the “praise complainers” often prefer to cast their gripes as “theological.” Other topics of cultural complaint include squinting at the absence or presence of women in the leadership structure (a very big deal for our gender self-conscious world), the décor in the worship center, the blasphemy of un-tucked shirt tails among young musicians, and the attire of other parishioners. I once received a snarky, hand-scribbled letter about the fact that at an out-door summer service (it was 95 degrees) this matron observed young women wearing tops with thin straps. It went in the round file.
Every church has a cultural footprint, an ethos, a style. This is not wrong. In fact, it is necessary for reaching our variegated communities. Pastors make decisions about the cultural style of their churches whether they intend to or not. Many do it by simple intuition rather than by design. By the way, people who complain about the culture of your church are usually transfers. Their assumption seems to be that God brought them to you for the purpose of improving your ministry by making it more like their old one. Responding to cultural complaints will be easier if you evaluate and decide what sort of culture you want for your church and embrace the fact that the Lord doesn’t intend to disciple all types of Christians in your gathering. We pastors suffer much from the unconscious intuition that it’s sort of a shame that God had to create other churches besides ours. Shouldn’t we be the best and essentially the only church in town? It helps to let go of this unbiblical fantasy.
So, pick your cultural mission, footprint, demographic, and don’t apologize for it. Your church doesn’t have to keep everybody happy in every way. You must leave something for the rest of the body of Christ to do.
Just a Thought.