This is an article in our"Dear Pastor" series, where we provide real pastors with fictionalized scenarios and ask them to respond in a letter. This situation—while made up—represents countless pastors who experience similar struggles.
Our goal is to serve you, dear pastor.
You meet with a nearby pastor for coffee. The first thing you notice about him is that he is kind and humble. He doesn't speak much of himself. But it's clear he is discouraged. He tells you a group of people are starting to leave his church. When you ask why, he admits that he thinks it is his preaching. Many who have left have used a variety of adjectives for his preaching: unengaging, not-relevant, dry, not-enough-illustrations, and the list could go on. He is convinced that he is preaching the Word, but just isn't sure why it's not working like it has for others. You do your best to encourage him, but your time runs short. So you decide to sit down and write him a letter. You write him the following:
I’ve been there. I’ve heard the comments. And they sting. “I’m leaving the church because I don’t connect to your preaching.” “I want preaching from the heart, not expository preaching.” “Your preaching is too theological.” “You’re not funny enough.” “You’re not interesting enough.” “You’re not personal enough.” “I hope no visitors came today because they would have been offended by what you said.” “If you don’t change, I’m leaving.”
And from our conversation on Monday, I know you are a lot like me—one critical comment eclipses twenty positive.
After I left the coffee shop, I spent the afternoon listening to a few of your sermons. You were passionate. You were text-driven. You were insightful. You were clear. You were God-centered. You exalted Christ. I thanked the Lord for your gifting. I praised Him for your passion. And I prayed for your longevity—that the criticisms you are hearing early in your ministry would only bolster your fortitude for your later years.
Why do these kinds of comments hurt so much? I was asking myself that question as we talked. Why do they stick with us weeks, and months, after we hear them? I can only answer the question for myself. It's because I desire the approval of man more than I want to admit it. I want people to like me. I want people to think highly of me. In fact, if I am honest, far too often I find my identity in my preaching. It’s a struggle I have faced throughout my 20 years of ministry.
But despite my desire to be esteemed by the people, I have remained faithful to preach the Bible expositionally. I have not caved into the critique. I have not succumbed to the criticism. You asked me today, how have I been able to do that? More personally, you asked, how will you be able to do that? Well, for me, the answer is based on three theological convictions that I come back to every week as I study for and write my sermons.
First, I am convinced that the Bema Seat of Christ is real. You don’t realize how often I remind myself of the coming judgment of Christ. We know our calling. 2 Timothy 4:2 is clear, “Preach the word.” But we, as preachers, must never lose sight of the warning that precedes this command, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead” (4:1). We preach the Word because we will one day be judged by the Word. Feel the weightiness of this charge. Every sermon we preach carries with it a judgment-day-seriousness. We will one day give an account for what we have preached, not to our congregation, but to Christ Himself.
I had to remind myself of this very thought last month when a member of my congregation recently told me I was too tied to the Bible (that’s almost an exact quote). He wanted to hear more sermons on politics, more “current event preaching,” more “happy sermons.” My thoughts immediately went to the Bema. Will Christ chide me as this man did? Will I hear, “Patrick, I am withholding my reward for faithfulness because you were too tied to the Bible.” I don’t think those words will ever come from Christ’s mouth.
Second, I am convinced that Scripture is sufficient. It's so easy to lose sight of the Bible’s sufficiency because most of the fruit in ministry is invisible. It grows in small portions over long periods of time. And thus, the temptation is to replace expository preaching with other methods of communication (personal anecdotes, funny stories, psychological musings). And sure, many will love that kind of preaching, but it will be at the expense of their own sanctification.
Before ascending to the pulpit, remind yourself that God’s Word is what your people need most. Remember, spiritual fruit only grows in the soil of the Scriptures (Ps. 1:1–3). Spiritual refreshment only comes through the river of the Word (Ps. 19:7–8). Conviction of sin only comes by the Spirit’s sword (Heb. 4:12). Expository preaching will do what you and I are utterly incapable of doing: it will produce lasting change and true sanctification, pierce the heart with convicting power, and fully equip our people for every good work (1 Pet. 2:2).
Third, I am convinced that “by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10). I have been designed to preach God’s Word through my God-given personality. I’ll never forget what Kent Hughes once said, “Clarity is style.” “Clarity is style.” That is to say, in whatever way you make yourself clear, that is your preaching style. That is how God has designed you. And that is how you have been called to preach.
To shift your style to satisfy the critiques of the people is an impossible task. For everyone who likes your style, there will be others who don’t. Play this out to its logical conclusion and you will have to change your style every week, to satisfy every group. And if you do that enough, you will eventually forget who God has created you to be. You will lose your personality. You will lose yourself.
John Piper compares this kind of constant change to living in a carnival of mirrors. One week you will be short and fat, the next week you will be tall and skinny, the next week you will have a small head and large ears, the next week you will have large feet and a shrunken chest. And if you live too long within that room of mirrors, you will one day forget who God has created you to be. That is why Spurgeon said, “Be yourself, dear brother, for, if you are not yourself, you cannot be anybody else; and so, you see, you must be nobody.”
Pastor, we will always have our critics. People are fickle and opinionated, even Christians! And yet, we must remember that “no good thing does [the Lord] withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Ps. 84:11). Even our critics are goods gifts from the Lord. How? Because they expose our love of man’s approval, while also hardening our convictions for lasting ministry.
There is so much more to say, but for now ... preach the Word this weekend, my friend, and know that it will not return void.
See you next week. And coffee will be on me next time.
Are you a pastor facing similar situations in ministry?
We'd love to pray for you.