By Daniel Darling
There are a few things a pastor dreads hearing more than, “I’m not getting anything out of the preaching.”
Thankfully, it’s not typically the pastor who hears this. Few people are going to say this to the preacher. They’ll usually tell someone else.
I’ve both been the preacher about whom this was said and I’ve been a church member who has said it. The truth is this: There’s some bad preaching out there and though it hurt at the time, my guess is the people saying it about my preaching could have had a point.
I’ve delivered bad, uninspiring sermons.
But for the most part, pastors are laboring every week in the Word, wrestling with the text, asking the Holy Spirit for illumination, and finding ways to apply it to the people they serve.
Most pastors are their own worst preaching critics. Most don’t think they’re very good.
It’s also true that often our motivations aren’t always pure when evaluating a preacher. They can be subjective.
When I landed in Nashville to assume my current position and was shopping for a church, my criticism of preaching I heard wasn’t fair. I was fresh out of my own weekly pulpit experience and grading everything against what I would do with a particular text.
So what should we do when we’re not getting anything out of the weekly preaching at our church? Here are five diagnostic questions.
1. Have I Prepared My Soul for Sunday?
My friend Dean Inserra, pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, has a statement he repeats often: “Sunday morning church is a Saturday night decision.”
Dean is referring, of course, to what should be a non-negotiable decision to attend church every week. But even if going to church on Sunday is a regular rhythm of our lives, are we preparing our hearts on Saturday night to receive the Word of God on Sunday?
Are we going to bed early? Are we planning our Sunday worship, treating it as a time to encounter God and fellowship among His people? Perhaps we’re not getting anything out of the preaching because the pastor isn’t a good preacher.
But it could also be because you binged on Netflix the night before and the weak church coffee isn’t able to awaken your senses to hear what God may want you to hear.
2. Am I Comparing the Pastor to a Podcast?
I absolutely enjoy listening to sermon podcasts. Some of the best preachers in America feed my soul and disciple me from afar.
I still remember those days in the car, in college, listening to Chuck Swindoll preach through the life of Joseph. His preaching had a formative impact on my life. There are many other pastors, from differing denominations and varying contexts, who’ve taught me the Bible in powerful ways.
But as much as I enjoy my podcasts, my podcasts aren’t a replacement for my pastor. A preacher preaching a sermon to a group of people I don’t know or a conference speaker speaking to a national audience that he has no responsibility for is way different than a local pastor shepherding his people.
The local pastor you have is the one God gave you, who knows you and is laboring, day in and day out, to care for his people. Your pastor can’t and shouldn’t compete with your podcast.
Also: That pastor hundreds of miles away won’t visit you in the hospital when you’re sick, pray with and for you when you suffer, or conduct your funeral.
3. Am I Misunderstanding the Purpose of Sunday?
We often have a misunderstanding of how we grow as Christians.
While the one big conference or camp meeting message may be the one that stirs you from spiritual lethargy to surrendering your life to Christ, we grow by listening to mostly average, even forgettable sermons week after week for a lifetime.
The Bible often compares receiving the Word to eating a meal and if this is so, then perhaps we should approach every week less like that one huge fancy meal downtown and more like the average, mostly forgettable meals we eat in our homes.
Even though I’m a foodie, I don’t remember most meals I eat—a snack bar for breakfast on the way out the door, a quick sandwich for lunch, perhaps breakfast for dinner on a busy weeknight—but I don’t forget to eat.
This isn’t to disparage your pastor’s faithful preaching on Sunday, but for us to expect every week at church to be camp meeting or revival is to misunderstand the way God slowly, surely, and faithfully implants His word in our hearts.
So maybe some mind-blowing new insight every Sunday isn’t what God has planned for your heart each week.
4. Am I Hoping the Sermon Hits Others Instead of Me?
It’s easy to want a specific person—for whatever reason—to hear a message that convicts them, so we can easily be disappointed that our pastor isn’t just crushing the sins we so obviously see in our children.
We can think our pastor isn’t deep enough because he fails to press in on the flaws of our spouse. And we can’t be upset because the sermon doesn’t dwell on God’s obvious outpouring of wrath on that gossip in the third pew to our right.
But could it be that we’re tuning out the sermon because God wants to do something in us, to convict us of some persistent sin, to uncover some favorite idolatry?
Sometimes we don’t get something out of a sermon because the pastor isn’t very good. But at other times we don’t get something out of a sermon because we don’t want to get something out of that sermon.
5. Am I Seeking to Be Entertained Rather than Edified?
Of course none of us would admit we’re going to church to be entertained. We’re far too spiritual for that, aren’t we?
But perhaps underneath our criticisms is a subtle desire to have the pastor hit all of our exegetical love languages, to tailor his sermon toward our preferences—rather than submit to what God is saying not just to me, but to this local body as a whole.
This isn’t to say it’s wrong to come to church hoping for a word from God. Quite often we stumble into Sunday broken and weary, beat up by the life we experienced during the week. Sundays have often been a refuge for my weary soul—a balm on wounds and hurts.
And it’s not always what the pastor said, but it’s the worship, the hearing of Scripture, the fellowship of the saints.
However, if we come to church every week with a posture of, What’s in this for me? We’re looking at church individualistically, disregarding the needs and the care of the other members of our body.
It could be that we didn’t get anything out of the sermon because the preacher poorly exegetes. Or it could be you didn’t get anything out of the sermon because God intended this sermon on this Sunday to minister to the heart of one of your brothers and sisters in a way that will save their faith.
Having walked through several questions to ask yourself when you don’t seem to get anything out of the sermons at your church, challenge yourself to approach next Sunday—and church life beyond that—with fresh eyes and a willing heart.
DANIEL DARLING (@dandarling) is vice president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and teaching and discipleship pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including The Dignity Revolution.