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What "I'm Not Being Fed" Really Means

You're convinced that your sermons provide a nourishing spiritual meal. How could anyone claim otherwise?

I have a confession to make. I am fed up with hearing people say, "I'm not being fed." While I do not hear it often, the comment surfaces just enough about my preaching and the preaching of others to make me want to scream. Once my emotions settle down, though, I try to discern what people are really saying. In my experience, the complaint "I'm not being fed" is usually a code phrase for some other frustration that lurks below the surface.

This realization hit me a few years ago after observing a strange turn of events. First, a young couple left the church I served for another because (drumroll here) they were "not being fed." I puzzled over this because I felt like I was in a season where my preaching really was connecting Scripture well to the lives of our people. I went through a checklist of possible problems. Had I lost my passion? No. Was I short-changing my sermon preparation? No. Had I slipped into merely talking to people about the Bible rather than talking to people about themselves from the Bible? No. Was I neglecting to preach the gospel? No. Still, this young couple—whom I'll refer to as Brett and Danielle—claimed they were not being fed, and they got involved in a nearby church plant.

A year went by, and I accepted the call to a church in another region of the United States. Then, shortly after my move, I started getting emails from Brett and Danielle. Danielle, a diligent Bible student and a Bible study leader, emailed me with perceptive questions about a Bible passage she was studying. At the end of one of her emails she wrote: "We sure miss your preaching and teaching!"

Huh? I thought they were not being fed. Not long after that, Brett emailed me and said: "We hear that you're going to preach at Hope Church [in a neighboring city] when you're back here in the area for vacation. We're coming that Sunday because we want to listen to you preach. You don't know how much we miss the way that you taught us the Word."

What? I wanted to hit reply and say: "But haven't you forgotten? I'm the guy who didn't feed you!"

So what was up with this change of heart? As I reflected on the situation, I realized that the statement "I'm not being fed" was really a cover for another issue. To make a long story short, Brett and Danielle had been pulled into a small but influential group in our church that questioned the effectiveness of our church's leadership. In retrospect, some of the criticism was fair, and some of it was unfounded. I recalled how the ringleader of this group told me that I was not providing the leadership that our church needed at the time. He, too, used the statement "My family and I are not being fed." I began to see that my preaching was not the real issue.

Of course, there will always be room for growth and improvement in my preaching, but when people complain about undernourishing sermons there often is another issue or a complex set of issues.

Cracking the code

In the aftermath of this experience, I have been trying to crack the code to discern what people really mean when they say, "I'm not being fed." I think that can mean one of five things.

1. "I really am not being fed." We must always entertain the possibility that we are not feeding people as well as we should. The pressure to manage staff, develop systems, trouble-shoot problems, care for the sick, mentor younger leaders, and do any number of other important things can pull us away us from the task of preaching.

Recently, I spent an entire morning talking to probation officers and writing a policy-and-procedure statement to help our church navigate the issues we face when registered sex offenders show up in our worship services. I wanted to use this time for sermon preparation. Some other task will demand my attention next week, and another one the week after that. Even so, like the apostles in Acts 6 I must not let legitimate concerns eclipse my devotion to prayer and the ministry of the Word. Furthermore, I must stay rested, refreshed, and inspired—even though this is a constant challenge. Otherwise, physical and emotional fatigue can keep me from delivering the kind of messages that God's Spirit uses to change lives.

2. "The church is not meeting my needs." Sometimes, those who claim to be famished are concerned not so much with your preaching as with other ministries in the church.

I remember a woman who told me in not-so-friendly terms that she and her husband were leaving our church because her husband was not being fed. Yet, when we did an exit interview with him, he said nothing about preaching. What he talked about was the direction of the men's ministry. That was the real source of his frustration. Similarly, a pastor-friend of mine discovered that one of his parishioners who complained loudly about not being fed was really upset that no one had visited him while he was in the hospital for gall bladder surgery.

If the real issue is dissatisfaction with a small group ministry or children's ministry, no amount of work on your preaching is going to solve the problem.

3. "You are not addressing my struggles and challenges." When we hear people complain about not being fed, we tend to think in terms of sermon content. We wonder how people can say that when we have done our exegetical homework. After all, we did a mechanical layout of the Greek text, or we spent a couple hours poring over several articles in the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Then, when we stand up to preach, we provide solid content. We explain words, discuss theology, and trace arguments. This is certainly legitimate and necessary as a means to an end. The end, however, is not content but challenge or encouragement. People want help with the escalating conflict in their marriages. People want hope to get them through difficult economic times. People want help coping with cancer. If people do not see how the gospel relates to the struggles they face, we will hear them say, "I'm not being fed."

4. "I do not like your style." Occasionally people complain about not being fed because they feel you are too strong or not strong enough in your preaching.

When I announced that I would be preaching a message on hell as part of a series on objections to Christianity, a parishioner came up to me, waved his index finger in my face, and said, "Don't be soft on this one!" I understood what he meant when he asked me if I'd ever heard Ray Comfort or Kirk Cameron share the gospel.

A few weeks later, another parishioner wondered if I had been too negative in a sermon from one of the minor prophets. A staff member pointed out to her that my tone was actually more positive than the tone of the biblical passage. This particular text was in-your-face, and I had actually stated some of the negatives in positive ways.

I remember speaking with one family that did not attend our church who remarked that they were not being fed by their current pastor as well as they had been by their former pastor. I knew a little bit about the church, and I thought the current pastor was doing a better job feeding the flock than the former pastor. The former pastor had a way of telling stories that left people in tears. When my friends did not get this from their new pastor, they concluded that they were not being fed as well as they should have been.

Yes, people do like a certain style. Some want my demeanor to be more like Mark Driscoll's, while some want me to be less like Mark Driscoll's. That's fine, until people begin equating their "full-ness" with how they are connecting, or not, to my style of preaching. Wise is the preacher who remembers that preaching is "truth through personality." We can learn from the style of others, but we must find our own voice.

5. "I want you to entertain me." Sadly, there are always some who equate being fed with being entertained or engaged. Yes, we should engage our listeners, but there is a limit to how short our sermons can be, how many stories they include, or how many laughs or tears they can produce. Preaching is not more spiritual when it is more boring—absolutely not!—but it is easy to make an idol out of being interesting.

What's a preacher to do?

So what is a preacher to do in order to preach in a way that feeds God's people? Here are a few suggestions to reduce complaints about not getting fed.

1. Work hard on your preaching. In 1 Timothy 4:13-16, Paul counseled Timothy:

Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers

Preaching requires time and significant effort. As one veteran preacher says, "Stay in your chair until the hard work is done." That is, do not short-change your work of exegeting, praying through, and reflecting on the text.

We need to keep growing in our preaching throughout our ministry. You might try improving a different aspect of your preaching each week. For example you might focus on your introduction this week, your application next week, and your understanding of the historical-cultural background of the text the week after that. Working progressively through a book like The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan), edited by Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson, can help you develop skills in the various areas of the preaching task.

2. Ask for Clarification. When someone says, "I'm not being fed," press them on that. Ask, "What do you mean by that? Please explain that to me." You can't deal with the real issue unless you know what the real issue is. If the issue is your preaching, then you can address it. If it's leadership or something else, then you can determine what needs to be done and who is responsible for doing it.

3. Use Your Team. Preaching may appear to be a "loner" ministry rather than a team ministry, but I am convinced otherwise. One of the best decisions I ever made was to form a preaching team consisting of myself and two other staff members. You can do this with volunteers or paid staff members. Even though I still do the lion's share of the preaching, 35-40 weeks a year, I meet with this team every Wednesday morning. If I am preaching the following Sunday, I will present an overview of my understanding of the text and how I plan to preach it. Then, the other team members weigh in with input about how the ideas in the text need to be explained, validated, or applied.

Another way to form a team is to use a focus group. I have done this in the past, too. I will invite certain people in the church family to meet with me once a week for a month, or once a month for a year, to discuss upcoming sermons. I want to find out what details need to be explained, what struggles our people have that this text addresses, and what challenges this text offers us.

We are being fed

Over a recent Advent season, I preached a series of sermons titled Christmas in Narnia. I chose four passages that pointed people to Jesus, the one who came to earth to save his people from their sins. I connected each passage to themes in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis—one of "The Chronicles of Narnia." A couple of weeks after I completed the series, a young couple in our church sent me this note:

We just had a thought that we should send you a note to say how much we appreciate your faithful preaching. You stand up there each week, after considerable preparation, and simply open the Bible and explain to us what God has said and how it relates to our lives. You keep the gospel of Christ and the sole authority of Scripture central. This is the rock-solid substance and sustenance that we need. We appreciate how you put the text into plain words and provide a framework for the text (Narnia!) so that all people can understand it and apply it to their lives. Thank you, and may God richly satisfy your soul with himself and with his Word each week.

I felt a sense of joy and gratitude as I read (and yes, re-read) this note. Essentially, this couple was saying, "We are being fed!"

The longer I serve as a pastor, the less I care about people rising up and calling me the world's greatest preacher (or even a close second to Andy Stanley, John Ortberg, or Tim Keller). What I care about, though, is that people are being fed. I want to do whatever I can to feed them with the Word of God, which has the power to transform their lives. I want to hear Christ say, "Well done," because his flock has been well fed.

Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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