What are we to do when we find the preaching to be deficient in the local church to which we belong? For some church members, that is a relatively easy question to answer–just leave! After all, many people will leave churches for all sorts of other illegitimate reasons: musical preference, children’s ministry, social expectations, etc. For others, this is an exceedingly difficult question to answer. There are godly men and women who find themselves torn over whether or not they should leave a church–even when they know that they are not being adequately fed by the ministry of the word. Add to this the fact that many will leave their spouses, change jobs and move to another country before leaving a church that they have belonged to for several decades. Affinity and investment often clouds objectivity. The difficultly of determining when to leave a church can also be due to the fact that the Scriptures do not seem to give us much by way of a clear answer to this question. After all, Jesus rebuked almost all of the seven churches in the book of Revelation for serious spiritual–and, at times, even doctrinal–errors, without telling the members of those particular local churches to leave them at that precise moment. These factors make it quite difficult for someone to give another person a definite and objective answer to the question. So, we are left to ask, “Are there any guiding principles to help someone in a situation in which he or she knows that the preaching at their church is deficient?”
In his book, Be Careful How You Listen, Jay Adams gives us one of the most helpful treatments of this subject. Adams gives several categories by which believers can assess what is deficient in the preaching. For instance, we must first seek to distinguish between “seeming heresy” and “heresy” in the preaching. In order to do this, Adams suggests that concerned individuals go to the pastor and say something along the following lines:
“Pastor, we may have misunderstood, but here is what we think you have been saying. Please tell us if we are wrong; we are deeply concerned about this. We have come to you first; we haven’t made our concerns known to anyone else in the congregation.”
When individuals take this first course of action, the minister has an opportunity to respond. He might respond by “commending them for their honesty and prudence and will listen carefully to them.” This might be all that was needed for the minister to “make an effort to be clearer in his preaching.” If we fail to take this first course of action “none of these good things would happen.” When we fail to do things in this proper way, we take away an opportunity for clarity and growth.
However, if someone has gone through this first step and is ignored by the pastor–or comes to realize that the minister is truly preaching heretical doctrine (we have to know how to properly identify heresy if we are going to draw such a serious conclusion)–he or she should not immediately leave the church. Such individuals have a responsibility to go through the proper channels of accountability in order to bring about change. “They must,” Jay insists, “speak to the elders (or other board members, depending on the kind of church it may be) about the problem. They have a responsibility to the congregation and to the Lord that they cannot discharge by leaving the church.”
If a church member has followed the first two steps, and finds himself or herself getting nowhere, one final course of action may be taken:
“If the church belongs to a denomination, it may be possible to appeal to a high body (a Presbytery, convention, etc.). This may take time and it will require patience…but they are responsible to take every action possible to restore the ministry of this church…If the church is independent, they must attempt to rally as many of the members as possible to bring about a change in the situation…They will be vilified all along the way by some; but if they persist in a proper, humble, helpful manner–not returning evil for evil, but overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:21)–keeping Christ’s honor and His Church’s welfare always uppermost in their minds, they will proceed rightly.”
If these courses of action are followed in love, humility and patience, and no change occurs in the doctrine that is promulgated from the pulpit, such individuals “must finally leave the church and…unite with a church in which the Gospel is preached and the Lord’s word is held inerrant.”
However, what are men and women to do when “the preaching is neither suspect nor heretical, just poor?” Jay gives eight points of spiritual advice upon which men and women may provisionally act:
- Pray for the pastor. We often underestimate what God has promised to do if we would call on Him and cast our cares on him. James reminds us that the “effectual fervent prayer of the righteous avails much.” Preaching is certainly not outside of the sphere of God’s authority and power.
- Look for main points in the message–or points suggested by the message. Jot down questions, observations, illustrations, and key passages that might relate to these main points.
- Ask yourself, “How would I approach this passage?” When you do that sincerely desirous to learn and grow, “you will find that you are working all the harder because the pastor isn’t (or doesn’t know how to) work that hard to understand the Scriptures or communicate his understanding to others.”
- Take more notes than you would otherwise. “Takes notes on all that comes into your mind” from related places in Scripture. “Meditate, and take notes on it.”
- Think of your life in relation to the sermon (or your [biblically sound] reconstruction of the sermon). “Try to discover why the Holy Spirit put the passage in the Bible…Reflect on this specifically in relation to your own life and determine at least three ways you can implement the Holy Spirit’s purpose during the coming week.
- On an especially bad day, forget about the sermon and focus on a hymn, the Scripture reading, or something in the prayer.
- Learn from the sermon by contrast. When error is preached, ask, “What does the Bible really say?” Pursue that line until you are sure of the biblical truth. You will especially be sharpened if you read solid books that will help keep you straight.
- Remember what it must have been like for Jesus to sit under the atrocious preaching in the synagogue for thirty years.
“What all this amounts to,” writes Jay, “is taking seriously the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, for which the Reformers fought. They asserted not only the right but also the responsibility of the believer to come directly to God in prayer and to study the Bible on their own…Spurgeon could not have been too far from the truth when he said, ‘I have listened to many sermons from preachers called poor, in all corners of the country, and I have never heard one that did not teach me something, if I was in the spirit to profit from it.'”
None of this is to say that believers must stay in a church that does not preach God’s word in truth. Of course, believers should commit to being under the most sound preaching of God’s word that they can find in a reasonable proximity to their home. But, it is to stress the obligation that we have to the people of God and to the Lord to make every effort to see faithful ministry occurring in the church in which we have bound ourselves.