I sat in his office after hearing him preach a magnificent message in two services. He was leading the church to greater depths of discipleship, and many in the community were becoming believers in Christ. The worship services were incredible; everything from the prayers to the preaching to the music was God-centered and God-glorifying.
With a sad smile on his face, he looked at me and simply said, “Watch this.” He powered his computer and opened his email. Someone had already sent him a critical email about the music in the service. “She sent it within five minutes after the service,” he said softly.
“We just have to press on and love the critics,” he spoke with resignation. “But it sure does get old.”
The Same Sad Story
I have been pastoring, consulting, and working with churches for over a quarter of a century. Criticisms have always been a part of a pastor’s life, but it seems that the rate and the intensity of the criticisms have both increased.
When I first served as a pastor in 1984, I began to understand some of the stories I had heard about the difficulties of local church ministry. Because the church I served was small, the number of critics was relatively small. Their barbs still hurt though, and their criticisms were a distraction to my ministry.
A year later in 1985, Marshall Shelley wrote a classic book on church critics, Well-Intentioned Dragons. Reflecting back over the past 25 years, I think local churches have more dragons now that aren’t so well-intentioned.
The Big Distraction
I have advised pastors over the years to focus on the good in the church, to realize that the supporters typically outnumber the critics by a wide margin. But the reality is that we humans have difficulty ignoring critics whom we see every week, critics whose faces are ever before us. Ignoring critics is a good idea in theory, but only a few pastors are really able to accomplish such a feat.
Criticism is a huge distraction. Though I’m reticent to speak for Satan, I have to believe that one of his primary weapons against the church is distracting leaders from the Great Commission. Who has time to make disciples when we have to listen to Betty or Bob complain and criticize for 45 minutes? Pastors lose valuable time and, inevitably, have little energy to do anything else after bearing the barbs of the latest critic.
I know that pastors are not above criticism. And sometimes the critic can be well-intentioned. But things are way out of balance now. Pastors are getting beat up daily for some of the most insignificant matters. Many are unable to lead because they fear the latest round of attacks. And it seems like the advent of Internet, text messaging, and the social media has accelerated the attacks.
It’s Time to Respond
At times, I feel like the matter of criticizing pastors and other church staff has been minimized. We may not fully grasp how demoralizing and debilitating the criticisms are to the pastor. The problem is serious. Indeed, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it is a crisis. It’s time to respond.
A first step is getting serious about church membership, or whatever term you use to describe how someone affiliates with your church. I can’t judge the heart, but I do find it hard to believe that some of the most vitriolic criticisms come from the heart of Christians. I am convinced more than ever that we have let millions of unregenerate members into our churches. We are now suffering the consequences of such low standards of church membership.
I also have an idea about what to do about the critics who are already in the church. While church discipline sometime will be in order, I doubt the leaders of our churches will be able to or should be able to bring discipline to every complainer. That is neither wise nor practical.
But something must be done. I am convinced that we have a major crisis in our churches.