Three little words that might seem harmless to you but are so damaging to your preacher:
“People are saying…”
Sentences that start this way (or similar ways, like “I’ve been hearing some talk around the congregation that…”) are often used to introduce some criticism of the preacher or a desire for a change.
- “People are saying your sermons are too long.”
- “Some folks have a problem with your wife and/or kids.”
- “People are saying you don’t do enough visiting.”
- “People are really upset with you over what you said about…”
But regardless of the specific message, the general message of “People are saying…” is always one of two things. Either:
- There is criticism and complaining about the preacher going on in the church, and nobody who feels that way is willing to step up and address it with him lovingly, or
- The person bringing the complaint is using “people” as a cover for him/herself. Beyond that, they’re making the dishonest implication that the problem is more widespread than it actually is in an attempt to give validity to their criticism.
While I’m sure there are plenty of occurrences of #1, it’s pretty well established in preacher circles that 90% of the time when somebody says “People are saying,” it’s the latter. That kind of dishonesty, especially toward each other, has no place in the church.
Here are 4 reasons why I hope you’ll never use a “People are saying” criticism:
First and foremost, it’s unbiblical. The Bible offers plenty of advice for dealing with interpersonal conflicts (Matthew 5, 18), disagreements, and differences of opinion (Romans 14). At no point does it say, “Talk behind somebody’s back and hope it gets back to them through a third party” or “Share a criticism that you have by blaming it on other people.” Above all, the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” simply prohibits this kind of veiled criticism.
It’s controlling and manipulative. What can a preacher do when he receives this kind of criticism? He can’t go talk to the anonymous “people” and explain his side of the story, so he’s left with only two options: comply, or ignore it. But if he ignores it, he has no idea how many “people” are behind the complaint. He doesn’t know if it’s one malcontent or an issue big enough that it could cost him his job. So, he feels enormous pressure to comply.
Whether intentional or not, that’s the position the person who brings the criticism is putting him in, and it’s not fair. The most stressful, painful times of my ministry have been the long, sleepless nights kept up wondering how many of my brothers and sisters truly were unhappy with me as much as I had been led to believe by a “people are saying…” critic. Don’t do this to your preacher.
It’s discouraging. It lets the preacher know that some of his fellow Christians (or at least one of them) have a problem with him, and they didn’t love him enough to talk to him about it. The core message is “You have to listen to the problems I have with you, and I don’t have to give any reasoning, listen to your side of the story, or answer any of your objections.”It’s already hard enough on preachers that we often feel like employed outsiders, and faceless criticism just exacerbates that problem. Remember your preacher is a person, too. Customers leave anonymous reviews. Brothers confront one another in love.
It facilitates gossip. What the critic is telling the preacher is, “There’s gossip going on about you, I was party to it, and I’m a pipeline for it.” If a brother or sister comes to you with a complaint about another brother or sister, it’s your job to shut it down and let the grumbler know that they can either go talk to the person they’re criticizing or keep it to themselves. Listening to them and passing on their complaints anonymously simply legitimizes their gossip and helps it keep spreading.
If you feel the criticism is legitimate, offer to go with them and share the concerns. If they won’t talk to the preacher but want to keep undermining him by talking about him behind his back, their sin needs to be confronted and exposed. It should be unthinkable to us that a church be torn asunder by gossip circles and back door politicking. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that the unity of the church is critically important to our Lord, and it should be just as important to us.
That’s really what this comes down to, and why it’s so important. The unity of the church and the minister’s ability to be effective are at stake. I don’t think anyone wants to sacrifice either of those things to get their point across.
Naturally, the preacher isn’t above criticism and needs gentle correction from time to time just as anyone else. But how that is accomplished makes a huge difference. When the time comes to offer constructive criticism, please remember to offer it with love. Keep in mind how much of a tough spot it puts the preacher in to hear “people are saying” rather than hearing it directly. And, above all, don’t let gossip have its way in the church.
“It’s funny I don’t fit, tell me, where have all the average people gone?” Roger Miller once asked in the old country song. In it he went on to describe how everywhere he turned, he didn’t seem to fit in. The rich saw him as poor, the poor saw him as rich, city people thought he was country, country people thought he was city, and so on. As the years go by, I find myself feeling that way increasingly in the church.
For the most part, I pretty much side with conservative interpretations of the issues – baptism, women’s roles, instrumental music, amillennialism, young earth, etc. On the other hand, I believe there’s room for grace for those who hold different interpretations, that because I probably don’t have everything right then I should probably give some room for error to others. As Matthew 7:2 makes clear, if I will cut off others for getting one small thing wrong, then that’s how I’ll be judged.
It’s that specific ideology that has me feeling ideologically homeless. The progressive wing of Christianity looks down on conservative ideology, and the conservative wing wants nothing to do with those who don’t believe a person has to interpret every single issue exactly the same way to be saved. For the conservatives, nobody is going to heaven except the people in 99% agreement with them. For the progressives, it seems as though everyone is saved except the conservatives. A few examples:
In one article, I mentioned in passing that taking a drink of alcohol might not be a sin and got blasted from multiple sides, with one preacher even taking out Facebook advertising to tell people to shun me.
Another article got me labeled as a liberal “change agent” for saying we shouldn’t spend so much time rehashing baptism and the instrument in the churches of Christ. At least 3 Sunday sermons (that I know of) were preached directly about why I’m a heretic because of that article.
At one point, a lady I’ve never met tried to contact my church leadership to get me fired because she disagreed with one specific thing I wrote.
As those things happened, the more progressive wing of the church reached out to me to offer friendship, even though we disagreed on a few things. The more time I spend with them, though, the more I feel the same lack of grace. My stance on women’s roles made me oppressive toward women, in their eyes. In one bizarre instance, my refusal to concede that the woman at the well narrative (John 4) established her as a #MeToo victim supposedly made me a biased, privileged, white male. The side that prides themselves on grace often shows anything but to those who are to the right of them.
I’m not sharing these as some weird sort of bragging. I’m sharing them because I’ve talked to a number of preacher friends who have received the exact same kind of treatment from both ends of the churches of Christ. You likely have heard the stories of people being “written up,” slammed on TV shows, blacklisted from events, and even confronted in person. It’s ridiculous how out of hand it’s gotten.
And so, I find myself feeling ideologically homeless. The funny thing is, though – I believe at the very least that there are many of us “average people.” We may even make up a majority. But, as with the political world, the loud voices on the extremes crowd out those in between. There is very much an, “If you’re not for us, you’re against us” attitude (despite Jesus saying the exact opposite in Luke 9:50). So, despite our large numbers, we end up feeling isolated and go into a hiding of sorts for fear that one of our disallowed beliefs might slip out and cost us friendships and (for ministers) even our jobs. To me, that’s ridiculous.
To be honest, I envy people in the denominational world who can openly debate issues like divorce and remarriage, eschatology, the work of the Spirit, and other topics that have become so divisive they’re off limits to us. Let’s talk! Let’s help each other! And let’s do it with a sense of love and pursuit of truth, rather than slamming each other down for being wrong and in pursuit of who’s right.
The biggest struggle here, of course, is to avoid the pride that comes from trying to find your place. We “average people” can’t be like the Pharisee of Luke 18, praying “I thank you, Lord, that I’m not as judgmental as those to my right or as lax as those to my left.” The goal here is to simply find common ground with our brethren.
And that’s what I want to do. I’m tired of being in hiding, afraid to say that I disagree. I know I’m being idealistic, and I know that , like Roger Miller, saying these things will get me labeled too liberal by the conservatives, and too conservative by the liberals. But I think it’s worth the risk, and I think I’ll find plenty more “average people” by speaking up, though some will understandably be afraid to agree publicly. I’m tired of being silenced by the extremes. We’re holding ourselves back by pushing each other astray and making important topics off limits for discussion.
I just want to be pleasing to Jesus and follow His footsteps. I know for a fact I’m getting that wrong in various ways every day, in ways that I’m aware of and in ways that I’m not. So please be patient with me and show me a little grace where you disagree with me. I’m willing to show it right back. Let’s simply remember that we’re flawed individuals on the same side, with the same goal.