This Post Originally Appeared in 2017
I’ve talked to a lot of discipleship pastors, and lead pastors and heard the tough feed back they get about small groups or the church in general. I’ve heard friends tell me why they left this church or that church. I’ve listened to people talk in frustration about the church they attend. The most common complaint I’ve heard about churches, sermons, or curriculum is this, “I’m not being fed.”
You’ve probably heard these words. Chances are good that you’ve even used them in some way, either about yourself or while prompting another person with whom you’ve been in a discussion about the frustrations they have at church/small group. We hear these words and we can relate. They make sense and we all consider these words to be a serious problem. But what if we’re wrong to draw this conclusion? Perhaps the issue is that these words aren’t really a problem, but are rather a symptom of a much more important and profound problem. Before we get to the problem, though, let’s look at our response to the symptom and view the results.
Dealing with the phrase, “I’m not being fed” can prove quite difficult. The words almost seem harmless by the one saying them, but in reality, the message being communicated is, “You’re not feeding me.” They are, in essence, an accusation. The response to accusations can prove to be dicey territory. A pastor’s response and posture at this moment is going to have a large impact on how this relationship will move forward. A pastor accepting all the responsibility is going to result in an enabling relationship. A defensive, turn-the-tables posture can quickly turn into a go-find-another-church conversation resulting in a broken relationship.
I can recall a time when I was teaching band in Amarillo, Tx. I was in my third year as a teacher. I was working as an assistant to the director of bands, named Chet. One day, Chet was at his wits end with a student. He and I were in the office between classes and Chet began venting his frustration to me. I wasn’t a big fan of this student. I finally told Chet, “you just need to get him out of band. He is nothing but trouble and he’s going to negatively affect the kids around him.” I’ll never forget Chet’s response. He said, “If that kid isn’t in my band, I can no longer affect change in his life.” I was humbled in one short sentence. Chet understood something that I didn’t. He understood that the behavior was a by-product of something much deeper which needed addressing, and only time and personal investment could see this kid through.
Not every church member who approaches a pastor with the words, “I’m not being fed” does so with the same relationship or spiritual maturity. If the pastor has a really close relationship, that conversation is going to be leaning towards challenging truths calibrated with grace. If there is little to no established relationship, the conversation needs to lean toward grace calibrated with truth. Keep this in mind: If there is all grace, you’re enabling. If there is all truth, you’re crushing. But grace and truth appropriately calibrated is edifying.
Before we move forward, let’s look at a few Scriptures that address the diet of Christians:
1 Corinthians 3:1-2
Let’s spend the majority of our time on the second category, the developing believer. This category is the most difficult situation. They are telling you one of two things regarding the symptom, but they’re ultimately revealing the heart of a profound problem. The symptom they’re addressing is either the teaching is beneath me and I’m not challenged (too much grace), or I don’t like the challenge the teaching is presenting because it doesn’t sync with what I hold to or the bill of goods I was sold when I got into this (too much truth). Once again, these are only symptoms. So what’s the heart of this profound problem?
Well, it comes down to being rooted in the Word of God on it’s most simple level, but on a deeper level, it’s the failure to train them how to be rooted in the Word. When I talk of being rooted in the Word, I’m not talking about understanding the tenants of the faith. I’m talking about them actually getting the nutrients, which sustain a living faith, from God’s Word. We tend to make sure over and over that our teachings, from the pulpit to the small group, reinforce tenants of the faith. Commonly, the small group curriculum challenges members to be better Christians by training them to see the pitfalls and avoid them, or by teaching the members about the spiritual disciplines and encouraging them to dip their toes in each one for a week. Slightly more challenging curriculum often goes after what I call a "peripheral topical study" written by a modern day theologian and the developing believer is given a glimpse of various or specific aspects of their faith being illuminated by the text, offered for deeper reflection and consideration. Examples of this would be Forgotten God by Francis Chan, or Future Grace by John Piper. Depending on the book, this can be a beautiful thing, but it creates hunger. How your church meets that hunger determines whether or not the developing believer will be able to move on to maturity under your church’s guidance and leadership.
Oftentimes, the tendency is to throw another book at the developing believer. "They liked this theologian, let’s try another one of his books," goes the logic. Or perhaps, "they liked this theologian, how about we look at this other theologian’s book."
The issue with so many of these theology books/peripheral topical studies is that the developing believer almost never has to open the Bible. The developing believers get all of their knowledge about God, second hand. It’s all been digested and the nutrients are no longer present to sustain a living faith. We teach them about God informationally rather than to know Him relationally. By training developing believers in a constant barrage of theologians and pitfall avoidance, we fail to train them in theology. To clarify, let me define theology as I understand it. Theology is the study of God in Scripture. We fail by not teaching them to study God in Scripture where they experience deep, intimate relationship with the God of Creation. We teach them to eat what has been chewed up, digested, and then regurgitated. For developing believers, these theologians/preachers, who may be outstanding church leaders, eventually become a poor substitute for the Holy Spirit, who feeds and nourishes with the high powered super-food called Scripture. In Scripture we find the fullest of nutrients to not only sustain, but prosper the soul and a living faith.
The great fallacy to which the church has fallen prey is the complete adherence to specific theological systems. In our seminaries and Bible colleges, students take courses in systematic theology, where they study previously digested systems that were written out, and beautifully scripted in many cases, by one individual or possibly a few. Entire denominations of churches have subscribed closely or sold out completely to one person’s study of God in Scripture. Albeit quite thorough in many of these cases, it is still previously digested by someone and that someone isn’t you. We adhere and train others to adhere to someone else’s study, rather than developing the discipline of studying God in Scripture in order to foster an intimate relationship with the Almighty. Yes, there is systematic theology to which we can look as a model and standard, but God calls us into a relationship where He reveals Himself not only corporately, but individually.
Please understand, I enjoy reading the theology of church leaders past and present. There are often beautiful truths in their writings. I read their writings because they can often articulate the ideas and truths I believe about God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, and Scripture in a more concise and clear way than my feeble mind is capable. Furthermore, I read the theology of others to keep me in check. But I don’t read another person’s theology to study God; I read their theology for the purposes of refining, challenging, and clarifying my own witness. Nevertheless, my theology is my theology. It is my study of God in Scripture. It consists of what God has revealed to me through His Word and through the Holy Spirit. We have to train our developing believers to this end, otherwise, we’re filling their stomachs but starving their soul by withholding the relationship they’ve been invited to by God the Father, through Jesus Christ.
Believe it or not, materials exist that help to facilitate the move from learning about God to learning to be with God and knowing Him. In these resources, the reader is directed into Scripture in order to develop a lens through which they can view Scripture, and respond to the leading of the Holy Spirit. There is commentary, but there aren’t concrete answers. As a leader, you have to have the same trust in the Holy Spirit that the author has, that He will lead and guide you, as well as the developing believer. You can check out two different resources, here and here.
So that leaves us with mature believers. The problem with mature believers telling a pastor that they aren’t being fed is different, but sorta the same. They are seeking challenge. But they’re also seeking an outlet to share in the Word with someone ready to hear it, receive it, and return it. They are pursuing a community of mature believers where they can share what’s being revealed to them in the Word and hear what’s being revealed to others. They’re seeking a partnership. (Keep in mind, it only takes two to make community) That’s the mature believer’s desire, but sometimes they aren’t being fed because they’ve given up on this pursuit of community, and therefore, they stopped going to the Word. It is common that church leaders grant mature believers the permission to lead others in the church, but it must be understood that permission isn’t partnership. Permission can leave the mature believer feeling like he/she is on an island all alone, but partnership serves to reinforce the mature believer’s ministry and mission.
As someone who's just been told, "I'm not being fed," keep in mind that it’s OK to dig a little. Not in a return the accusation sort of way, but to get to the heart of the issue. What are they seeking? Also, because so many developing believers have read so much theological content, their knowledge can give the appearance of being a mature believer, but this perceived mature believer is actually still in a stage where they haven’t grown in knowing God intimately, they just have a vast amount of knowledge about Him. You need to find out what their food source is. They’ve been eating something. You need to know what that something is.
What if we stopped looking at “I’m not being fed” as an accusation and start seeing it as a desperate cry from the heart for a simple invitation to partake in the truth of the Gospel? This question is leveled to pastors and lay members alike (who are actually pastors that don’t get paid). How would that change our response?
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