Preaching to Know-it-alls and Picky Eaters

Being genuine communicates volumes

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I am currently mothering two five-year-olds whom I’d describe as semi-picky–like many adults are, I guess, but less polite about it. Put a delicious and lovingly crafted meal before them, and it may be rejected because the butter on the toast isn’t completely melted in. Or there was a single mushy blueberry. And so on.

Could there be a parallel there with preaching? You’re unlikely to ever preach a sermon that every member of the congregation enjoys whole-heartedly. Some element will always displease or miss the mark with somebody—the delivery, the interpretation, the focus. And unlike my children, your listeners have that lovely grown-up freedom to snack on chips at midnight; or, in this case, stay home and stream someone else’s sermon on Youtube next Sunday.

As I often do with my family’s meals, you may find it easier to simply ignore the critics—focus on the themes dearest to your heart, listen for God’s quiet voice as you prepare, enjoy the process, and trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest. (Either they’ll learn to enjoy mushrooms, or they won’t!) That sounds like the best plan to me, and I wouldn’t advise you to do any differently. But is there any magical way to reach the pickiest of (sermon) eaters and most complacent know-it-all listeners in your congregation?

The origin story of one picky (sermon) eater

It took a long time for me to admit what a snob I am about sermons, without any right to be. My father was a wonderful preacher, so he was the standard I judged by from an early age.

Biased or not, here’s why I still believe my father’s sermons were darn good ones:

  • He spoke from the heart, with a warmth and genuineness that rarely seemed rehearsed. His jokes were corny, but that was just him. He didn’t wave his arms around or fall into the artificial, drumbeat cadence and stirring tones of a TED Talk speaker. He just talked, conversationally, as though sharing his sincere and carefully-considered thoughts with a friend.
  • He talked about things that mattered, staying grounded in real life. Listening to his few recorded sermons today, the themes that arose repeatedly were the ones I now know he contended with fiercely in his most private heart: the overwhelming gift of grace, the unimaginable depths of God’s love,  the world’s brokenness, and our hopeful participation in its restoration. 
  • He was smart. He was a clever man, a big reader, a savvy speaker, an unusual thinker. He wove in the historical context, the Greek etymology, the Church fathers and Talmudic perspectives and interpretations without devolving into irrelevant scholarliness.

I left the church for several years in my twenties, only returning out of a desire to pass fragile hope down to my kids rather than angry nihilism. But I dragged my feet in conscious and unconscious ways, and one of the most irritating was the little oratory critic in my head that wouldn’t shut up whenever I tried to listen to a sermon or homily. We visited Catholic churches, a synagogue, a Mormon church, and a whole gaggle of evangelical and independent and Reformed churches, and no matter where we were, that little voice broadcast its judgment over anything anyone tried to teach the congregation.

The most mean-spirited thing about it is that, of the three traits described above that caused me to see my dad’s sermons as the gold standard, the one I tended to criticize most in those preachers was the “smart” factor. “I already know this theological concept,” I’d think, mentally rolling my eyes. “I’ve heard this passage preached on a thousand times, and they’re doing it wrong. I already know the significance of the Aramaic here, the historical context there …”

Head sermons and heart sermons

I was a picky know-it-all and a huge pain. And the worst of it is, I thought I was doing the best I could to love God in the only way I felt able to at that point—with my mind. My heart remained clamped shut: I had no idea how to pray, experienced no “strange warming,” so of course I longed for sermons that taught me something genuinely interesting and new over ones that tried to twang my paralyzed heartstrings. By reading books and engaging with sermons (for example, mentally heckling the preachers), I thought I could open up my mind a bit, in hopes that the heart would follow. I thought I was doing what I could with the one working connection I had to my old faith.

I’d imagine you are more balanced in your faith than I was: that when you pray, worship, or construct a sermon, there’s a solid element of both head and heart engaged. You already know this, but of course that’s the way it needs to be. We were created to love God with both our hearts and our minds. I wonder if the silent (or not so silent) hecklers in your pews tend, like me, to find themselves swinging too far into their minds, analyzing sermons they deem offensive like butterflies under glass, rather than listening for the beating heart underneath it all. Maybe, like me, they’re just scared, or feeling frustrated by heart-based feelings of disconnection from God and neighbor. Maybe they don’t know what else to do.

And maybe not. I’d just challenge you to consider what your know-it-alls, the “picky eaters” holding your sermons at arms’ length, might be lacking; what they might need from you. It might just be a hug.

It’s out of your hands

Disclaimer: I can’t actually tell you how to preach the perfect sermon to placate the Statlers and Waldorfs in your congregation. True, you can double down on your research, your oratory skills, your jokes. But I think I’m saying something you already know, but might need to be reminded of: from there, it’s in God’s hands.

And it’s in the hands of your (possibly stony-hearted) listeners—free will, and all that. I recently asked someone who is my polar opposite in terms of both head-heart balance and his approach to faith—my husband—what he considers a “good” sermon, one that he would really be impacted by and enjoy hearing. It was almost like he didn’t understand the question.

“If I don’t get something out of a sermon,” he replied, “I figure that’s on me.”

Unless the speaker is really boring, I prompted. Or just straight-up wrong. Or twisting the text to prove a personal point. Or misunderstands the context.

He shrugged with an “I said what I said” attitude. And I don’t think his perspective is one he holds unconsciously; I think he chose it. I could probably choose it too.

What your picky know-it-all needs

So, it’s in God’s hands, and the hands of your listeners. But I do know of one choice you can make that may help you get through to the most defensively critical hecker.

Just be honest. We skeptics can smell a rat a mile away.

I’m sure you already try to preach from the heart, with open honesty; and I’m sure speaking in a natural, genuine way is easier said than done when you’re standing in front of a crowd. But during my picky-eater stage, nothing repelled me from a church more than an excess of polish: perfect timing, a sermon rehearsed for a formulaic burst of emotion, the sheen of charisma.

My pastor father felt the pressure to perform, as a ministry leader, more than I ever realized until he was gone. I think he fought against it as well as he could, but he was all too familiar with the expectation that he, “the pastor,” would be wise, infallible, untiring, compelling. He was never in a situation where any of the churches he served had the budget to glam things up too much, but I’m sure it affected him as he planned his sermons: Am I smart enough? Am I funny enough? Are they bored of me? Am I truly impacting these people, truly bringing the Word to them in a way that touches their heart? Am I making this world a better place from my pulpit? I think he doubted it; I think he tried to prevent that doubt from driving him to lay a shiny veneer over himself or artificialize his sermons, moving away from heart-issues in pursuit of sparkling wit or impressive insight.

My favorite church service ever was one I attended at our small church in France when I was a teenager. Somehow there was a miscommunication and no one had prepared to lead worship that day. I didn’t know then that my dad was already beginning his downward spiral into the depression that took him from us, doubting his worth as a human and a pastor, overwhelmed by his own perceived failures. In spite of that, he stood alone in front of the congregation that day and closed his eyes as he quietly led us in worship by singing the hymns he’d memorized with his God-loving mind, with all his God-loving heart.

Trite as it may sound, please just be yourselves, preachers. Don’t be afraid to sing hymns with no mic and no accompaniment. Ignore the critics outright, if you need to; if you can’t, try giving them a hug, and keep preaching from the heart and speaking truth. You may get through to the know-it-alls and picky eaters yet.

  • Hallie Knox

    Hallie Knox is a freelance writer with a deep love of words and story. Aside from her writing and editing work, Hallie spent a few years as an elementary school literacy and special education teacher, and continues to serve part-time as an educator for a fully outdoor forest kindergarten on the side. A "missionary kid" who grew up moving all over Europe, Asia, and the Balkans, she is now settled in Boise, Idaho, where she reads avidly, cooks experimentally, and spends time with her three children, husband, and their two big goofy dogs.

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theran knighton-fitt
22 days ago

I can’t wait to meet you ☺️. I expect (hope) you will join your mom on a visit to us sometime?

theran knighton-fitt
22 days ago

And thanks for this. 🙏. As a preacher myself I find it encouraging and humbling.

Mark L. Vincent
23 days ago

You are an amazing writer. I knew that man, grew up with him, and loved him. I recognized him in your description. And I am glad for this insight into your journey.