Shifting my weight from foot to foot, with all the uncertainty befitting a novice, I said goodbye to the faithful as they exited “the Chapel.”¹ I was dazed in the manner that every preacher is, five minutes post benediction – when you can’t compute where you are or quite how you got there.
I extended a sweaty hand to anyone feeling generous. What entered my grasp however was not a hand, but a note.
The stranger instantly scarpered, leaving me to uncrumple the curious parchment. In seconds I had read her raggedly written review:
“Too many points. Your headings – not distinct enough. You need to put in FAR MORE effort before you preach!”
For patently obvious reasons, that feedback has stuck in my unsticky memory. Yet on countless other occasions (‘at many times and in various ways’!) my sermons have been on the receiving end of critique.
What shall we say then?
Jars Of Clay
Let’s start by readily admitting that our sermons are often worthy of criticism. We’re not trying to get things wrong (indeed we’re all too aware of a stricter judgement upon bible teachers). But inevitably and often, we do fall short of the expository mark. It may be factual mistakes, interpretative errors² or some lack in clarity or delivery.³ God’s Word is perfect – his human messengers, not so much!
Effusive praise of sermons then is almost always unwarranted (praise is not the same thing as encouragement). It’s probably also the case that many sermons aren’t as bad as some critics attest. The two common categories – ‘brilliant’ or ‘bad’ – are a far too frequent comment in the aftermath of sermons. In most evangelical churches, most sermons are faithful but fallible attempts to proclaim God’s gloriously infallible word. It is by God’s astounding grace that he uses such weak and feeble instruments as human preachers.
The Blessing Of Critics
So how might a sermon-critic be a blessing to the preacher of the word?
To begin with, they not only aid the herald’s preaching (sometimes); they encourage their sanctified progress (always). How an expositor responds to criticism reveals not just the condition of their sermons, but their hearts. Pride, people-pleasing and placing my identity in ministry, are often graciously exposed when I chafe at a critical comment upon my preaching. Whether the critic is right or wrong is – in one sense – immaterial. What emerges from the sewer of my heart is often far more telling!
Second, critics play their part because they help me assess the people to whom I am preaching. Biblical preaching is unchanging in content – but the context into which we preach is particular and variable. I need to know who I am speaking to. And for that, I need to listen. This means not just hearing feedback from the most theologically knowledgeable members, but from the average punter in the pew. Are they able to follow me? Is my preaching connecting with them? (And if not, why not?).
Further, when the same criticism comes from multiple people, my ears tend to prick up. If a handful of people thought that illustration was unhelpful – or if several tell me that my conclusion went ’round and round’ – I will usually take that to heart and seek to learn from it.
I also try to bear in mind that when someone disagrees with an aspect of my sermon, they are not necessarily disagreeing with all of it! There’s a difference!
Building Up, Not Tearing Down
If we are the givers of feedback, how can we do it wisely?
a) I think it’s generally unhelpful to give strong critique in the immediate aftermath of a message. The preacher has just preached his soul out. In most cases, they have given God and the church their very best offering. They are exhausted, vulnerable and, don’t forget, human. It’s good to bear this in mind if we’re planning on speaking the truth in love! If we offer critique, we should ensure that we say some positive things as well (if there are any!).
b) It’s worth considering too whether a criticism that could be given, always should be given. The wise parent will not ‘pick up’ on every infraction of a child. They know that there are times to cover over sin – for wisdom’s sake and sanity. And there are also times to check it. An overly long sermon conclusion, for example, may be a characteristic pattern – or it may just be a bad day at the office! A one-off story that seems to paint the preacher a bit too favourable might be the beginning of a pattern, or it may be just a one-off.
c) Be stronger in critiquing the substance of a message than the style. Not that style is unimportant but it is often linked to personality and preferences. We might not like non-linear sermons, without clear development of logic. We might struggle with preachers who are somewhat more Johanine than Pauline in their approach. But as long as the preacher is faithful to Christ and the text, we should critique their style farless than their substance. After all, we’re trying to encourage preachers; not create an army of ‘expository clones’!
d) Pre-sermon feedback is even better than after the fact. Critique afterwards cannot improve the sermon preached! But evaluation before can lead to adjustments. This being the case, I often let my wife pre read my sermons. I also tend to’ ‘talk through’ my message with several other people during the week.
e) We need to examine our hearts when we’re giving critical feedback. Why are we doing it? Is it out of love for the person? Is it fortheir good and the congregations? Or am I trying to look clever, to put the preacher in his place, or avoid the challenge of the sermon?
The Feedback That Matters Most
There is a kind of feedback that we never ought to listen to. It’s that call to change the message because it seems too hard, too miraculous, too out of step with culture, or too narrowly exclusive. If the preacher preaches God’s Word, not everyone will want to hear them – and criticism will come. Yet we mustn’t see everyone as a devil who seeks to lovingly and truthfully critique!
And never forget too, that while we work hard at our sermons, we are not justified by them. The perfect homiletical construction never saved our soul, or anyone else’s. Sticking to Jesus and his word, the gospel in the Spirit’s power, is what will inevitably bring about the increase.
¹ Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh.
² No less than Mark Dever tweeted this week that one of his elders picked him up on some interpretive errors he made in a sermon regarding John the Baptist. https://twitter.com/MarkDever/status/1168577165459431424?s=19
³ I once said in a sermon something along the lines of “God intends to harm you”, when I actually had meant to say “Satan.” In the context of what I’d been saying, it was hopefully clear to the congregation what I had meant. They were gracious. (And I only found out afterwards from my wife!)