“This Might Sting”

by Tim Bridges on May 17, 2012 · 9 comments

in Articles

I think I handle them better now than I used to handle them.  But they are never easy.

We have all had those requests for “a word with you” after the morning sermon.   A listener has listened and now they would like to speak, to voice their take on a particular section of the message.

I can usually tell by the expression on their face if they want to correct something I have said.  A furrowed brow forms a fleshy umbrella over their concerned eyes.  Perhaps they hazard a light hand on my shoulder.

This might sting, Pastor.

This is a moment of truth.  If we are not disciplined in responding to critiques, this episode can quickly morph into a scene from a horror movie.  About preaching.  It’s a new genre.

If we are honest, the hours following a sermon can be the worst time for someone to “share” with us.  We spent a week preparing.  We parsed things.  We preached with zeal as we simultaneously prayed for our hearers.  The sermon became our baby and we made it through the delivery!  And now someone is about to tell us that our baby is ugly, or that our baby did something wrong.  Or both.

Here are just a few things that I have found helpful to remember during a sermon critique:

The Goal is not “Good Sermon.”  The Goal is “Teach the Truth.”

People are kind-hearted.  Most people do not want to hurt our feelings or go to the trouble of pointing out our flaws.  They are generally thankful for a good service and ready for lunch.  So they will simply say, “Good sermon, Preacher.”

But when someone hesitates and then asks for a moment of our time, it could be that they have a love for the truth that outweighs the awkwardness of the conversation to follow.  In other words, if our goal really is to teach the truth then we should welcome feedback that advances that cause.

Other People Can Make Good Points

Preachers do not have a monopoly on understanding the Word.  Nor does the ministry of the Word stop with our conclusion.  The Word is at work long after we clock out for the morning.  Scripture is useful for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:16).  And sometimes, the preacher is the intended target.

When someone takes us to Scripture and shows us a crucial point that we missed or misstated, our allegiance to the truth should trump our hurt feelings.  It is hard to admit when we get it wrong.  But we must.  If we express heartfelt gratitude for the critique then we elevate the Word above ourselves.  That type of humility is an important discipline to model to our congregations.

Sometimes People Make Good Points in Annoying Ways

This is a tricky one.  It would be nice if every critique came with all the warmth and gravitas of a Morgan Freeman narration.  But those are rare.  I once received a critique that started this way, “Let me tell you something that you have obviously never considered.”

Let’s be frank.  That is a crazy annoying thing to say.

But he was right.  I had never considered his point.  In that moment I felt two responsibilities.  I needed to embrace the point graciously.  However, I could not abdicate my pastoral responsibility to recommend a smoother opening line.  Responding with something like, “That is a truly insightful point, but I think we could have started this conversation in a better way” usually fulfills both responsibilities.

Sometimes People Nit-Pick

There are times when a critique is true but not significant.  After making a passing illustration of a “cocoon” an earnest school teacher informed me that, in the context of my illustration, the image of a “chrysalis” would have been much more appropriate.  As I tried to follow her enchanting details about pupa (right before lunch) I thought it best to thank her with the gentle “thank you” that ends a conversation.

She had a point, but it was a small one.

But even those moments can be gateways into meaningful conversation.  If someone listens to an entire sermon and comes away obsessed with a seemingly small matter, it is probably because we have touched on something that looms large in their daily life.  Playful illustrations about children can conjure images of estranged daughters.  A few follow-up questions could reveal if the nits they are picking are attached to significant problems.  If we roll our eyes too quickly at nit-picking we might be the ones who miss the point.

Sometimes People are Wrong

We studied this passage for a week.  We read widely and lingered on nuances of Greek definitions.  It is likely that we know more about this subject than anyone in the room.  When responding to a critique, don’t be too quick to minimize the study you have done.

If someone laments a cross-reference you should have used, explain the choices you made in light of the text’s meaning.  Humility does not require us to look down at our feet and take all feedback to heart.  We may need to clarify our points, but that does not mean that they were wrong.

Confess, Correct and Move On

We have the great honor of proclaiming the Gospel and sharing the riches of Christ every week.  And we want to do it with excellence.  We are also called upon to preach difficult truths and to address complicated issues in our sermons.  The complexity of the task means that we will need correction from time to time.

It is not the end of the world.

Honest correction is not an assault on our character.  It does not belittle our pastoral office.  Critiques do not give us license to pout or to ruin our family’s Sunday afternoon.  If we are eager to confess our shortcomings and to correct the errors we make, then critiques need not be horrific experiences.

May the Lord use critiques, however they come, to sharpen our communication and strengthen our reliance upon His grace.

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