Preachers and Their Critics

You'll build a great church, pastor, if you ever learn how to communicate. 

Listening to that sermon was like drinking from a fire hydrant. 

I'm so disappointed! I wanted you to give God all the glory. And you missed it! 

Your preaching is too intellectual. 

Your preaching is too practical. 

You don't talk enough about social justice. 

You talk about social justice too much. 

Your preaching is over people's heads. 

Your preaching isn't deep enough. 

Give us meat, not milk. 

I have heard all these statements, or at least these sentiments, about my preaching. Some have fallen asleep during my preaching. One woman shook her head in disagreement as I taught on election, while others have argued with me while I was still in the pulpit. I've had folks corner me after church to debate theology. Second-hand reports have informed me of church members who weren't getting anything from my preaching. One guy said he felt like he was sitting in class (too many points, I suppose). Others have graciously and gently met with me face to face to confess that they were not being fed.

Some of these criticisms surprised me. Some felt unfair. A few hurt. Some were well-deserved (especially the "fire hydrant" comment). Occasionally they roll off, but the fact I remember so many of them proves they stick. Every experienced preacher could add to the list. Personal criticism is one of the job hazards of Christian ministry.

It's also one of the great benefits. Preachers need and value feedback. And we need more than just the compliments (though we appreciate those, too). There are no perfect preachers. We all need iron-sharpening dialogue with hearers about both our content and delivery. So don't read this article as a whining complaint from a beleaguered pastor who can't take it anymore. I don't want people in my congregation to stop giving critical feedback for fear of bruising my ego.

But both preachers and hearers, those who are critiqued and those who offer critique, can make the dialogue more effective. So here are some suggestions for each.

For Hearers 

1. The most helpful criticism is given in the context of mutual brotherly love. This is true across the board, not just with preachers. We all are more likely to receive criticism when it comes from someone who loves us and has our best interests in mind.

2. Be sure your motives are right. I've observed in some critics an unhealthy appetite for debate. Others latched onto minor points or illustrations. Homiletical molehills became theological mountains, and I walked away wondering if the person even heard the rest of the sermon. The best critiques have come from people with an earnest desire to see people helped and God glorified through the clear teaching of Scripture.

3. Pay attention to timing. Here are several times that are probably not in season:
  • Sunday afternoon or Monday. Your pastor is already drained from the weekend's output. Give him 48 hours to rest before sending that e-mail. 
  • Sunday morning before the service. Don't hit him with questions about last week's sermon just before he goes into the pulpit. In fact, try not to ask questions about anything. Let him focus on the task at hand. 
  • While he's on vacation. Save it for when he's on the job. 
Come to think of it, don't use e-mail at all. Instead, schedule a friendly mid-week phone call or lunch appointment. Yes, this means talking face to face (or at least, voice to voice). But it also gives you time to carefully think through what to say and how to say it and provides a venue for your pastor to come with a fresh mind to give his full attention to your concerns.

4. Criticize the right things. Your pastor doesn't need you to flag every pulpit peccadillo. Love covers a multitude of sins, including sermonic faults and flaws. If you're tired of sports illustrations, or thought the sermon was a little dull this week, let it slide. Save criticism for things that really matter: mishandling Scripture, confusing delivery, unnecessarily offensive words and tones, and tendencies to drift from the centrality of the gospel. To be more concrete: if the preacher is taking texts out of contexts; or so bungling his outline that everyone feels lost; or using inappropriate humor or making derogatory statements about gays or liberals; or always harping on the 70th week rather than the incarnation, atonement, resurrection, or second coming; then it's probably time to take him to coffee. And you should pick up the tab.

5. Be careful. It's dangerous to sit under the ministry of God's Word with a critical ear. If you don't watch your heart, you will impoverish your soul. Look for defects in the sermon and you'll always find them. But don't develop a critic's mindset. Instead, come to worship with eyes peeled and ears perked for the Word of the living God.

For Preachers 

1. Take your critics seriously. Almost every criticism contains a germ of truth. Your job is to find it. Maybe you weren't clear enough. Perhaps the sermon really was too long, or had too much content, or was over people's heads. Spurgeon once reminded his students that the Lord commissioned Peter to feed his sheep, not giraffes. Whatever the critique, give it some thought. You will learn something.

2. Don't take yourself too seriously. Keep up a healthy sense of humor. If you really mess up and someone tells you, relax. You'll get another chance next Sunday.

3. Process criticism with others. None of us is objective when it comes to our own sermons. By ourselves, we're likely to mishandle criticism. We'll dismiss it too lightly, or take it too hard, or become too defensive, or latch onto the wrong thing. But if your elder board is also your sounding board, you'll be more likely to hear what you should and respond with humility and wisdom.

4. Seek out helpful critics. Spurgeon said, "A sensible friend who will unsparingly criticize you from week to week will be a far greater blessing to you than a thousand undiscriminating admirers if you have sense enough to bear his treatment, and grace enough to be thankful for it." He went on to talk about an "unknown censor of great ability" who sent him a weekly list of mispronounced words and other slips of speech. Spurgeon never knew the identity of his anonymous corrector, but he grew to appreciate him.

5. Never forget the greatness of the task you've been given. Preaching may be your job, but it's not about you. It's about the glory of God, the magnificence of Jesus, the beauty of the cross, the power of the resurrection, and the transforming power of the Spirit-breathed Word. It's about building up the saints and converting the lost. Preaching is an awesome privilege and worth every ounce of effort you can expend in learning to do it better. Part of that effort is learning from our critics.

And one more thing: if you get the opportunity to sit down and discuss your sermon with a critic over coffee or lunch, be sure to pick up the tab.

This post was written for The Gospel Coalition Blog.


Lee D said...

Excellent. The part about processing criticism with others is quite key. May this help many, both preacher and hearer, to walk in greater wisdom in this area.

The Blainemonster said...

It's a perilous thing to be a preacher! But, man, what a calling. One thing I've learned (ahem...still trying to learn) is to not be overly critical as a preacher when I listen to other preachers. As you said, it's easy to miss the Word when one is busy analyzing another man's homiletic.

Patti said...

Hello Brian-The Lord has been "suggesting" to me that I may be one of those who is too critical, and I am watching for that in myself and taking heed. I think I may have "justified" it in my head, in that I told myself I was "contending for the faith" whenever I scrutinized the truth of what others would say or write. So, as the Spirit divides joint and marrow in me, I am changed. (Thank God) God bless you as you continue to speak the truth without compromise and be humble when "criticized." All believers need to be on both sides of that.