This blog is the combined effort of four senior pastors of different churches. Their desire is to point you toward living a God-centered, gospel-focused, Christian life.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Thank You for Your Suggestions on How to Improve My Preaching (Seriously)

In an ideal world, any time a person had a suggestion regarding how I could improve my preaching, I would receive it graciously. Free from the vice of pride, I would carefully contemplate the truth of the statement and gain from the instruction. In fact, in this ideal world of which we speak, I would invite critique, feedback, and dialogue.

I do not live in an ideal world.

In the real world, where I reside, I sometimes don't want to graciously receive feedback. I just want everyone to think I'm a great preacher.

It's not an excuse, but I think one of the reasons for this is that the sheer amount of feedback a pastor can receive is overwhelming and often contradictory. It seems that everyone has an opinion about some aspect of some sermon.

The conclusion I've come to is that even though it can be overwhelming, when people are talking with you about your sermon, it's usually a very good thing. If the people in my church don’t have any opinions about my preaching, it probably means they’re not as engaged as they should be. If they don't have questions or haven't wrestled with some statements I've made, perhaps I haven't engaged them as I ought.

The fact that people have an opinion, even one that differs from your own, means that they are engaged. It means you've forced them to listen to your interpretation of God's Word and they're grappling with it at some level. Maybe they're wondering why you didn't address an issue they find pertinent. Maybe they're wondering why your sermon was too dry or too shallow or too deep or too light-hearted.

In his book Between Two Worlds, John Stott mentions the example of Peter Fiddick who struggled to pay attention to sermons. Fiddick
…learned to beat ‘the sermon problem by having mental debates with the preacher’, a technique which failed in a Chopin recital ‘since waltzes are not susceptible to argument’. Peter Fiddick probably imagines that preachers would be furious if they thought their listeners were having ‘mental debates’ with them. But surely, on the contrary, we should be delighted. We have no wish to encourage passivity in the congregation. We want to provoke people to think, to answer us and argue with us in their minds, and we should maintain such a lively (though silent) dialogue with them that they find it impossible to fall asleep.

So what kind of feedback do I receive and what do I do with it? As I’ve considered the suggestions I’ve received over the years, I’ve realized that they fall into several categories.

Some Sermon Critiques Are Misguided and Unhelpful

Some sermon suggestions come from those who have a fundamental misunderstanding of what preaching is supposed to be. For example, a well-intentioned person might offer this suggestion: “Why don’t you preach shorter sermons so that the unchurched will enjoy your services more?”

While I appreciate the feedback, this misses the fundamental point that worship is not designed for the unbeliever but for the believer. When unbelievers come, what attracts them should not be a service that speaks to the unregenerate heart. Instead, as our members passionately engage in worship of God, the unbeliever comes into a Christ-exalting service and “the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you” (1 Cor 14:25).

When I receive these types suggestions, I try to carefully consider them in light of what I believe the central task of preaching is: proclaiming Christ to the church. If a suggestion is contrary to that task, I tend to disregard it.

Some Sermon Critiques Are About Personal Preference

Other suggestions are related to things an individual might prefer but still aren’t really essential to the task of preaching. One person might suggest that I use more sports illustrations. Is that a sinful suggestion? Of course not. Is it essential? Of course not.

What is funny is that on any given Sunday, I might receive several contradictory comments. The sweet saint who tells me, “That sermon was very specific” is immediately followed by her brother in Christ who declares, “That sermon was way too vague. Get practical!”

There was one brother who kept telling me that my sermons needed to have more applications. There were several weeks where I was sure that he would tell me I had finally nailed it in terms of giving specific applications. But, to my disappointment, that never happened.

Finally, one Sunday I happened to mention the dangers of pornography in an application. The next day I received an email from my friend that read, “Thanks for really getting into application today.” I realized he had a very specific idea of what application meant. When I touched on that issue, he felt like I was doing application. His thoughts weren’t wrong, they were just very specific.

What do I do with suggestions that are more about personal preference than Biblical mandates for communicating Biblical truth? I try to listen to them but not over-listen. I want to be sensitive to the needs of my audience, but I want to be careful to allow a few dominant voices drive preferential issues.

Some Sermon Critiques Are Helpful but Not Implementable

Still other suggestions fall into a category that I would describe as helpful but not implementable. Suggestions that are connected with personality would fit under this category.

There have been several times people have told me that I need to be more emotional when I preach. My response is usually to ask if sarcasm counts as an emotion. What they mean is that they want to see a certain kind of emotion. While I’m certainly not a stoic, I’m also not a person who is that demonstrative with their emotions (again, unless cynicism counts as an emotion).

As much as many preachers would like certain things to be true of their preaching, the truth is that we are constrained by some limits God has placed on us, such as personality or intellect (Daniel, wouldn't it be great if you didn't need any notes at all while preaching? Well, sure...).

When people give me suggestions that might indeed be helpful in my preaching but possibly not implementable, my temptation is to become discouraged. A more healthy response is to thank God for the other leaders in our church that are able to teach in ways that I am not.

Once at a staff or elder meeting, as I listened to the other leaders talk about their ministry responsibilities, I jotted down this note: “This church is so blessed by my many weaknesses.” What I meant was that it is good that I am ineffective in some skills so that God can use those who have tremendous abilities in those areas.

Some Sermon Critiques Are Inappropriate and Unhelpful

It's rare, but sometimes I’ve been rebuked by an angry individual after a sermon. This seems, to me, inappropriate and unhelpful. One time a young man berated me for taking issue with the Roman Catholic Church on a doctrinal issue. I told him that I was surprised that he was so shocked that a Protestant pastor would find points of disagreement with my Roman Catholic friends!

When people critique me in a way that is inappropriate and unhelpful, I try to be gracious. I suppose how successful I am in that endeavor is a matter of perspective. . . .

Some Sermon Critiques Are Helpful and Instructive

A final category of suggestions, and where most of the suggestions I receive fall, are those that are both helpful and instructive.

When someone sends me an email about something they saw in the passage that perhaps I missed, that is instructive.

When someone takes me to God’s Word and shows me the importance of touching on some aspect of God’s character that I’ve been neglecting, that’s helpful.

When someone tells me something I did well that perhaps I hadn't done before, that's helpful.

When someone offers some thoughts about how I might communicate a Biblical truth more effectively, that's often helpful.

I Need Your Help

There are many more examples I could give. The bottom line is that I need the body of Christ to help me be a better pastor. I need you to pray for humility to receive instruction. I need you to pray that I would have wisdom in knowing what counsel to receive.

And, of course, I need your suggestions on how to communicate God's Word more effectively. So keep them coming!

By His Grace,


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