‘Name for me the one young, good Bible teacher that is known across Great Britain. You don’t have one – that is the problem. There are a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling the truth.’ So stated Mark Driscoll in an interview with the editor of this magazine a few years ago.
I preach from time to time but I’m fairly sure Driscoll has never heard me, so I didn’t take offence. But I winced for my friends who preach week in, week out. Is it that they are not great preachers; or that we don’t confer the same celebrity on pastors that US churches do? Or is something else going on here?
As a preacher, those who encourage me and discourage me most are those I preach to. If you want to become a great preacher, you will need to invest in your relationship with your congregation. The importance of this relationship should come as no surprise: think of 2 Timothy 4 and Paul’s instruction to preach ‘in season and out of season’. It is joined with his remark that some preachers preach what the itching ears of the congregation want to hear – a pattern of collusion in which the preacher is rewarded with approval when they preach what the congregation wants rather than what the Bible says.
Yes, it still works like that. I vividly remember, during my time as a curate, receiving approval and warmth when I preached a sermon on divorce that divorced members of the congregation thought more liberal than my boss’ position. It was very hard to say later over coffee that they had misunderstood me and to see that approval drain away like water in the sand.
WHETHER WE ARE IN PULPIT OR PEW, WE HAVE TO BE TEACHABLE
The temptation for a preacher to bask in the congregation’s approval is very real, and the temptation does not go away after one Sunday. Conversely, if you’re having a hard time with the congregation, of course you sometimes feel like pulling your punches. The relationship with the congregation makes or mars you, not necessarily as a celebrity preacher, but as a faithful one (the two are not always the same).
REDEEMED YET SINFUL
A local church is not a mausoleum for saints, it is a hospital for sinners. It’s where Christ’s people, still bearing the marks of sin-sickness even if forgiven for those sins, minister and are ministered to. That means preacher and congregation alike are redeemed yet sinful: the local Church is a meeting of those who aren’t perfect. This sounds obvious but it is fundamental. It means that as I preach, I am redeemed yet still sinful, and you, as you listen, are redeemed yet still sinful. Huge problems follow when the preacher forgets this about the congregation. Huge problems follow when the congregation forgets this about the preacher.
Let’s take the preacher first. When you’re in the pulpit or you’ve got the microphone, pride is on your shoulder. That pride takes different forms: the thrill of being six feet above contradiction (in an old-style pulpit) and at long last being able to lay down the law without interruption; the thrill of enlisting the congregation in mocking and demonising those outside the Church or those in a different fellowship; the joy of playing to the gallery and telling your congregation what they want to hear.
I must confess to all those temptations of pride and I think others would too, in moments of honesty. But this pride does not always take you to false teaching, although it can. Sometimes the thrill is the savage pride of knowing you are being completely orthodox and having licence to despise those who are not. The pulpit is a dangerous place for a human being to be.
I PRAY THAT AS I LISTEN, MY HEART IS WARM AND OPEN
Things change a little when you leave the pulpit or microphone: the temptation towards pride is still there. But for most of us, it is now tinged with anxiety. The anxiety comes in two forms: one form is despair at not doing justice to the passage you’ve been speaking on. As you’ve listened to yourself, the words which seemed so penetrating in the study seem insipid and sell short the truths that the passage teaches. I tend to bounce from the temptation of pride to the despondent feeling of inadequacy, thinking that I have let down both the God who spoke the word, and also the congregation to whom he spoke it. One of the most gifted preachers I know would spend Sunday evenings staring emptily at the wall in despair at his shortcomings. And that opens you up to the second anxiety: Did people like it? If I did sell the text short, maybe people did not spot it and it will be all right. And you crave reassurance; reassurance on almost any terms.
WORDS OVER THE HANDSHAKE
This has a very practical consequence. Many, many services end like this: sermon, quick prayer, final hymn, closing prayer and then if you’re the preacher you often stand by the door as people go out. And you stand in a very vulnerable emotional condition. A word can push you towards pride and complacency. Equally a word from a listener can push you to frustration and despair. The interaction at the door or over the coffee can puff up or pull down, give godly encouragement or ungodly discouragement – and that will affect how the preacher preaches next week. How could it not? I am amazed at some of the things that get said over the perfunctory handshake, and the short-sightedness that does not see that this could discourage and diminish a preaching ministry.
So what sort of post-sermon comment could actually be helpful or encouraging? Here are three examples:
‘Your explanation helped the text touch me because…’
‘Your explanation could have helped the text touch me more by….’
‘You changed my mind because…’
All of these go beyond the kindly meant, ‘Lovely sermon, vicar’ because they give specific feedback so I know what worked or didn’t. It is great to be kind, but better still to be kind and specific.
3 great preachers
Tim Keller – because he works so hard to understand my world on the Bible’s terms
Dick Lucas – because he stops me assuming I already know what a passage means
J John – because some of his big points are so well driven home that they turn the world upside down
A specific comment also encourages me because I realise that this person has at least not simply let the sermon wash over them. If I do get that feeling, it’s profoundly demotivating. For most of us, sermon preparation takes hours – it should. But if you feel people don’t listen to the fruit of your careful slogging away with the text, then of course you’ll be tempted to go for gimmicks and the funniest clips off the web. It’s less work. Entertaining is much easier than instructing. What’s more, the three sorts of comments outlined above don’t pander to my pride as a preacher because the reference point is the word of God – and whether a listener understood a particular part of the Bible or not. This takes me away from the wit of my illustrations and/or my intelligence as a communicator towards what I am meant to communicate. The spotlight is where it should be – on what God says, rather than on me as his suave and smart spokesman.
You’ll also see that the examples I’ve set out above don’t just say whether I understood the Bible’s text. We want God’s word to move us, touch us, shake us and change us. In that respect the last example is profoundly important: it shows that people change their minds in the light of God’s word – and that incentivises any preacher. Helping the preacher know when and how all this happens means that we don’t have collusion between preacher and congregation in which each tacitly silences the word of God, but rather cooperation in which each tries to ensure the word of God shapes and builds up God’s people.
LESS THAN HELPFUL FEEDBACK
On the other hand, can you see why the following kinds of comments demonstrate unhelpful types of listening?
The irrelevant comment: One congregation member asked me at the church door, post-sermon, whether I had been on the local steam railway. It was difficult to see how this related to Mark’s Gospel and left me wondering what the point was of preparing. It was not meant harshly – it just transmitted that he could not be bothered to listen. Other irrelevant comments can be more barbed. One parishioner asked me how I could possibly preach on the feeding of the 5,000 when I had refused to take her divorced daughter’s wedding (our church had a policy not to do weddings in those circumstances). It was enormously frustrating. It seemed that in this case, there was no humble listening to God’s word, merely the coming to church with her own, self-focused, agenda.
‘That’s just your opinion.’ Sometimes, of course, preachers do give their opinion. But one of the most common ways of dismissing what we hear in sermons is to claim that this was not the word of God, but simply the preacher ‘making the text say something’.
Don’t get me wrong – we do want congregations to listen with a rightly discerning spirit. So if you do feel that the preacher has just given their opinion dressed up as the word of God, then try saying something more like this: ‘I think you gave us what you think rather than what the passage said because…’ That means the preacher has to engage with what you say. And it lessens the risk that we’re covering up our disagreement with God by characterising it as a disagreement with the preacher.
‘I cannot believe you said something so insulting to me…’ Again, we can hide behind our outrage. In some ways English culture does not much like public quarrels. We find them embarrassing, especially at the church door. So it can be a powerful card to let yourself be outraged and leave the other person to apologise. My favourite here is the reaction to a talk I gave on the way everyone except Jesus sins, where one person said she was deeply insulted on her mother’s behalf because her mother was ‘faultless’. Was she really insulted? No. She was covering up for her own self-righteousness. The footballing equivalent for taking unnecessary offence like this is diving in the penalty area.
The comment that shows unteachability. I say this cautiously. Sometimes (most of the time, probably) when someone does not understand the message, it is because we as preachers have not been clear. Sometimes, though, it is just plain refusal. The clearest example I heard of this was a congregation member who heard the gospel of free forgiveness for Christ’s sake as a call to be good and earn his salvation.
This latter problem is one of the most disturbing. As a listener I find myself driven to pray that as I listen to a preacher, my heart is warm and open. Most of us, perhaps, find that a hard prayer, as it means asking ourselves whether we are unteachable. At the moment, I fear this is one of our biggest problems – we have explicit statements on the Bible as God’s word, we construct services and conferences around it and we support our preaching with all kinds of techno-wizardry. But whether we are in pulpit or pew, we also have to be teachable. And that leads to two practical questions: when last as a preacher, did my proclamation of God’s word actually change my own mind? And when last as a hearer did I so listen that God’s word preached changed my mind? My fear is that for too many of us, we can no longer remember the answer.
Rev Dr Tim Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York. His latest book is Preaching (Hodder & Stoughton). He shares his thoughts on sermon feedback.
Feedback is crucial. It may be true that it’s emotionally difficult to get feedback immediately afterwards. You’re emotionally spent and to have someone come along and be clinical about it and say ‘that was good, but not that part’, is actually quite deflating.
However, one of the things I did for many years, and still do often, is after a sermon and the final hymn, I come down to the front of church and say that anyone who wants to come and ask questions about the sermon or give me feedback can do it.
Anywhere from 50-150 people always stayed. I would take questions. That was actually wonderful because I could tell almost immediately how people were hearing me.
You also need to have some mature Christian people who systematically give you feedback about everything, including whether you talk too fast. I really think that’s extremely important. You never stop needing feedback.
REV MIKE OVEY is principal of Oak Hill College