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.

  • Mark V

    This is a well-balanced article and helpful for me as a preacher and a listener!

    John Calvin noted that one of the most essential characteristics of a pastor is “docilitas” or “teachability.” In my experience, problems with preaching stem from a lack of docilitas in the listener or the preacher.

  • http://www.cosmeticandobesitysurgeryhospitalindia. Arina George

    Quiet a new topic has been discussed.Good piece of information provided.Thanks for sharing it.

  • Neo

    This was really good, and from a lay perspective, I can only imagine the type of feedback that pastors could get from their sermons. While I don’t generally praise or rate the pastor’s sermon, I do try to make an effort to thank him for “bringing the Word today” and/or say that “I was blessed from the teaching of the Word”, because I do believe that it’s important to let the pastor know in some way that I believe he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing, and that he did it well. Ultimately peaching is not performance art, but it’s one man serving nourishing food (Heb. 5) and helping explain it to dummies like me (Acts 8:26ff)

    • John Carpenter

      Excellent comment. I bet you’re a blessing to your pastor and church.

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  • Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

    I once had a woman say to me that she wished that we printed a bulletin so that she could know when I was preaching and then stay home.

    That was the best sermon critic I ever had.

    • Hal

      Are you serious, Steve? There is no call, whatsoever, for a person to even allow a thought like that to dwell in her mind, much less express it.

      • Steve Martin

        Only if the preacher was not preaching Christ crucified for sinners.

        If I had preachers like I hear on the radio with their ‘self-help’, ‘how-to’ Christianity…I’d stay home.

        There’s no salvation in that stuff…only damnation.

        • Mel

          The Holy Spirit teaches and convicts every day. If a person goes through a whole day without learning a single thing about God and how their sinful life relates then they really need to be praying for a teachable heart.
          If the preacher is really off base, then why aren’t you praying for him? The biggest sin is pride. A person that sits and critiques a sermon is sitting with a massive amount of pride in their lap that is blinding.

          There is no doubt that every pastor should have a teachable heart so that he can listen for the helpful criticism. But I know recently I heard a wonderful sermon from a young man. I was excited that my daughter was visiting and could hear it too. I was convicted by it. I was sure she would find him engaging. Then when it was over she thought it was horrible. Horrible enough that she kept talking about it to people. It completely went over her head. She couldn’t recognize that she had idols in the way that he was referring. Perhaps she isn’t mature enough to understand yet. Maybe she isn’t even a believer yet and doesn’t realize it. Maybe she just didn’t recognize her own sin because she was too busy criticizing his sermon. It made me sad.

        • Hal

          If there’s no Gospel in the message, she should just find another church. There is absolutely no excuse for saying that out loud. There is nothing edifying about it at all.

          • Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

            Hey all, I never thought my comment would generate any response. I was trying to be humorous even though the story is completely true. Because several people seem interested maybe I should volunteer some context.

            The woman who said that to me was a very strange individual. She was elderly, had mild dementia, and possibly further imbalances. She was often kind but once in a blue moon would say something venomous to someone in the Church. She said to me exactly what I related above. I was shaken in the moment but obviously couldn’t hold it against her. I was young and still in seminary when it happened. I had had very little negative criticism on my preaching at that point. The experience of someone saying that to my face, whatever the reasons, was a formative experience in helping me become a less people-pleasing preacher. Thanks be to God!

            I don’t preach ‘self-help’ or ‘how-to’ Christianity, by the way.

  • EMSoliDeoGloria

    Really good post. I was very helped by some of these thoughts as a listener and wish I had done a better job at many of them in communications with my former pastor. I am a much better written communicator and he often better at face-to-face communication. I know many of my emails were not helpful for him, even when I wanted them to be, nor was my (often Monday) timing probably ideal. I don’t think I nitpicked small stuff but concerns raised about interpretation of Scripture can (and should) land particularly heavily on a pastor. I think my main regret is that I wasn’t as intentional as I should have been at encouraging him and expressing appreciation for the way his preaching and counsel made a difference in my life, especially early on in our relationship (I hope I improved in that over the years).

  • Dan McGhee

    Excellent article! Thank you!

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  • Neal G.

    There is so much more to following Jesus than preaching and listening to sermons. People who depend on their pastor to “feed them” dont understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. The American church is obsessed with the sunday service. Lets focus on making disciples of Jesus not hearing western styly monlogues that most people forget when they walk out the door.

    • Neil

      I agree, Neal. This presupposition that the sermon is the sacred cow of Sunday morning creates passivity. A monologue has no room for discussion among the body and there is proof that most people do forget the these monologues,so why do we have to preach them? Sunday service has turned into a production with regimented programs that do more harm to the body than good. We need to start being the church instead of “doing” church.

      • Mark V

        You guys are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Just because the Sunday morning service has been abused doesn’t mean we need to rethink our entire ecclesiology.

        I would actually argue that when piety is at its height the Sunday morning service is more anticipated than it is in today’s consumeristic church environment. This genuine discipleship happens when we make no separation between being the church and doing church. It comes from “being” and “doing” together.

        • Neil

          No, I believe we should seriously rethink ecclesiology. The modern church has become nothing more than a place where we feed the laity with sermons on how to be better Christians. All this does is create greater passivity among believers as they rely on the preacher’s sermon on Sunday to give them a fresh revelation every week. Discipleship is clearly lacking in this area because of the fact the sermon is a monologue. More often than not, those believers gifted with wisdom that becomes the harshest critics of the preacher. A good suggestion would be to allow for discussion on a sermon during and/or after if need be. Instead of the preacher preparing to make a point, he should prepare to teach the word of God for participation. This should involve clear scripture that focuses on the Gospel, which in turn allows for the participation of the body through the Holy Spirit. This does not have to be the sole responsibility of the pastor to provide the teaching as the Holy Spirit gifts the body with others who can teach the word of God. His (the pastor, not the “Pastor preacher”) sole responsibility is to protect the sheep and make sure that sound doctrine is the first priority. The teaching of God’s word must start in the home and the elders of the church need to make elders of the new believing men in the church so that they can be the spiritual leaders of their family. If the church begins in the home, the glory of God would shine in schools, the workplace and across a nation in desperate need of a Savior.

          • Hal

            Paul’s charge in 2 Tim 4:2 is “Preach the Word,” not “Discuss the Word.”

  • Paul

    Point blank: if people are not being transformed from darkness to light and coming to the knowledge of Jesus Christ and him crucified by the Holy Spirit, we will remain stuck. Every church needs to see the power of the gospel at work in the lives of non believers. NOTHING IS more transformative than that. Preaching will come from the living, active, word of Christ.

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  • Willow Weston

    Thank you for your insight into the often damaging world of preaching critics. I needed to hear what you had to say today!In my sensitivity to those who think their opinion always count, I needed to be reminded of the value of learning from our worst critics. It is the critics that can make or break a preacher. If one is emotionally and spiritually grounded and mature enough to be able to consider the source- the words will shape them into a better preacher. Otherwise, these same words can whisper to them to “give up.” Thank you for your words that tell me otherwise.