Preaching is a complex ministry. Consider the issue of listener satisfaction. If listeners aren’t satisfied, it could be a good sign, or it could be a bad sign. In the same way, happy listeners may mean something is wrong.
So what to do? How can we navigate the issue of listener satisfaction? What should it mean for our preaching? What should it mean for our hearts?
Here are 10 thoughts to ponder:
1. Recognize “over-blurt.”
Many folks in churches struggle to express negative thoughts effectively. Perhaps it is because they never do it (unlikely), or perhaps it is because they feel guilty doing it (at least to a preacher). Consequently many will hold back unsuccessfully and then over-blurt what they are trying to say. A gentle critique then comes across as a cataclysmic slap to the face of the preacher (hopefully metaphorically speaking).
Instead of saying “I struggle with his style of delivery” or “It is difficult to relate to sporting illustrations all the time,” they end up saying things like “He should never again speak to more than two people at once!” or “His message was filled with damnable heresy!” Oops. Over-blurt.
It is possible to get microphones that condense sound into a middle range, i.e., toning down the shout and strengthening the whisper. We need to learn this skill as preachers. Over-blurt attacks need to be toned down before they are processed. (But be careful your ego doesn’t remove or ignore any negative elements whatsoever!)
Remember that toning down excessive praise can also be very important, too. (“That was the best sermon I ever heard!!!” probably wasn’t.)
2. Recognize “misdirected fire.”
That is to say, tension fired your way will often have very little to do with you or your preaching. People will react to the innocent provocation of their pet peeves, or the poking of raw nerves of various kinds. They may also be having a bad week with issues at home, at work, in their personal lives, etc. You may become the focus of the critique, but don’t take all critique at face value. Sadly, being willing to be a leader in the church means choosing to be shot at, primarily by Christians.
3. Remember your Audience of One.
The fact that we answer to God in no way excuses bad preaching or remaining oblivious to helpful critique, but it may protect us from more sinister attacks. Remember that every sermon you ever preach could have been better, and that God is both understanding and forgiving of human weakness and frailty.
With that critical caveat in place, then we need to ask whether we could stand before God and give an account for the way we prepared, the way we processed earlier input/feedback, etc.? Did you walk through the preparation by faith and do your best as a steward of the ministry opportunity? His is the evaluation that we value the most. While we listen to those we serve, we mustn’t live in fear of displeasing unspiritual nitpickers in the pew. Even if they can drive you from “their” church, we must minister ultimately for the evaluation of our Audience of One.
4. Remember to prayerfully process.
Whether you receive praise or criticism, be sure to process it prayerfully. Our fleshly egos are very powerful perverters of personal processing. Our tendency to self-love and self-concern can elevate praise from others into worship of us, and at the same time turn gentle and helpful critique into a savage personal attack. I don’t trust me with me. You shouldn’t trust you with you.
Independent introspective processing is one of the most dangerous things a Christian can participate in, because it is so close to the fallen realm we were rescued from. So how should we process things? Prayerfully. That is, in conversation with the God who can faithfully and tenderly sift and sort through our motives and affections. Search me and try me, O God! He can be trusted and must always be the lead partner in such an exercise!
5. Remember that the “Happy Test” is flawed.
Happy listeners may make your Sunday afternoon easier, but it may not be the best indicator of church health. Our goal is not to make listeners happy with us. Our goal is to faithfully introduce the heart of God through careful, engaging and relevant presentation of the biblical text and its implication for their lives.
What if the text convicts, prods, pokes and makes them uncomfortable? What if encountering God shines a light in protected dark places and they don’t like what shows up? What if their dissatisfaction toward you and your preaching is a sign that the Word of God is getting through? (Please be careful here, your flesh will want this to be true in every case and it may not be!)
Churches often create an atmosphere where the preacher feels like they are supposed to be popular (this is true with potential pastor dating—“preaching with a view,” but it also continues since many churches tend to dismiss the unpopular pastors, too ... does this reflect the dating and divorce culture we now live in? Maybe just a bit?)
6. Know that “anonymous” feedback is often useless.
People in churches like to blast away from under the cover of anonymity. This may come from a feedback collection survey (these do have value, and I am not dismissing the possibility of doing these anonymously, but be prepared to filter overt attacks from under the cover this generates—perhaps have a couple of mature co-leaders filter out anything that smells of vendetta rather than constructive input?)
The more dangerous mortar attacks tend to come through, “I know someone who said…” or worse, “A lot of people are saying…” Again, there may be a place for this if a co-leader is guarding your heart by filtering slightly. However, as a general rule, anonymous critique should be resisted. People should be able to express critique and have follow-up conversation. If they are scared of you, then you shouldn’t be in ministry. If they are scared of being identified, maybe their critique is illegitimately motivated?
7. Know there is more than one way to serve!
I have written this series of thoughts from the perspective that you should be preaching. Maybe you shouldn’t. There is no shame in that. Perhaps the hassle of critique undermines too much and indicates a lack of gifting. We have made this option very difficult by uniting vocational ministry with Sunday preaching and salaries, resulting in people feeling like there is no way out, no way to stop preaching without resigning from church leadership. Recognizing the complexity of that, the truth still remains and there are other ministries to serve in apart from preaching. I have known some wonderful church leaders who had lifelong effective ministry but weren’t preachers.
If, in your honest moments, you recognize that repeated critique is lovingly offered and actually on target, then prayerfully consider swallowing your pride and serving in an area of strength. You will be a better steward of your life, God will be pleased and the church will be strengthened. Maybe cut and paste this point to start the conversation with a trusted friend in your church.
8. Know your own inner landscape.
We all have emotional baggage buried inside us. Criticism has a unique ability to slip through, stir up a deep wound and create inner turmoil. It is good to prayerfully ask God to help you evaluate and understand your own inner workings so that you don’t face a never ending attack from external and internal foes. What does criticism do inside you? Why?
9. Pursue helpful feedback and support.
We cannot have a growing and effective preaching ministry alone. We need to find those who will give honest, gracious, constructive input, and who will encourage us when we feel discouraged in our ministry. This may be a friend or two within the church. It may be a fellow leader from another church. It may also be (although not exclusively) a hero from the past—biblical heroes and church history heroes typically all endured incredible misunderstanding, devastating personal circumstances, a torrent of abuse and even martyrdom as they served God. Spending time with the Apostle Paul or Martin Luther or Jonathan Edwards or whomever will be a real help.
10. Whatever the justification for criticism, be sure it improves your preaching!
While it may not have been stated well, or perhaps it was more of an attack on you than a piece of constructive criticism, there may well be a kernel of truth in there that can help you! If you shrug off all criticism then your imperviousness will undermine your ability to minister with any sensitivity. A cast iron shell is not what you need for ministry. What you need is a tender heart, but with a life-giving God who can pick you up and keep you pressing on to growth and effectiveness. By all means think through how to protect yourself from an enemy that will work through people in your church to wipe you out, but know that God doesn’t typically call us to be the reverend Rambo.