By Peter Mead on Sep 12, 2014
Not all feedback is created equal. How you handle it can shape your preaching.
Feedback is not created equal. Wise preachers learn to tell the difference. I suspect more than a few ministries are launched and sustained on the empty energy of post-sermon politeness. On the other hand, genuine and helpful feedback can strengthen your ministry for years.
Typically my approach is to say thank you for any feedback, then prayerfully evaluate what I am supposed to make of it. Usually I find that meaningful feedback and compliments will come with a combination of factors: (A) Time—a week or a year later usually means more than five minutes later, (B) Thought—when people are really thinking about what was said, it will typically show, (C) Transformation—the best encouragements are not mere words, but supported by reality. If all three are missing, we may be dealing with empty feedback that has the nourishment value of a boiled sweet.
Here are ten reasons why I think it wise not to get too excited by feedback right after you preach.
1. The "competition" reality. Sometimes people will heap on the praise because they have no real point of comparison. Don’t assume they are thinking about your favourite preachers when someone tells you they haven’t heard any better. It may simply be that they have a very limited experience of other preachers (sadly true in some churches you might visit), or perhaps…
2. The "memory" reality. Perhaps positive feedback is skewed by a very limited memory. What they just heard is the only sermon in their short-term memory, and so it stands out. Don’t test a “best I’ve heard in months” comment with a “can you tell me the main idea and take-home gems from last week’s message?” Chances are, your message may be equally misty come next Sunday!
3. The "polite override" mechanism. Some people in churches have a politeness override mechanism that makes them say things to be polite that they don’t really mean. It happens at dinner tables when a dish has been obliterated, but to be polite, they will maintain it is “really good!” Call it dishonest, or call it polite, but remember it may happen after you preach.
4. The "church culture" mechanism. Different churches have different cultures. Some will automatically affirm and honor the preacher in a laudatory manner. Other churches will engage the preacher about life and family with barely a mention of the message. Try to discern a local church pattern before getting excited or devastated by what you hear.
5. The "surrogate leader" reality. Sometimes a person will gravitate toward a preacher because they yearn for the spiritual leadership and sensitivity they perceive in that preacher. Perhaps their own husband is very weak, or perhaps their Dad is absent ... it could be a middle-aged wife or a teenage boy, but sometimes the praise and feedback is more about what they don’t have in their life than about what you brought in your sermon.
6. The “single preacher” reality. I’ve been married for 15 years, so I feel out of touch on this one, but ... if people respond to perceived spirituality when they know you are married, and if there is a lack of spiritual, godly, single men in the church (which there is), then I suspect preaching as a single man will get some feedback from the odd one or two that is more fishing than genuine feedback. Just saying.
7. The "life appreciation" reality. This is more likely in your own church than in one you visit. It is where a church member really values who you are as a person—you love their family, show interest in their teenage son, buried their grandmother or whatever. They appreciate you. Your preaching may be dire, but they want to love you, and so they affirm your sermon because it's easier than explaining what your presence and love mean to them.
8. The "trigger words" mechanism. People like to hear what they value. Let’s say you preach a very poor message—biblically weak, unclear in organization, unengaging in presentation, irrelevant to those present—but you use an illustration that mentions someone’s pet issue, what will they say? “Preacher, that was a poor sermon, but I loved that your illustration mentioned my pet issue"? Typically not. Once those lights flash in their evaluation grid, you have become a hero! The feedback will be skewed.
9. The "Satanic test" reality. You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted statement from Spurgeon (I think), who was affirmed very favorably after preaching and responded with, “Madam, the enemy has already told me that!” Nice anecdote, but it could be true in our situation, too. The enemy is not a fan of being obvious because it doesn’t tend to work so well. We need to beware on a spiritual level what post-sermon feedback does to our hearts.
10. The "exit gauntlet" logistics issue. If you are at a church where the preacher stands at the back and shakes everyone’s hand, then you have a couple of issues to face—actually, three. One, most people will feel obligated to mutter some pleasantry to get past you. Two, some people who actually want to talk to you won’t be able to because others are lining up to leave. Three, because people don’t want to hold you up, they may feel obligated to step out into a rainy car park and thus end the time of valuable fellowship in the church. Standing at the door may not be the best idea!
And there are probably some more ... what would you add?
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