Critiquing the Critics: How to Evaluate the Value of Sermon Feedback

“Hey Pastor, your sermon was great but…”

Preaching is a delicate art, a mix of godly inspiration and human perspiration.

Each time I preach my desire is to honor God and speak directly to the needs of my hearers while trying to keep them engaged long enough to absorb the message. A preacher’s nightmare is to be tuned out like Charlie Brown’s teacher (wawa wawa).

Feedback Frenzy

I have had all sorts of feedback to my sermons. Some are positive, such as “That sermon was exactly what I needed to hear,” or “God was really speaking directly to our family’s situation in your message today.” Some are strange, like the person who approached me in the foyer to say “Great sermon today Mike!” Unfortunately, I hadn’t been the preacher that day (of course I spare them the embarrassment and nod my appreciation). And some feedback is quite negative.

Over my preaching ministry what bothers me most is the “well-intentioned dragons” who make it their mission to critique every word, nuance, scriptural interpretation and illustration. And I’m sure we have all had this person in our lives.

And if you haven’t, take heart, they are likely to surface soon!

Just a few weeks ago I opened my computer on a Monday morning and read an email from someone new to our congregation. In the few weeks he has worshipped with us he has made it clear to me that he does not agree with the way we reach out to our community and allow people to “come as they are” to our church. So naturally, when I saw an email from him with the subject line Your sermon yesterday I braced myself and took a long draw of my bold blend coffee to take me to my happy place before reading.

It began, “I really enjoyed your sermon yesterday but…” In ministry, I’m not sure that any three letter word carries so much weight and has derailed more plans and dreams than BUT. I continued to read about how my intro was too long, how my main points needed to be stronger and bolstered by more scripture, and how the call to salvation at the end wasn’t convincing enough.

Truthfully I was sort of impressed. He had heard my message and evidently took detailed notes. Unfortunately, I’m not sure he listened. The man was thorough, but he had thoroughly missed the point.

Evaluating Feedback

Earlier in my pastoral life, this email would have plagued me for days, if not weeks. But now I move on quickly because I’ve learned to do the following with any criticism:

Consider the Source

Is this person reliable? What is their character like? Can they be trusted? Because this man is new to our church, and the only conversation I have had with him makes me suspect that he is more concerned with the appearance of people in the church building than he is with people being able to encounter Jesus in their brokenness, I am wary of the source. Perhaps with more time, he will become someone I readily invite feedback from, but right now I have my reservations.

Consider the Spirit

Does this person have a track record of loving me and loving others? Is their main concern to be a vital part of the Body of Christ, to build and encourage it? He was respectful in the tone of his email, no question. However, when the first email I get from someone is a few paragraphs of necessary areas of improvement (without knowing anything about me or the circumstances of the series and service goals), alarm bells start ringing for me.

Consider the Message

If we are honest, most criticism or feedback contains grains of truth. Perhaps even shovels full! On that particular Sunday, the sermon was more rushed than usual because we were celebrating communion. My call to salvation was not as pronounced because our lead pastor always addresses that during the Lord’s Supper. I simply wanted to set the table for the main focus of the day. And, with less time than normal, I did stick to the basics when it came to my main points. I could have elaborated, but I did my best to make them memorable. Upon reflection, I certainly could have shortened my intro and taken out one of my illustrations to get to the meat of the message sooner.

Consider Your Response

Too often when criticism surfaces we are tempted to get defensive, shut down, or even go on the offensive. However, when we take the time to consider the source, spirit, and message, our response can and should be more measured, wise and gracious. Remember, we are teaching not only when we are on the platform, we are teaching in every word and action. People are watching.

I prayed and after a few hours, I settled on my response. I simply responded to the email with a “Thank you.” In the future, I will have a better sense of this man’s intentions and character. In the meantime I will not shut him out nor will I feed into his need to go through each message with a fine-toothed comb.

May the Lord guide you to evaluate your critics in a healthy way.

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Written by Michael Voll

Michael Voll

Michael Voll is the author of Sideswiped: Three Keys to a Fresh Start After Suffering a Broken Heart. He serves as the Associate Pastor at North Pointe Community Church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He is on the regular preaching schedule at NP and is an adjunct faculty member at Vanguard College in the School of Pastoral Leadership. He writes at michaelvoll.com. You can follow him on Twitter @michaelvoll.