Listen To Article
My first-ever sermon feedback came from my wife on a Saturday afternoon in Iowa City, Iowa. She was sitting in the living room of our basement-level apartment, and I was standing near her, not ten feet away, proclaiming what would be my first sermon in front of a live audience – not made up of seminary students.
She gave me encouraging looks, but must have been thinking, “I hope this does not become a weekly ritual in our marriage.” (It didn’t.)
I received more direct feedback that year from the elder who was assigned to be my supervisor. He and I met in his office at the university on Monday mornings, and (I must say) he could be very blunt. He seemed to believe that I could improve, even when there was little supporting evidence.
After that first year as a student pastor, my sermon feedback became more haphazard. It usually consisted of comments at the door after worship as I was shaking hands. Those comments at the door, within minutes of giving my best effort, could sometimes be hard to hear. The most embarrassing one came when someone let me know that I had mispronounced the name of the lead singer for U2. (I have avoided most popular culture references ever since.)
Mostly I would stand at the door after worship and listen and smile. I was always determined to become a better preacher, whatever improvement in my case might mean. A better delivery? Yup. More substantive exegesis. Wouldn’t hurt. More colorful stories or illustrations? I worked at all of it. I have never worked as hard on anything in my life.
Early on, the really biting sermon criticism would arrive in the form of a handwritten note. (A typewritten letter would usually mean something even more serious.) What happened was that church members would hear something in my sermon they didn’t like, brood about it on Sunday afternoon, and then drop a note or letter in the mail on Monday. Those comments never reached me until Tuesday, at the earliest, and by then I was usually able to read without too much defensiveness. Okay, some defensiveness.
Email was not a welcome invention for me – nor, I imagine, for other preachers. Instead of going home and thinking about the comment or criticism or complaint, the church member could go home, sit down at the desktop, and let it rip. Sunday afternoons were never quite the same after email. Eventually I learned not to look at my email inbox until after I had finished the Sunday crossword puzzle.
Texting turned out to be even more of a blessing. I served several churches where the offering was received after the sermon, and those three to four minutes while the ushers moved around the sanctuary with their offering baskets turned out to be a perfect time to take out the phone and dash off a text message which would be waiting for me in my office after the service.
Fact checking worked in pretty much the same way. At the door, while shaking hands, I discovered more than once that someone had gone to Wikipedia to double check a date or some other fact I had mentioned. “I think that book you mentioned was published in 2005, not 2004, as you said in your sermon. Thought you would like to know,” said the church member who was holding the phone in front of me, with quite a satisfied look on his face.
After that one, I learned to be really good about getting all of my facts straight.
In the last church I served, in Zürich, Switzerland, a Dutch couple came to see me in my office one day. They wanted to talk about my preaching. I suppose I should have been flattered to think that at my age they thought I was still capable of improvement. When they were finished, I promised to think carefully about what they had said.
Before they left, they gave me a book as a gift. It was a book about preaching by Timothy Keller. With something like preaching, I told then, there is always more to learn, and then I thanked them for their thoughtfulness.
I still get comments about my preaching. Most of those comments are kind and thoughtful and generous. But I still occasionally get the other kind too. Not everyone has liked my preaching over the years, but through all the incorrect dates, embarrassing mispronunciations, and stories that didn’t quite connect, I hope a few people have heard the good news, the gospel, which is what made me want to get up and preach in the first place.