I don’t know about you, but I was not looking forward to preaching lab in seminary days. I was not thrilled about preaching to my peers, looking into the eyes of fellow students, a sermon critique form on their desktop. Some were sizing me up, some seemed disinterested, one blew the dust off his just sharpened pencil—the pencil he would use to critique my sermon. I had to preach to that. Still struggling with security issues, I was nervous. I was as consumed with how they might critique my sermon as I was with preaching the sermon. Sitting at the back of the room, the professor pointed his finger at me—the cue to preach my sermon. Believe it or not, I still remember my text. It was from Philippians 4 and the main idea was “we can find contentment in Christ.”
So I preached the sermon and received my first ever formal feedback. I’d preached many times before that day, but I never received any feedback beyond, “Good sermon, preacher.” “I enjoyed that, preacher.” “God’s got big plans for you, preacher.” Nobody I preached to had a critique form in front of them. None of them were listening to find fault or to make me better. They were praying for a word from the Lord through a young preacher like me. But my classmates and professor had to critique me: What did I do well? Where do I need work? How did I explain, illustrate, and apply the text? What annoying mannerisms did I employ in the delivery that were distracting to listeners? Want to know the harshest critique I received? “He was too polished.” I needed to unpack that criticism, but I felt like I survived with barely a mark on me. That was some 40 years ago, and I’ve received little formal feedback since then.
In the church I served in seminary, I was the Associate Pastor but did most of the preaching during an interim period. One member, a friend and the father of a couple of kids in my youth group, offered me helpful critiques, asking me one time, “Do you know how many times you use the words uh and you know when you preach?” I didn’t. He told me. He helped me. Made me a better preacher.
During doctoral studies, my peer group spent one session critiquing a VHS copy of a sermon I had preached in the church I served. We each had to take our turn. That was helpful too.
But since then, formal feedback has been hard to come by. I try to get it in staff meeting, but it’s not much different than what I get post-service on Sunday mornings. I get it. It’s not easy to evaluate your boss. For one season, I invited people to join me in a group on Sunday night to dialogue about the morning sermon. Few came. Didn’t last long. And I’ve done a church-wide written sermon evaluation form for any who wanted to participate. That was interesting but not very helpful either with this exception: one person told me that I looked to my left way more than I looked to my right as I preached. I took note of that helpful critique.
So where can we go to get good feedback? Let me suggest some things. I have not tried everything I suggest, but I’m thinking about it.
- Don’t completely discount immediate feedback in the lobby of the church after the service. If you know your people, you know which feedback is legit and which is perfunctory. Take special note of those who rarely give feedback. If they were moved enough to speak to you, you need to listen. I still remember my all-time favorite post-service feedback. It came from a man who had never given me feedback before. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I’ve never had my butt so thoroughly chewed and enjoyed it so much.” That told me I struck a good balance between grace and truth on that day.
- If your church has the capability to record or video your sermon, watch/listen to it once or twice a month. It strikes me a bit self-indulgent to do that every week. But now and then could be helpful. What do you like? What annoyed you? Did you get to the gospel? Did you transition well? How was your vocal cadence and dynamics? What could you have done better?
- We don’t utilize a teaching team in our church, but if yours does, that’s a ready-made feedback group who can give feedback both before and after the sermon is preached. This seems to me to be most helpful.
- I’ve heard some preachers suggest using your spouse for feedback. Wives (or husbands as the case may be) can be good. I have a cartoon of a pastor and his wife in their car on their way home from church. The pastor says to his wife, “You know, that sermon would have had a lot more impact if you hadn’t yelled ‘Ha!’ right in the middle of my second point.” Some spouses feel equipped to give you solid content feedback. But all spouses can provide feedback on your energy and passion level in your preaching. They probably have a deeper sense than the average church member about how present you were in the preaching moment.
- Another possible feedback source is to enlist a “preaching coach”—a seasoned preacher you respect and believe you can learn from who will give you periodic feedback on your preaching. There are surely some out there who have the time to do this.
- And still one more avenue of feedback is this: the health of the church you serve. Not every church has the capacity to grow much numerically, but churches grow in any number of ways: mission engagement, biblical literacy, generosity of individuals and the church body, evangelism, unity and fellowship, etc. If your church is healthy and showing signs of growth in some of these areas, that may be the best feedback on your preaching you need. You are feeding the flock. They are getting it. They are growing deeper in discipleship.
So feedback is important and can make better preachers of us all. Still, I do want to give just a little push back against getting too caught up in seeking feedback.
First, there’s something sacred about the preaching moment. It can’t be replicated in a video. Being in the room in the moment can have a mystical component not caught on a replay. In other words, a sermon can be much better in the moment than it appears when reviewed outside of the worship hour.
Second, God’s Spirit can use God’s word through God’s servant for God’s people in ways that cannot be analytically reviewed. Haven’t you had the experience of stepping down from the pulpit feeling like you laid an egg only to have several people tell you how much God used that sermon to speak to them in deep places in their hearts? And by the same token, haven’t you stepped down from the pulpit waiting for people to dump a bucket of Gatorade over your shoulders in celebration of a home run sermon only to discover in the heart of the church it was a weak grounder to the pitcher. The Holy Spirit is the wild card here. He can use us at our best. He can use us at our worst. Which is the fly in the ointment of feedback. Too much fascination with feedback can get us too self-focused or too self-conscious or too concerned about how we are preaching to the point that we make it about us instead of Jesus, that we make it more about our affirmation than God’s declaration, that we make it more a job to accomplish than an act of worship. May John the Baptist’s words be ours, “He must increase; I must decrease.” The Holy Spirit’s role in the preaching moment can’t be evaluated by strictly human means, if at all.
And then, third, when it comes to getting “professional” feedback, every preacher has his/her own style. Most preachers I know tend to think that their style is the “best” and the “right” style. That means their feedback will be tempered by trying to fit you into their mold. While the person giving feedback can be helpful on how you handled a text or the clarity of your main idea or delivery critiques, they may not be so helpful on “style” issues: exposition, narrative, point-driven outline, train of thought, manuscript, notes, no notes, etc.
Here’s the bottom line: get helpful feedback where you can as you can, learn from it, improve from it, but don’t become a feedback junkie. As John Denver sang, “Some days are diamonds, some days are dust.” As Tony Horton says about exercise, “Do your best and forget the rest.” Pray hard. Work hard. Trust the Spirit. And let it go, holding on to God’s promise that his word (no matter how well or poorly we preach it) doesn’t come back empty.
What do you think? And what is your best feedback story?