The primary biblical requirement for the selection of a pastor is his character (I Timothy 3:1-8; Titus 1:5-9). His preaching comes in as second. But in the modern-day selection of a pastor, his preaching comes first and his character second. Hence, it should not be surprising that the congregation criticizes his sermons more than they do his life. For the most part, preachers follow the same standard. They see their sermons as central to their work and therefore take their preaching very seriously. Then comes the inevitable criticism of the preacher’s sermon.
Not all of us respond well to the criticism of our sermons. It can be one of those gut-wrenching experiences—a “blow below the belt,” as they say. Criticism of our sermons can affect us personally and directly. It can also impact our families indirectly. A preacher pours his life into his sermon. When he hears it criticized and disregarded, it does affect him. Such criticism may lead to discouragement, intimidation in the pulpit, anger, and resentment toward those who dare criticize him, and if not careful, a reaction that may lead to dire consequences, such as the loss of joy in ministry for the entire family and even the loss of the job itself.
The best way not to let criticism of our sermons affect our families and us is to examine the whole issue as to why criticism takes place and why it affects us so. We must pause and consider a few things about the “criticism of our masterpieces.”
- Consider the profession. Criticism is not unique to preachers. Everyone in the public arena invites criticism, especially those involved in public speaking. Someone once said, “If you do not want to be criticized, then say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing.” Criticism comes with the profession to which God has called us. Political leaders have every facet of their lives open to scrutiny, and thus, criticism. They, along with their families, face some of the most vicious attacks (which, to be honest, I have never experienced as a preacher). That helps put things in perspective.
- Consider the preacher. Three types of people do not handle criticism well. They are actors, singers, and preachers. Somehow these “performers” think they have arrived and their performances are above criticism. Preachers are among the proudest performers and can view their sermons as a “special anointing” from the throne of God or “artistic masterpieces” delivered by a gifted orator. As a professor of preaching for several decades, I’ve seen this firsthand. Even seminary students who have never preached a sermon, pastored a church, or had a track record of good preaching felt like they had arrived. Our pride and ignorance can cause us to react poorly to criticism of our sermons.
- Consider the calling. Preachers have a unique calling, which by its very nature, invites criticism of all types. First, we are to preach the Word of God (2 Timothy 4:2), which is the inspired Word of God with its unique quality of teaching, reproving, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). The Word is also the living instrument that exposes the hearts and intentions of the mind (Hebrews 4:12-13). Sinners do not respond well to the revealed and preached Word of God. How we are to preach the Word is to be done “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2), and the preacher is called to “reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). Scripture even warns us about the rejection of the truth by our audience (2 Tim. 4:3). We are called to “rub the cat the wrong way.” How can there not be a reaction, a criticism of the sermon? People will even criticize the best and most truthful sermon. Criticism comes with the calling. Get used to it.
- Consider the criticism itself. Not all criticism is the same. Some proceeds from an evil and sinister heart reacting against the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Others come from a heart bent on malice to offend and hurt the speaker. Others proceed from a good and kind heart, which desires to help the speaker become an even better preacher. Such was the attitude of Aquila and Priscilla when they took Apollos aside and corrected his preaching (cp. Acts 18:21-28). Imagine two laymen taking a gifted orator and criticizing his preaching! But take special note of the “eloquent” man’s response. There is a grain of truth in all criticism. We must consider the criticism to see if there is a measure of truth in it before we react. A preacher once showed me a letter sent to him criticizing his sermons. The letter was unsigned but written in poem form. It was a couple of pages long, and criticized the sermon as being too deep, too difficult to understand, and much too long. The preacher was furious at this criticism. I reminded him that no one would bother to write such a wonderful poem addressing his faults in such exalted terms unless such a person really cared for his preacher. On another occasion, a group of single members of the church sat in my office to criticize my preaching. I was slightly offended until I heard them out and realized my deficiency. They were there to express that I directed my preaching almost entirely to married people and that I had not included them in the purpose of my sermon. That was an eye-opening event since over 50% of the congregation is composed of single people (never married, widowed, or divorced).
- Consider the source of the criticism. It helps some to consider who the person is that is criticizing the sermon. Some criticism is slander, which falls under the category of sin when done by church members. It also calls to be treated by church discipline (cp. Matthew 18:15-20; I Corinthians 5:1-13; I Timothy 5:19-20). Criticism by unbelievers is another story because they have different criteria. Pastors should receive criticism from our loyal members and friends with great care and attention. These people know and love us and care enough to risk their relationship to help us in our calling as preachers. It pays to listen to them and consider what they say. Another group calls for particular attention–those who feel unloved or have been wounded by something that was said from the pulpit or in person. It is easy for us to hurt people in our preaching, especially if we are extemporaneous preachers. We can say things we do not wish to say or say them in an offensive way. Then there are those who do not feel loved by the preacher. If we do not deliver our preaching with love or in a loving manner, we become a clanging cymbal (cp. I Corinthians 13:1-3). I have learned over the years that if you truly love your people and they know it, you cannot preach a bad sermon. They will say, “He is having a bad day today; he will be better next week.” Just as a loving mother cannot cook a bad meal, a loving preacher cannot preach a bad sermon.
- Consider the benefits. If no one ever criticizes us, we will never improve. I read somewhere that Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, used his sermons’ weekly criticism to strengthen his grammar and style, thus becoming one of the greatest preachers in the English language. Some preachers form a group of people to comment on the weekly sermon to help them preach better and meet the congregation’s needs. Other preachers record their sermons to examine them for improvement. Criticism in the early years of our ministry can go a long way to help us improve our preaching in all its facets. It can help us improve in our delivery, in the treatment of the text, in the treatment of the whole counsel of God and not just our pet themes, and even in our application of the truth. Paul encouraged Timothy and Titus not to let others discourage them in their ministry, especially in teaching and preaching the Word of God (cp. I Tim. 4:11-12; Titus 2:15). Use criticism to grow in your preaching. Turn the negative into a positive.
I will conclude by giving some helpful hints in responding to criticism of your sermons to help you deal with criticism in a good way and not let it discourage our families or us.
- Keep an open door. Keep the door to your office (and to your heart) open to those who want to come by and give you some suggestions. It keeps you in touch with your people but also lets you know where you may need improvement. Learn to respond, not to react, to criticism. If they are wrong, at least they know you heard them out.
- Be wise. Never read unsigned mail, notes, or e-mail. Sincere and loving people will always sign their correspondence and welcome a response. I have made it known to our people that I never read unsigned mail to avoid needless hurt for myself and my family. Also, since preaching is such an emotional event, avoid criticism or discussing problems before you preach. Advise the ushers not to bring notes about issues before you preach or even as you preach. The declaration of the Word of God is the most important event. Everything else can wait.
- Be humble. Unless you preach weekly to hundreds or thousands, and unless your sermons are in high demand across the country, you have yet to arrive. Hence, take Romans 12:3 to heart. Great preachers do not need criticism; poor preachers deserve and need criticism.
- Be honest. It is not easy to admit to our faults in preaching. No one enjoys criticism. We need to have a realistic view of ourselves. If we are not good preachers, we must admit it and begin working on it. If our lives do not meet the standards prescribed in scripture, we need to make corrections and adjustments. Our people will be gracious to us if we are honest.
- Hone your preaching style. There are very few born orators. We become preachers of the Word, and we do so through the weekly preaching in our pulpits. It takes a while, up to six years for some, to hone their preaching style. We all have a style that is part of our personality and character. We cannot change it much, and we dare not become someone in the pulpit we are not in reality. Preaching is an event, and it must be an enjoyable event for both the preacher and the people. You will be compared to other preachers, but do not dismay. Thank God for them but realize that you are distinct in style and personality. Remember that a small church provides us with a people to whom we can practice our preaching; thus, the small church is responsible for producing a great preacher.
- Include your family. Listen carefully to the comments of your wife and children to your preaching. After all, they are your most loyal listeners. If the sermons help your family, they will help others. Elicit comments and respond positively. I have made it my purpose in preaching to be clear and helpful. Nothing else matters. My goal is to help all who hear me. If I help them, then I have succeeded in my calling. This includes my family. I prepare a sermon to help my wife and children. They never know what I am preaching on until they hear it for the first time on Sunday. Even the jokes I tell, they are hearing for the first time. I want them to experience the event like the rest of the congregation. On the way home from church, I will usually ask my wife one question, “How was the sermon today?” I want an honest answer. That prepares me for the next sermon.
Martin Luther once said, “Trials make a preacher.” Indeed, and one of those trials is the criticism of our sermons. May they make us better preachers for the glory of God and the good of His people.