Reflecting on Preaching – Balancing the Ego-inflating & the Soul-Crushing Feedback – Post 2

Hope all my East Coast friends are hanging in there – grace and strength to you who are in difficult circumstances.

Intended Primary Audience – Fellow preachers who don’t preach weekly.

My previous post on preaching dealt with the praises and pitfalls associated with preaching, especially for those of us who don’t preach weekly. This post I want to tackle the other side.

First, the effort that it takes to be a “weekly preacher” is incredible and I tip my hat to those that preach those 40-50 times a year. The preparation involves so much more than simply digging through commentaries and outlining and scripting and delivering. And when you start factoring in that you do this year after year and do not want to sound like last year – there is more energy spent. Then there are the countless other duties that preaching pastors have, it’s an incredible responsibility – I don’t know you do it – may the Lord continue to bless and strengthen you and your congregation.

Preaching is a tricky thing – and it is actually difficult. Aside from perhaps a lecture at school (that you not only chose to attend, but pay to attend) or a work presentation (which you get actually get to attend), the weekly sermon is incomparable. We just don’t choose to sit in a room full of people listening to someone for 30-40 minutes uninterrupted week after week for free.

Then there’s you as the preacher who stands up in front of a large group of people and talk for 30-40 minutes without any commercials, without any laugh-track, without any explosions, without any celebrities endorsing you, without any of the gratuity our media has conditioned us to – you simply get up there and talk.

Everyone is fixated on you and the clothes you chose to wear, the hair or lack of hair you showed up with and your general physical features. People fixate on your voice, on how you annunciate, the way you move your hands and the font of your powerpoint presentation.

I know, because I don’t preach every week and have not only listened to hundreds if not a few thousand sermons but have talked about them with friends and family. “Oh, I couldn’t hear a word he said because of that tie” and “I’ll start listening when he starts wearing a tie” or I can’t past that nasally voice” or “I think his double-chin is covering up the lapel mic” or “I don’t know what it is but I just can’t listen to a woman preach.” I am prone to exaggeration but all of these are actual statements I’ve heard.

How do we deal with those critical moments or the “what does that mean?” moments. An example of the former would be after one of my first sermons, a gentlemen walked up to me and said, “That was a waste of a morning.” Walked out the door. I thought to myself, “Yeah, our worship leader did have an off-Sunday – that’s too bad really …” An example of the latter would be the email I once received that said: “Heard your sermon last week.” Then asked me a question that had nothing to do with the message. Was tempted to reply back with “Read your email today” and then press “Send” but I’ll get to why later.

I’ll admit – that first guy ruined my afternoon and then some. Though I heard many wonderful compliments, though I heard many constructive words that day, I do remember fixating on that guy’s condescension. It really was soul-crushing at such a vulnerable time. Later I would try to use it as motivation to not suck as bad the next time but felt I was falling into the trap of people-pleasing.

There are so many things that go into a sermon and there are so many things that affect the message but not actually a part of the message. Things like the context of the service, the technology like the microphones and sound quality. There’s a reason that pastors hate mics and that faithful sound technicians get frustrated with preachers. Then the sermon itself. Some times preachers try too hard in sounding intelligent that the sermon becomes too Biblically technical. Some times they try too hard to be relevant and interesting that comes off “too self-helpish” and not Biblically/theologically sound.

There are countless reasons why sermons don’t connect but here’s what I’ve learned over the years – the sermon you preached is not as great as the compliments you received, because part of the compliment is the individual saying they appreciate you personally. Even further, the sermon you preached is not as bad as the criticism you received because part of it is simply due to the fact that the listener does not connect with you for whatever reason. Or to put it another way – that person simply may not like you. The scary part for preachers is realizing that you are a major part of the sermon and it’s scary because so many of us are taught to separate ourselves from it as much as possible. We are told “It’s not about you.”

That’s helpful but it’s a bit incomplete. Chances are you could write a “Tim Keller (or insert your congregation’s favorite preacher here) caliber” sermon and some in your congregation will still be sleeping. Chances are, Tim Keller could guest preach with your worst sermon and people will walk out saying, “That’s the best sermon I’ve heard!!”

For years, people imitated Rob Bell’s sermons, some even gave him some credit, none were not contacted by Flannel to create more Nooma videos. Part of the “magic” of the sermons was Rob. And part of the best features of your sermons is you.

Here’s why I say all this. Part of processing the criticism/constructive words/encouragement is accepting yourself. It really is. After you get out of those early years of preaching and find yourself discovering your rhythm and the style that God has gifted you with a unique voice, style, and “calling.”

So as we discover this rhythm, here are a few suggestions for the non-regular preaching types to keep in mind while balancing the compliments and the criticism:

1. Listen to your sermons and critique them like you would someone else’s. I know, I know, it’s hard to hear your own recorded voice but that’s pretty much the point. Listening to your own sermons leaves you with a different understanding of what you think you actually said and sounded like – and that’s helpful, especially as you are learning our audience.

2. Listen to other people’s sermons – this is much more fun. So much to gain from the great preachers out there. While we can’t copy and paste their content, their personalities, or their contexts, there is a great deal to learn still.

3. When receiving the mean comments or awkward emails, always respond as Christ-like as possible to your criticism, even when it’s unfair or borderline ignorant (even Jesus had his critics right?). Realize some will try to hurt you because they are hurting. Some have lost touch with reality and don’t know how they sound (I know, we should record their words and play it back for them ;) For the constant critic who borders on abuse, create firm yet loving boundaries. In the past I’ve used a number of things including sarcasm and deflection. Example would be the one guy who would always complain about my time. He’d come up and simply say, “34 minutes.” I’d say, “Oh good, because it was so supposed to be 44. Thanks for letting me know. How was your week?” Honest, he couldn’t resist to tell me about all the awful things that happened to him that week. Remember, hurting people hurt others and the only sermon they might appreciate from you is when you tell them, “That does sound like a tough week. Hey remember, God is with us even in the midst of this …” It’s not trite when you gave it a 34 minute introduction.

4. Spend time with people in your congregation and with those you want to see in your congregation. The better you know your audience, the more appropriate your content.

5. And of course, we need to be growing in our spiritual formation. The more we pray, fast, study, meditate, and whatever practices we do to connect to our Lord, the more open we are to His leading, empowerment and preaching what He would have us to say and do.

Our lives are always preaching something – may they always be honoring to God and may they serve in building His Kingdom.

Thanks for reading, feel free to offer your thoughts and stories.

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