Feedback and Criticism
For the past 35 years or so I have been involved in speaking, tentatively at first, but with increasing confidence since then. Over the years, I have received feedback of all sorts. Though I initially welcomed all comments, as I became older, I realized that all feedback need not be good or necessary. Some feedback was, in retrospect, completely unnecessary. I have also heard from other speakers about the different kinds of feedback that they received. As a result, I wondered what kinds of feedback did I want and what did I NOT want. Maybe if hearers understood what was a good feedback, then they could articulate their opinions accordingly.
I've divided criticism into constructive and destructive types. I, like most other speakers, welcome constructive criticism.
a. Hermeneutical/Exegetical Concerns
Every preacher/teacher of the Bible is obligated to study principles of Biblical interpretation and meticulously study the Bible in order to accurately understand it, before they can attempt to explain it. A preacher is expected to stay true to the truth of the Bible in spite of cultural opinions.
If one finds that a speaker is not following standard hermeneutical principles of Biblical interpretation, or had made gross exegetical errors (including exegetical fallacies) in understanding the Bible, then that would fall into this category. This includes any verse that is take out of context and a host of other ways that we can misinterpret the Bible. Unfortunately, many people think that since the Bible is easily readable, it is also easily completely understandable. It is, of course, easily superficially understandable and yet, one can spend a lifetime studying it (as many do) and still not scratch its surface.
For a sermon on (a few) hermeneutical principles: How to Catch a Pomfret
Klein, William W. Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017.
Duvall, J. Scott and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.
Carson, D. A. Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. Carlisle, U.K.; Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster; Baker Books, 1996.
b. Pastoral Issues
Sometimes preachers can be so focused on understanding the principles of biblical truth and interpreting the Biblical message, that they can forget that they are speaking God's truth to people that are sinful and hurting. We have been told to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Sometimes, in our attempt to speak truth, it is possible to sometimes forget to do it in love.
Several years ago, I was speaking at a church on the topic of peace. In my effort to show that we can have peace in spite of all the troubles around us, I unfortunately, proceeded to minimize the troubles around us. My listeners included people who were indeed going through those specific troubles. For them, the sermon was not very pastoral.
Obviously, this does not mean that the Bible will not make people uncomfortable. It certainly will, and should. People were "cut to the heart" when Peter preached (Acts 2:37).
c. Cultural Stumbling Block
The message of the Bible needs to be preached in the context of the hearers. Though the message does not change, the delivery of the message will change in the context in which it is preached. Many preachers distance themselves from their hearers by being insensitive to cultural nuances. Indeed, it is not possible for every preacher to make every listener completely comfortable from a cultural standpoint. This is where the hearer also needs to be accommodating to understand where the speaker is coming from.
However, if there is blatant disregard of a cultural issue that would cause the message not to be heard, then a reminder to the speaker will help to educate him/her. For example, a Western speaker is a little more casual about God than an Eastern person. So, if he jokes about God in an irreverent manner, it will be seen negatively by an Eastern listener.
Richards, E. Randolph and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012.
d. Unchristian Behavior
I once heard a preacher drop an F-bomb while he was narrating a story. What?! I guess if a hearer needs to give feedback about this to the speaker then we have a problem! Yet, if the hearer observes clear unchristian behavior through the sermon, then, feedback is warranted. I emphasize clear, because perceived wrong behavior may be simply preferences, as described below.
e. Stylistic Hindrances
When I was an up and coming speaker around three decades ago, a Christian brother pulled me to the side and said, "You say, 'okay' a lot". That's it. Just a quick glimpse into something that I didn't know. Gratefully, I accepted his observation and quickly corrected it.
This kind of feedback might be obsolete these days since almost every sermon is video recorded. The speaker gets to see and hear themselves and make corrections accordingly.
As much as we would like to believe that there is only good feedback, unfortunately, it is not true. People also tend to give bad feedback.
A joke that a speaker says may not be funny to you. Or, the numerous things that are said as illustrations - songs, stories, narrations, etc, may not be to your taste. Please don't waste your breath complaining about it. No one's preferences will ever be fully satisfied. Of course, if the illustrations are morally wrong, then feedback is necessary, as mentioned earlier.
b. Anything that is unsaid
This seems to be a favorite of listeners. Someone always wants to suggest that a speaker should have said this or that. The issue that this criticism does not consider is that in today's preaching there are many factors that go into a sermon.
Something may not be said in a sermon for at least three reasons. First, there is no time to say everything that we want to say. A considerable portion of my sermon preparation time is removing things that I would have said if there was endless time to say it. We cannot argue and counter-argue every point. Some things will be left unsaid. Second, what is said in a particular sermon is its own context. For example, if we are in a sermon series on Pride, and many things have already been said about the topic or will be said in the following week, then the speaker may decide NOT to say something about it this week. So when you evaluate the sermon by itself, it seems like an incomplete sermon. Thirdly, when a speaker is preparing the sermon, he/she prayerfully goes over the sermon numerous times asking God to help include everything that needs to be said at that time. And then, he/she adds to the sermon and deletes from the sermon as needed. Some things are said, some things are not said, and not everything can be said.
c. Things that offend Christians.
People get offended by all kinds of things. People today seem to be offended by more things than ever before. I wonder if this is related to an increasing self-centeredness - the consumer-is-king mentality. We think that things revolve around us and everything needs to be customized to our convenience.
Thus, many things in any conversation can cause anyone to be offended. One can be offended by the reference to God as Father because their father passed on at an early age. One may be offended by a sermon on relationships if their wife cheated on them. One may be offended by an illustration on food if they are battling obesity. You see, anyone can be offended about anything. But to make it a problem for everyone is slightly selfish. If someone is offended on a personal preference, then he should keep that criticism to himself. Just because I have an allergy to peanuts does not mean that I insist that the airline ban peanuts from its flights. Instead, it is my responsibility to carry epinephrine with me.
d. Things that offend Non-Christians
A sermon being offensive for being truthful is not a valid reason for feedback. Jesus offended many people because He spoke the truth (eg. John 6:60, 66). Biblical truth was counter-cultural during the time of Jesus and during the time of Paul. Truth is always counter-cultural and thus will always be offensive to non-Christians. However, if the truth is not spoken in love or could be said better, then feedback is invited. A preacher's first responsibility is to God and to interpret accurately the word of life. Everything else is secondary.
e. Out of Context
Taking a sentence or phrase out of context seems to be another favorite. Anyone can find anything and everything to be offensive when one starts taking things out of context.
I recently mentioned Mike Tyson in a sermon. The illustration was a hypothetical situation about Mike Tyson play-fighting with his 5-year old son. Soon after the sermon, a woman came up to me indignantly, "You used Mike Tyson as an illustration, do you know that he is guilty of domestic violence?"
I started to say, "It doesn't matter that he was guilty of domestic violence, it is not relevant to the illustration."
She heard, "it doesn't matter...", and was outraged. "How can you say it doesn't matter, I'm going to complain about you to the church!" (I don't know if she did).
If she had a minute to listen, this would have been my explanation:
"Just because I use a person as an illustration does not mean that I condone all his behavior. Mike Tyson was convicted of burglary as a teenager. Am I condoning burglary? He was convicted of raping a woman. Am I condoning rape? He is a spokesman for marijuana. Am I condoning the use of marijuana? In fact, Jesus used David as an illustration about eating consecrated food (Luke 6:2-4). Does that mean that Jesus agreed with David's previous actions of adultery, lying and murder?" She took an issue out of context.
Any destructive criticism that is received needs to be sent where it belongs - to the trash bin. If a person is getting ready to give feedback and does not know whether it is constructive or destructive, (this may come as a shock to some), don't give it. More harm is done by a destructive comment than good by a constructive comment. Speakers are human beings and have to navigate numerous tightropes in preparing a sermon and speaking in today's short-attention, easily-offended society. Teachers are disciplined by God more than other believers (James 4:1), and attacked more by Satan. There is no necessity for speakers to have to deal with unnecessary destructive criticism. Yet, since all preachers also are a work in progress, constructive criticism is certainly welcome.
Anush A. John