Recently, I preached the same sermon at two consecutive services. In between the first and second services I took some heat from an older man who suggested that “if anyone came into the service confused, I left them more confused.” I tried to offer a gentle response, hoping to clarify what may have been a misapprehension of my intent, but he wasn’t interested in a conversation. He just wanted to drop his bomb. In fact, he proved the point that I was trying to make with the sermon about the way we perpetuate the forms of spiritual life without attending to the fruit of the Spirit. For all his concern, there wasn’t much evidence of love, joy, patience… in his response to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been hit with criticism for my preaching so directly. It just hasn’t happened to me all that often and so I don’t mind admitting that the criticism stung. Given that there was quite a bit of time between services I went for a walk in order to pray and to sort out my response. First, of course, one needs to deal with the emotional sting. Most of us like to be appreciated and it doesn’t feel good to know that we are not. Of course, I was able to balance this with the fact that multiple people had come to me offering profuse thanks for the same sermon. I remember, however, something I read in a book on Christian parenting about how every negative comment needs to be balanced by at least ten positive ones. Secondly, I needed to rehearse the sermon to see if there was any truth in the criticism. Just because the critic was angry doesn’t mean that he was wrong. In this case, however, as I went through what I had said, I concluded that I was correct in what I had said. My comments, while difficult, were warranted by the text of Scripture. The third and in this case most telling aspect was an examination of the degree to which the problem could have been avoided if I had done a better job of preaching. Here, I sensed was where I had stumbled. It’s not that the sermon was poor. It’s just that I could have done a better job of helping my critic deal with what I was saying. Not that I want to soft-peddle the struggle. Preaching the Bible leads us to say some uncomfortable things and I’m not afraid of laying it out there. At the same time, I don’t want to be unnecessarily confrontational. Where there is potential for challenge, my goal as a preacher is not just to create problems for people, but having raised the problems, find ways to help people past them. The truth is, I could have been more sensitive to the potential for difficulty and I could have done more to actually help the listener hear what God was saying. In fact, in the second service, that is exactly what I did. As a preacher, I want to own responsibility for the listener’s response. This is not to say that I can control their responses. I can’t. It is also not to say that I am accountable for their response. I’m not. Nevertheless, the more I take it upon myself to help the listener respond well to what they hear, the better my preaching is going to be and the stronger the response will be from listeners. It’s not easy, but it’s part of our job as preachers.
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