Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Bethel Protestant Reformed Church in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.
Sermons are criticized. A seminary student becomes painfully aware of that in the course called “Practice Preaching.” And if he should think that with graduation from the seminary and ordination into the ministry he has seen the last of sermon critics, he will soon enough learn otherwise.
That there is criticism of sermons arises, first of all, from the fact that God uses mere men. They are the weak and base things He is pleased to use to accomplish the “foolishness of preaching” (cf. I Cor. 1:18-31). They are also the “earthen vessels” in which God is pleased to place the “treasure” of the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 4:4-7). Whereas the treasure of the gospel is beyond reproach, the earthen vessels are but weak means and in themselves are very worthy of criticism. If such a vessel is the instrument to convey the gospel, then it is understandable that no preacher escapes his fair share of criticism.
Secondly, that there is criticism of sermons arises from the fact that the hearers are just as imperfect as the preachers. Being not yet perfect, they do not always view those that labor faithfully in the Word as worthy of double honor (I Tim. 5:17). Their sinfulness sometimes interferes with their esteeming the ministers of the Word highly in love for their work’s sake (I Thess. 5:13). In addition, the judgment of every sinner (even that of the most sanctified) is inclined toward negative and destructive criticism. And there are some Christian lay-people (like some ministers) who seem to be of a very critical bent. These seem to believe that they are God’s specially appointed agents to keep the minister humble.
The fact of criticism was also reality for the perfect Preacher, Jesus Christ. He was the object of some of the severest criticism. He was accused of being a blasphemer, a lawbreaker, an imposter, and someone who should be institutionalized. Also the apostle Paul received his share of criticism, of which he speaks in I Corinthians 4:9-13. “We are made a spectacle . . . we are fools for Christ’s sake . . . we are despised . . . are buffeted . . . being reviled, being persecuted . . . being defamed . . . the offscouring of all things.”
As far as the fact of criticism is concerned, we can conclude that until the Lord returns there is going to be sermon criticism. And in the nature of the case, some of it will be just and some unjust.
It is not my purpose in this article to detail the responsibility of the critics. Rather we will deal only with the way in which criticism is to be received and evaluated by the minister.
Some criticism never reaches the minister’s ears. It stays whispered behind cupped hands, is gossiped over telephone lines, or serves like gastric juices at Sunday dinner for the easier digestion of “roast preacher.”
Some sermon criticism does reach the minister’s ears. This comes from primarily three different sources. It comes from consistory members, who are responsible to God for supervising the preaching, and must evaluate the preaching in light of the needs of the congregation. Secondly, the (other members of the congregation bring criticism, either personally or via family visitation. And, finally; some criticism comes to the minister from his wife and children.
Two of the most popular criticisms of sermons are that they are too long or too doctrinal. But there are many others. Sermons may be declared to be too superficial, or not pertinent, missing the needs of the congregation. The preacher may be said to be guilty of not sticking closely to, the text, with the result that the main thrust of the text is not clearly brought home. Some sermons are said to be just “blah,” lacking is conviction or lacking the power of the Spirit. And, finally, there may be criticism of a preacher because he does not preach like another preacher.
Someone summarized sermon criticism thus: “If he preaches sound, doctrinal sermons, he ought to be more interested in the everyday problems of the people. If he focuses on practical life situations, it is because he does not know theology. If he makes a point of conveying basic spiritual truths that he may be all things to all people, he tends to be vague and too general. If he addresses specific sins within the congregation, he has quit preaching and begun meddling.”
If sermon criticism can be likened unto the throwing of lemons, then it must be said that the minister must not chew on the rind. To do so only makes him, rankled, then bitter and miserable. It does no good to the church of Christ as a whole, nor to the believers in the pew or in the pulpit, if the minister responds to criticism by becoming defensive or if he conveys in various ways the impression that he considers himself to be above criticism.
It is wrong, too, for ministers to hide behind the office they hold. Some clergy take the position that it is a sin to criticize the office and those in the office. It is better to maintain that the office is above criticism, but certainly not the person who occupies the office. The forty and two young people of Bethel who were mauled by two, angry she-bears were guilty of mocking the office of Elisha.
It is sad if the preacher takes all or most criticism as a personal affront, and makes the matter a confrontation. He must rise far above personal pride, and consider the needs of the precious Body of Christ to be far more important than himself.
Any defensive reaction to criticism is sinful on at least two counts. First, even the harshest critic must be given respect. And secondly, defensiveness closes the mind and soul of the minister to the realization that God has His purposes even in invalid criticism.
A. There is an umbrella under which the preacher must stand when he receives criticism. This umbrella is the proper view of his office and of himself in that office.
1. He must have the assurance that God has called him to the office and to this congregation. Criticism must not be allowed to cast doubt upon the call to the ministry. Such doubts often sap the minister’s ability to do his work. In such a case what is wrong is not the fact of criticism, but the manner in which the criticism is received.
2. The preacher must be somewhat conscious of his God-given gifts: his personal strengths and weaknesses. Each preacher and each congregation must realize that not all ministers are alike, Each man is different, with his own God-given abilities. The fact that I am not like or as good as another minister must not be allowed to shake my assurance of my call to the office. At the same time, confess the weakness and do not cease striving to overcome them. And never forget that also the strengths are characterized as being “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).
3. The preacher must know that he has applied himself to the task of sermon preparation and sermon delivery, to the best of his ability (within the context of his weaknesses). He knows the constant tendency toward complacency.
4. The minister must always be his own critic. He must ask himself whether the sermon was orthodox, clear, lively, etc. This he must do prayerfully, because we are the most honest when we stand before the Lord, our Master.
5. The preacher must realize that ultimately it is God who will be his final critic, and there is no escaping His judgment and criticism. But God is also merciful and ready to forgive. Then criticism will be viewed as a God-sent goad to prod the preacher of God’s Word unto faithful and diligent labor.
B. In all of his relationships with the elders and with, the members of the congregation the man of God must show himself open. This openness to receive criticism must be done with care because the authority of Christ’s preaching must not be compromised, and because the minister must be careful not to have “itching ears” according to which he allows the opinions of members to sway him from God’s Word. Nevertheless, the minister must have a certain openness. This begins by stating to the elders of the church that he is open to all constructive criticism. Let the elders know that they are competent to criticize because they know God’s Word and because they know the congregation. And then his demeanor must reflect that openness. When bringing to the elders the criticism of others, the minister must show that he wants to learn and grow in his preaching. This willingness to be criticized must be reflected in his demeanor. A good and proper attitude must be evident towards those who disagree with him in Bible studies. As someone said, the minister must remember that God gave him two ears and only one mouth.
C. With regard to those criticisms which are obviously invalid or are of the nature of personal charges, rather than criticism of the preaching.
1. It is the minister who is first responsible to keep the criticism from developing into an adversarial relationship. II Timothy 2:23, 24 is most appropriate in such a situation. “But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient.” He must not become party to unlearned questions and to unprofitable wranglings. Rather, he must be gentle, patiently working to solve the problem.
2. At such a time the minister must remember that he is a great sinner, and that the one who has criticized him does not really know the worst about him.
3. Also it is most helpful to remember that Christ, our Master, endured the contradiction of sinners, and that He did so for the sake of us, His servants. No servant is greater than his Lord.
4. Always forgive the improper critics. Some criticism has to be forgotten. Commit the matter quickly to God, asking Him to remove all resentment or counter-criticism. In such a situation it must be realized that God is the only One whom we ultimately have to please. Forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forth unto those things which are before, we must again press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
D. With regard to obscure or hesitantly given criticism. Some members of the congregation find it difficult to articulate their criticism. Many are nervous about approaching the minister and they find it hard to express themselves.
It is helpful gently to press the critic for specifics. Try to help the critic in formulating his own criticism, always trying to make the criticism constructive.
In some cases the criticism remains very vague. Try to understand the problem or question. Try to read between the lines. There are times that there is something else that lies behind that of which the critic is speaking.
Ask yourself whether the criticism has validity to any extent.
E. We would suggest that, when faced with severe criticism from members of the congregation or from one elder, the preacher should not hesitate to consult with an elder or with the whole consistory. Do so especially when you fear that the criticism is invalid. Not only do the elders have a more objective perspective, but also it must be remembered that their oversight is part of the responsibility Christ has given them. They are committed to caring for the flock of Christ, of which the pastor is a part. Often they can better formulate criticism or can encourage their pastor in light of the criticism.
F. The minister of the Word of God must realize that God has His reasons for decreeing in His all-comprehensive, wise, and good counsel that specific criticism arises at a particular time. In part, it is so that His servants never lose the perspective that they are only servants and that all the glory must and will be His. It is folly and shame for a man of God to ignore the purpose of his sovereign Lord.
The preaching man of God must take sermon criticism seriously. Prayerfully consider the criticism to the sermon to ascertain whether it is valid. If the criticism is valid and constructive, then be grateful for it and try to learn from it.
The true preacher/pastor puts the good of the church before his own comfort. He knows that he exists for the church’s sake, and not the church for his sake. Faithfulness to the Lord is what matters in the end. He must cry out to the Lord to encourage him with enduring consecration for the great work he has been so graciously given.
May the servants of the Lord magnify their office by their diligent labors, by their holy lives, by their powerful preaching, and by their consecration to the greatest work of all. And may the churches “esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (I Thess. 5:13).