I vividly remember going to a church conference in the 80s. I was excited, and jet-lagged. The communion sharing touched my heart and after the service I worked my way down from my seat in the “gods” to the front where I found the speaker. “Thanks very much for what you talked about”, I said, “It really helped me.” He replied, “Thank you. What was it that helped?” The jet-lag fog blanketed my brain and no words emerged. I stood in silence for a few seconds, and then mumbled something inoffensive. Exit stage left embarrassed and vowing never to speak to a preacher again.
The incident from ancient history came back to mind today while I was reading “The art of listening” in “Premier Christianity” magasine. The article by Mike Ovey covers how to get more out of sermons. There is much to say, but I’m going to focus on just one area – how to give feedback to the preacher.
Feedback is not only helpful, it’s essential. I have learned not to trust my judgment whether I think I preached a sermon of which the Apostle Paul might have been jealous, or whether I seemed to have been inhabited by the spirit of Judas. Some of my “best” sermons have pleased only myself and people who share my sense of humour, and some of my “worst” sermons have helped people the most (so they tell me).
What is the best way to give feedback? Here are my three suggestions.
1. Pause before pronouncing.
You might be excited, angry, indignant or ecstatic, but before you rush over and open your mouth, just take a moment to collect your emotions and your thoughts. Be clear on what you want to say. It’s impossible to take back words once they are out. As James wrote,
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19–20 NIV11)
2. Why before what.
Motives are more important than material. Why you want to give feedback matters more than what you have to say. Are you trying to be helpful, or are you trying to make yourself feel better? The advice to the Ephesians is relevant,
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29 NIV11)
3. Scripture before style.
Feedback on structure, style and delivery are all relevant and helpful. But the most important and useful feedback is that which focusses on the use of scripture. Therefore comments such as, “That point moved me because the way you explained the verse helped me to understand……”, or, “I’ve changed my mind about…..because of your teaching on this text….” are very helpful. A more sobering comment for the speaker might be, “If you had done…..the scripture would have touched me more.”, but it is not a negative comment, simply honest feedback.
In short, be kind and be specific. The former without the latter may be flattery. The latter without the former may be cruelty.
There is more to say, but that will do for today.
What are your thoughts? What makes for good feedback, and how do we accept it when we are the speaker? Let me know by leaving a comment below or emailing me on firstname.lastname@example.org.