My colleague sighed across the table from me. She picked up a chip, dipped it in salsa, and said, “I spend hours poring over the text, coming up with illustrations, and trying to make it clear as well as interesting. But what I hear the most as people are walking out is, ‘Have a good morning.’” She took a bite and then said, “Is it too much to ask for someone to say something helpful?”
Like my colleague, most preachers welcome thoughtful engagement with their sermons. It’s how we improve—and most of us really do want to improve. We have no interest in boring our congregations or using illustrations that don’t connect. We really do want to know how our preaching is being received. But here’s another admission: preachers are like peaches. We bruise easily.
As Frederick Beuchner wrote, we put our hearts into our preaching, our excitement, and most of all, our own lives. It can be hard to receive critique on something that feels as if it is a very part of our being. The challenge is to find a common language between preacher and parishioner that allows for a positive exchange on a sensitive subject. But it can be done and must be done, because the goal of preaching is to glorify God and to edify the congregation.
Elders, particularly, are entrusted with the responsibility of assessing the preacher’s sermons. If your church doesn’t currently have a system in place to give helpful feedback to your preacher, it’s probably time to develop one. The random “Nice job this morning” is OK, but a scheduled system of engagement with the preaching ministry of the church is much better. It also helps people avoid the temptation of offering feedback in the handshake line after church. Most preachers are exhausted at this moment and are trying to remember the names of that new couple and their baby while also remembering that they have to catch the chair of the education committee before she leaves. Telling the pastor in that moment, “You didn’t really reach me today” is not helpful.
Conversations about preaching should not be limited to times when the sermon quality has slipped. Keep in mind that the goal of feedback is more like coaching and less like an intervention. So if you are frustrated with your preacher, if you are holding some grudge about her preaching, or if your congregation is facing some other significant issues, this is probably not the time to attempt a formal conversation about preaching. Pray first. Are your motives clear? Is your preacher ready? Perhaps a chat between the chair of the elders or worship committee and the preacher is a good first step. Then, if your preacher and the congregation are ready to engage wisely and well in some conversations about preaching, proceed.
Here are a few tools you can use for effective feedback.
The Sermon in a Sentence
If you had to state the sermon in one sentence, what would it be? If I can’t summarize my sermon in one simple sentence, the odds are pretty high that it isn’t going to be clear even if I keep talking for another 20 minutes. Putting the sermon into one sentence leads to clarity. When I am working on a sermon and get stuck, it’s a helpful way to loosen my mental gears.
Putting the sermon into one sentence can also reveal a preacher’s theology. Does that sentence include the word God (or any member of the Trinity), preferably as the first word? For example, “God invites us into an intimate, honest relationship with him in prayer,” or “Jesus advocates for the outcasts.” A good sermon tells us what God is doing in the world and invites us to be a part of it, as opposed to telling us what we need to do to get our lives together. (That’s the difference between preaching grace and preaching works.) Sometimes we need to be told to get our lives together, but such invitations ought to be framed as a response to God’s grace and not as a way of trying to get God to like us more.
Maybe your worship committee or consistory can choose a month and invite members of the congregation to craft a “sermon in a sentence” along with the pastor every Sunday for four weeks. On Tuesday mornings (please, not immediately after worship and not on the Monday after, which is a rest day for many pastors), members of the congregation can email their sentence to the preacher. Perhaps specific groups are invited to respond on a rotating basis: high school students, retirees, and children. When the entire congregation becomes trained in listening for clarity and theological accuracy in a sermon, conversations about preaching in your church will improve—and so will the preaching.
Ask the 7th-graders
We preachers fall into the trap of trying to impress people. We do. We want to be liked, we want people to think of us as smart and spiritual, and occasionally we write sermons that are more about demonstrating our ability than they are about serving our God and our parishioners. We’re sorry about that.
A great way to arrest that kind of sin is to have a sermon debrief with the 7th-graders. Middle school students are a great barometer of the language a preacher is using (“Too many big words”), the illustrations she chooses (“I don’t get golf”), or the way she attempts to unpack theology (“Does ‘atonement’ mean dying?”). If a preacher is connecting with the 7th-graders, it means her language, illustrations, and theology are probably also being well understood by the rest of the congregation. And if the 7th-graders are engaged in the sermon, their parents will be as well. Think of how many times the children’s message seems much clearer and more applicable than the sermon—even to those of us over 40!
This kind of engagement also demonstrates to the younger members of our church that their opinions matter. It shows them that church is for them, and that we value their participation and feedback. Getting 7th-graders excited about preaching, worship, and their local congregation is kingdom work.
Develop a Short Evaluation Form
Imagine what would happen if every year for a few weeks in the spring and a few weeks in the fall, your entire congregation were asked to complete a short evaluation form after every sermon (see sidebar for suggested questions). The form would be easily completed as an act of worship, collected by the ushers, and then used by the elders and the preacher to assess the preaching ministry of the church.
Calvin Seminary also has an excellent online sermon evaluation tool at www.tinyurl.com/cepsermoneval. Their form asks if a sermon was biblical, authentic, contextual, and life-changing—excellent categories that can help your preacher and your congregation develop your own form.
In addition to providing your preacher with accurate feedback, the regular use of an evaluation process can create an atmosphere of trust between congregation and preacher. The congregation gains the skills needed to listen well to sermons. The preacher learns how to listen to the congregation. And gradually, the sensitive topic of preaching becomes a regular, easy conversation.
Questions for Evaluating Sermons
Here are some questions you could use on a short evaluation form to be distributed to the congregation for several weeks a few times a year:
- What did I learn about the Bible from this sermon?
- What did this sermon teach me about God?
- What are we invited to do in response to this sermon?
- If I could put this sermon into one sentence, it would be . . .
About the Author
Mary Hulst is university pastor for Calvin University and teaches at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich.