Thursday, 13 May 2010

Please Criticise My Preaching

This is prompted by an anonymous comment as part of a discussion of my recent post praising Karl Martin's sermon at this year's Baptist Assembly.   I was just going to reply with a comment of my own but I think the observations raise some important issues, so a slightly lengthier reflection might well be in order.

The substance of the comment was that we ought not to criticise other preachers' sermons in a public arena such as the internet.  In disagreeing with this point of view I want to distinguish between two things: critiquing the content of preaching and making personal attacks on the preacher.  I want positively to encourage the former and resolutely to resist the latter.  Too often Christians confuse these things and too often we respond to points of view that we don't like by sliding into criticisms of the people who espouse them.  There are two unfortunate consequences: people get hurt and our ideas remain undeveloped.  It seems to me that if we learn to focus on the content of preaching and if we remember to act with appropriate respect towards the person doing the preaching, then criticism can only do us good.  This is why, in one of my own seminars at the assembly, I made a deliberate point of questioning some of the things I had heard from the main stage.  I wasn't out to attack the speakers but I did want to encourage careful consideration of some of their proposals.  I think our preaching suffers when it cloaks itself in a sacred, defensive force-field.  It becomes flip, cliched, patronising and all too often way off the mark.  The to and fro of friendly but committed conversation is, on the other hand, a good way to generate insight, refine ideas, develop communication skills and keep it real.  Conversation on a blog is one way of having such a discussion.

It is worth bearing in mind though the nature of blog discussions.  It seems to me they fall somewhere in between careful public statement and off the cuff response, but they definitely tend much more toward the latter.  This has two implications.  First, those of us who take part in such conversations should remember that our comments will be overheard by a wider audience than those who join in and so the potential to hurt other people is far greater than we may realise.  I have been guilty of this myself.  It's always worth a final read through before hitting the submit button.  Second, we should also try and cut each other a bit of slack.  What we are engaged in (I hope) is trying out ideas so as to refine them.  The things we express will be provisional, notions under development, not final conclusions or settled opinions.  Also, we will rarely express ourselves with precision.  Even when we take care we will, from time to time, use turns of phrase that might offend.  It's going to happen so let's be gracious when others get it wrong and let's learn to apologise when we ourselves screw up.  Sometimes taking offence too easily can cause as many problems as giving offence.

So please, please feel free to criticise my preaching.  We preachers get to shoot our mouths off in public far more than is good for us; it can't hurt to have what we say exposed to friendly scrutiny.  So if you try not to be unkind I'll try not to get upset and together we might just learn a teeny bit more than we would if I did all the talking.  What do you think?


simon said...

This is a great idea. And I'd love to criticise your preaching but I never hear it!!
I think the broader point you make is worth talking about, however. We still have a tendency to treat sermons as above criticism because they are 'the word of God'.
I like Cromwell's approach to this: he told the mainly general baptist chaplains who served his new model army that they could preach for as long as they liked with the proviso that they subjected themselves to questioning for the same length of time immediately afterwards.
I wonder how that would affect the way we prepare and preach!

Glen Marshall said...

Sounds good to me. So much so that I am trying it out whenever I get the chance. I am getting to enjoy the Q&R more than the actual preach.

I think one of the problems with our attitude is the dominance of a proclamation model unduly influenced by an OT notion of the prophetic where it was the prophet's responsibility to get it right rather than an NT notion where it is the job of the congregation to see if the prophets got it right.

Some times you'd think Pentecost never happened.

andy amoss said...

Surely part of the point of preaching, whether it follows a proclamation model or otherwise, is to 'get it out there'. Once that happens it's in the public domain, it's been handed over or gifted, and that's where it either lives or dies.

Once things get to this stage the preacher can have no expectation of control, their job is done. The proviso is obviously, as you point out, that people batting responses back and forth make the distinction between the message and the person in a healthy way.

Glen Marshall said...

Yup. Not sure the preacher's job is necessarily done once she's got it out there. I like to think of a sermon as a way of initiating a conversation (rather than seeing it as the final word) but hopefully the preacher gets to join in that conversation bringing her own particular expertise to the table. But giving up what she's said, ceasing to control the meaning, absolutely.

andy amoss said...

Of course speakers should have the freedom to participate in further conversation, but what of the specific instance that sparked this post? Should the comments only have been made after the speaker was invited to read your post?

People take sermons away with them and discuss them in the car, or over lunch. The speaker can't be in all the spaces where this takes place. For me the submission to that is a big part of what it is to preach.

Glen Marshall said...

No, I think you are right, though it might have been a nice touch if I'd notified him to let him know I was blogging on his sermon, nice but not always realistic and no, not strictly necessary.

I like the idea of emphasising the discipline of submission to critique as an essential part of responding to a call to preach.

simon said...

Glen, I think your comment that the preacher's job is not done when the sermon is delivered is spot on. It seems to me that one of the things Cromwell had (unwittingly?) latched on to is that people often need to respond immediately, asking questions, seeking clarification, pressing the preacher to explain obscure points, even justify his/her interpretaion or application of the text.
I think one of the problems with big set-piece occasions is that there is no chance for the listeners to respond - other than by praying - and I wonder how much of the message gets lost once people leave the auditorium because they haven't been able to clarify things or argue back.
I am producing a sermon feedback form for some in my church who've asked for it in the hope that we can enter into dialogue over what I said.

Anonymous said...

I have just read "Listen Up! A practical guide to listening to sermons by Christopher Ash ISBN 978-1906334673
I found that it put much more of a responsibility on the listener. This is quite a challenge. He even gives clues on how to listen to a bad sermon!
G Roger Howe

Glen Marshall said...

Roger, Thanks for the tip.

Simon, on responding at bit set piece events, what about texting questions to the preacher during a hymn after the sermon and the preacher responding after the hymn. Long way short of genuine dialogue but something. I understand they do something like this at Spring Harvest.

simon said...

Yeah, they have done that at Spring Harvest. We've done it at our cafe church as well. It is a way of involving people immediately and anything like this seems good.
There is a practical issue in all this I hadn't thought about until last night. After I preached (about 20 minutes), I was intending to ask for immediate response/feedback/questions but everyone just looked so knackered! So we prayed in groups instead and went home.

Anonymous said...

Yes I've had that experience of people looking knackered after I finished preaching...

I've experimented over the last two weeks with group discussion followed by a summing up preach - partly planned, partly responsive; then the following week whole congregation discussion on prepared questions, with preaching interludes and a concluding monologue. Not sure I can keep this up or that all subjects would merit this treatment, but more people seemed energised afterwards and only a few fell asleep as soon as I started talking!

Andy Jones