One of the more challenging tasks for the minister is standing in the pulpit and delivering a sermon. I once read that public speaking is feared more than death itself, but some might be under the impression that the preacher is at ease and does not fear mounting the pulpit after many years of practice. While I can’t speak for others, personally, I still, after fifteen years in the ministry, have a degree of apprehension when I step into the pulpit on any given Sunday. After a few minutes in the pulpit, though, my anxieties usually subside, I can settle down, and focus on preaching the word. But this doesn’t mean that my anxieties and fears are permanently banished from that moment forward.
When a preacher closes his Bible and offers the pastoral prayer, that moment, in many ways, is when the fun begins. The pastor will lead the closing hymn, offer the benediction, and then descend the pulpit and head to the back of the sanctuary to stand at the door and great people as they leave. It’s when you stand at the back door that you can be filled with anticipation, “Did people appreciate the sermon?” But you can also be filled with a small degree of fear, “Did people think the sermon was terrible?” Granted, these aren’t all consuming thoughts, but I suspect they do cross the minds of preachers as they great their congregations.
Often one of the most common greetings is simply a smile and, “Hello.” There are some who might offer a few brief words of encouragement or thanks for the message—I always appreciated such remarks. After all, after preparing for numerous hours, sometimes hours that hit double-digits, you want to know whether people even heard the message. I also appreciated congregants who had questions about the sermon. This told me they were listening. But not every person who has something to say about the sermon has encouraging words.
There are those who make comments about the sermon that make you wonder if they were reading the same text that you preached from. I would sometimes scratch my head in amazement and be somewhat disappointed. But the type of comment I always dreaded was the critical remark. Perhaps it’s my frail, self-centered, tendency, but critical remarks always weighed ten-times more than the compliments. A number of people might offer compliments about the sermon but it would be the critical remark that would echo in my mind for days on end. It was always a frustration when someone would disagree with a point or observation that I made, and my own remarks were based in hours of research, reflection, and examination of the text in Greek or Hebrew, and the critic’s remarks were usually offered on the spur of the moment. It made me sometimes wonder, “Why do I spend so much time preparing if all of my work can be seemingly swept away with one shallow comment?”
One of the more unsettling things that regularly happened to me during my sermons was instantaneous feedback. Over the years I began to learn how to read the faces of the people in my congregation. I could discern facial reactions that indicated contentment, joy, or even disagreement. I had one person who would, close her eyes, lift her face, and smile, when she liked what she heard. This same woman would cross her arms, frown, and look sternly at me when she disagreed with what I was saying. At first, this unnerved me, and even rattled me. It took me a few moments to regain my composure and press on. I soon grew accustomed to it and learned how to continue preaching even in the face of such instant criticism.
All of this is to say, ministers must be prepared to accept criticism for their sermons. And ministers should not live or die by the comments (positive or negative) they receive. With many comments, you have to be prepared to ignore them, not out of pride, but out of the firm conviction that you have prepared well. With other comments, you have to be humble enough to take the criticism and adjust your preaching. Knowing when to ignore and when to adjust requires wisdom and humility—something only Christ can give you. In the end, pray that Christ would grant you the conviction to stand on the truth regardless of the feedback but also the humility to accept correction and rebuke. Though you may know the biblical passage before you better than most in your church, you do not have a corner on the market when it comes to the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. An elder, a single mother, or even a child, might ask a question or offer critical remarks that reveal that there was something you failed to consider. In the end, if your concern is to point others to Christ, including yourself, you’ll never be afraid to learn more about the Scriptures, regardless of who teaches you.