Yesterday on Reformation 21 Paul Levy offered some helpful comments on the need for preachers to accept criticism. But how should sermons be critiqued?
Puritan Reformed Seminary’s Practice Preaching class begins again next week. In this class a student preaches in front of his professors and fellow students, then receives a critique from his listeners. Here’s some of the advice I’ll be giving to students who may be new to this experience of critiquing a sermon. Some of it may be helpful to others like elders, co-pastors, and pastors’ wives who may be called upon at times to offer critiques of a sermon.
1. Pray for the student who will preach. Keep the rota in your Bible so that when you come to pray each day, you will be praying for the next preacher. If you have not prayed for the preacher, you forfeit the right to criticize.
2. Listen for your own soul. Do not listen primarily to find fault. Try to hear the sermon as God speaking to you.
3. Look at the big picture. Don’t get sidetracked by minor issues like pronunciation.
4. Don’t repeat what has already been said. Only say something if it is something new. The student does not need to hear the same thing ten times.
5. Say one thing. You do not need to tell him every fault. And remember the student has already received significant critiques from the professors.
6. Try to be constructive and positive, especially if you are going to offer a criticism. It is easier for someone to hear criticism if they know you have goodwill towards them. Can you say something good about the introduction or the conclusion? (Don’t say “the best bit was the end!”) Were important words explained and illustrated? Was the structure based on the text and memorable? Was there good energy and eye-contact? etc.
7. Try to be objective. Ask yourself if what you are saying is just personal opinion and reflects your own preaching preferences and prejudices.
8. Be brief.
9. Do not mock or belittle. Be humble in your criticism. Realize that in most cases the student has poured himself into the sermon and poured himself out in it also.
10. Consider private critique. One of the reasons we have practice preaching class is so that everyone can learn from one another. Though I’ve never preached in this class (thankfully!) I’ve learned so much about preaching in it by listening to the critiques of others. However, if your criticism is very personal and not likely to benefit the whole class, then consider if it might be better offered privately.
11. Have regard for the stage the student is at in their education. Do not expect a first-year student to preach like a fourth-year student. Be very gentle in criticizing those who have just begin to preach.
12. Vary your focus. Some students only mention hand gestures. Others highlight deficiencies in gesture or posture. Still others may have a laser eye for grammar. Try to look at different aspects of preaching each time, and don’t become a broken record (that shows my age).
13. Pray for the student afterward. Often students will be licking their wounds a bit for a few days after practice preaching. Make a special effort to encourage such students in these sensitive days.
Perhaps those who have been on the receiving end of “critiques” might want to supplement this list?