How to critique a sermon

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?

Pastoral Picks

Ministry is hazardous to the soul
James Emery White reflects on the fall of another spiritual superstar.

Encouragement for “ordinary” pastors
“Ordinary pastor, be encouraged: Your faithful labor in the darkened forest of obscurity is heroic.”

How do I evaluate a church member I suspect is unconverted?
More wise words from Brian Croft.

Not depressed, just sad, lonely or unhappy
This thoughtful article from the BBC website reminds us of the need for great discernment and heavenly wisdom in tracing the many and varied causes of depression.

Learning from Francis Schaeffer
This looks like a book worth buying, and this looks like a series of posts worth following as Martin Downes reflects on Colin Duriez’s biography of Schaeffer. Here is one of the themes that Downes will be exploring.

Schaeffer was a man with an unseen ministry for most of his life, his public significance came very late on.  What can we learn from this faithfulness in obscurity, and in working with small groups of people, in an age where usefulness and importance is confused with the size of the church you lead and the conferences you speak at?  How did we ever get into the mess of thinking that the best men to follow are easy to spot because they occupy the biggest platforms?

Is the American dream dying?

According to ABC News/Yahoo News pollsters, only 50% think the American dream still holds true. 43% said that it had once been true. Only 4% thought there was never such a dream. There were some interesting variations in the research. The better-off, the better-educated, and the West Coasters had more faith in the dream that the poor, the less-educated, and the Rust-belters.

But let’s back up a bit and ask, “What is the American dream?” The pollsters defined it as, “if you work hard you’ll get ahead.” Gregory Rodriguez, the LA Times journalist who wrote up the report, said that this “dream is the glue that keeps us all together.”

It’s the vague promise that our lot will get better over time that gives us the patience to endure whatever indignities we suffer at the moment. It’s the belief that our kids will have a better chance in life than we do that keeps the many elements of this diverse, highly competitive society from ultimately tearing each other apart. More than anything else, it’s the fabled dream that fuses hundreds of millions of separate, even competing individual dreams into one national collective enterprise.

As a fairly recent arrival on these shores, I must confess to being a bit stunned at this report. I’m not stunned that only 50% think the dream still holds true. I’m stunned at the dream: “if you work hard you’ll get ahead.” Is that it? Is that what Pilgrims risked everything for? Is that what those who wrote the Declaration of Independence dreamed? Is that what distinguished America over the years? Is that the core of the American identity?

Surely the original American dream was “one nation under God.” Yes, I know that was only added to the pledge in 1954. But it essentially summed up the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The American dream began with God as Creator ruling over His creatures, and graciously bestowing upon them the religious, political, and economic freedoms that produce a united, educated, disciplined, hard-working, loving, and generous people. “If you work hard you’ll get ahead,” is a fruit of the dream, but not its root. And if all you do is pluck the fruit and hack away at the roots, the tree will eventually fall down.

The LA Times reporter noted the social strains resulting, he said, from only 50% still believing in the pollsters’ dream:

With the glue of the dream holding at 50%, it’s nothing to cheer about. And if that number falls further, it could pose as great a menace as any outside enemy. Which should lead us to believe that we must restore our inner core rather than fret about external threats.

Rodriguez is right about the social strain on America. And he’s right about the potential of internal menace. But he’s completely wrong in saying that the answer is more people to dream the dream (as the pollsters defined it). That’s the way to a nightmare.

The answer is a new dream. In fact the answer is an old dream: “One nation under God.” Are there only 4% left who think that’s a dream worth dreaming?

Remember the future

Christians are often criticized for being stuck in the past. Every day we read an ancient document about ancient peoples, ancient times, and ancient cultures. Once of our sacraments commands us to remember the death of our founder some 2000 years ago. And we spend one day a week commemorating His resurrection. Remembering the ancient past is an essential part of being a Christian.

We also study Church History. We enjoy tracing God’s providential dealings with His worldwide Church through the years. We’re interested in individual histories too and love to read biographies of godly men and women.

But we not only trace God’s dealings with his people from ancient and more recent times, we love to track God’s hand in our own lives too. We look back on our unconverted days, amazed at God’s preserving grace in numerous dangerous situations. We often ponder the pit we were pulled from, and we meditate on how God’s goodness and mercy have followed us all our days. When together with other Christians we love to hear their stories about the old, old story of Jesus and His love.

So, yes, we plead guilty to our remembering the days of old. But our historical instincts are not academic and merely theoretical. And we look back, not just because we are commanded to (look up “remember” in a concordance if you doubt that). We do so because we sense that these memories help us to live now and to face the unknown future.

And what’s fascinating is that that is now being confirmed by science. Neuroimaging studies have identified areas of the brain that are activated when we are remembering the past. But the most  recent studies (pdf) have found a striking overlap between these areas and brain regions that are activated when we think about the future. At the Harvard Business Review Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske report:

According to scientists, the brain’s memory circuits are not merely for reflecting on the past but are also vital mechanisms for imagining, anticipating, and preparing for the future. In this new view, your brain is a proactive system that integrates past experience to help you navigate the future.

Of course, Jeff and Mark’s HBR article is interested largely in competitive advantage and commercial gain: 

In the business world, it’s a distinct advantage to have a brain that anticipates future demands and negotiates them well. Accurate predictions typically translate to success. Being able to envision future scenarios helps foster strategic planning and resist immediate rewards in favor of longer-term gains. The proactive brain flexibly recombines details from past experiences that, by analogy with your current surroundings, help you make sense of where you are, anticipate what will come next, and successfully navigate the transition.

However, surely the Christian can piggy-back on their research and apply their conclusions to our spiritual advantage and gain. For example, just look at the tips they give us to enhance our ability to benefit from the past:

  • Give your brain a rich bank of life experiences. Expose it to diverse environments and situations. Increasing the breadth of your experiences provides richer information for your brain to draw on as it helps you anticipate new situations.
  • Let it borrow from the experiences of others by communicating, reading, or interacting with or about others.
  • Think about what you want from the future. Take time to reflect on individual and team values and goals, both immediate and down the road. These will help guide your brain as it envisions future scenarios that may best help you achieve your objectives.
  • Actively ponder future rewards or accomplishments. Emphasize rich, detailed thinking about long-term outcomes. This reduces the lure (and the danger) of instant gratification.
  • Give yourself periods of relatively uninterrupted thought during which you let your mind wander. Doing this gives the brain’s memory system extra time to recombine your prior experiences in ways that can help you envision future possibilities.

Obviously, we can’t take all of this over to the Christian life. But you don’t need to be a scientist to see the spiritual benefits of using the past to imagine, anticipate, and prepare for the eternal future.

Pastoral Picks

Five ways shepherding helps a pastor grow
This is a summary from Darrin Patrick’s new book The Church Planter (via Burk Parsons).

Training Christian Leaders: An urgent need
Lots to challenge Seminaries and Churches in Collin Hansen’s interview of David Helm.

Mercy Ministries
What do you do when individuals appear at your church with begging bowls? Nick Batzig has put together a helpful checklist of advice for churches and Christians in these situations.

Stretches to relax brain and body
Pastors spend a lot of time sitting at desks in horrible body-twisting postures. Sometimes I go home thinking I was laying bricks all day rather then mining the Word.  Here are some stretches to ease the aches and pains (hope this isn’t yoga!).