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?

  • Anonymous

    Great help on critiquing sermons.

  • Nathan Eshelman

    As someone who HAS sat through this class- and 4 years of it; I would say that these times of critique can “make” the preacher. This class is so important to the development of the young preacher and will prove to be beneficial when you are responsible for feeding the sheep in a congregation. For myself, I would always ask myself these questions: 1. Where is Jesus in the passage. If all Scripture speaks of him; where is he? 2. I also frequently meditate on the timeless advice of the Westminster Divines: A159: They that are called to labour in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God; wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers; zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.Have a good season of practice preaching, and keep helping to develop those who will turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6)!

  • Harold Van Dyk

    For me as nothing but a listener (or reader). I use a method for listening/reading that helps me get the most out of a Sermon and also helps to me make sure I am hearing the truth. Imagine a triangle and at each point there is a circle, one labeled God, one labeled Man and one Christ. The circles represent the attributes and/or condition of each and the lines of the triangle are the relationships. Every sermon should tell me something about every circle and every line and in keeping with the doctrines of the Church. It may sound rather simplistic (the triangle), but by using that method I protect myself from that which is not true and I am able to get at least something good for my soul out of every sermon because I am constantly asking myself (during the sermon) what does this say about God, Fallen Man, Christ, the relationships between each? The side benefit is this: when listening that way, with a specific method, it helps one be less critical of the sermon because they are more focused on the message. Maybe we need a sermon on how to listen.

  • David Murray

    Thanks Danny.Nathan: Thanks for the supplement. Good to hear your scars are healing!Harold: I like you illustration. V. helpful.

  • Steve Hall

    Although repeating one of your points, I really believe hearing a sermon for our own soul first must be the primary focus of our listening. Not only will it soften the blunt of our criticism, but I believe it directs our criticism in a Christ-centered focus since our heart’s feeding will be the criterion for our critique. If I am looking for my own heart’s love for God to increase through the preaching of His Word then the content of my comments will flow out of deep longing for Him–not simply the techniques of delivery. How we listen to sermons from our fellow classmates seems to spill over in how we listen (and critique) other preachers out of the classroom.Thus, listening for our own heart first will also instill graciousness in the hearer as he listens to other sermons outside the classroom.I think another point that is needed is to not be negative against a sermon simply because the preacher preached the text differently than we would have. I really appreciate your list!