-By J.R. Briggs
As pastors we have all experienced it.
We’ve studied, prayed and prepared a sermon all week – and now we’ve just gotten done preaching our heart out. As the service ends and people begin to leave, some look us in the eyes and say, “Nice job. Good sermon.”
“Thanks,” we say with a bit of timidity and an awkward grin.
But inside we think, Really? Do they mean it or are they just saying that? If so, I wonder what did they like about it?
The truth is we don’t think they’re downright lying to us, but we’re tempted to wonder is that the whole story – and how honest were they being – really?
Feedback, as they say, is the breakfast of champions. As a feedback junky myself, I want to improve and grow in communicating God’s Word to others. But over the years I’ve struggled with this drive-by encouragement on the way out the door. How am I to know what is legitimate feedback and when are people just being pleasant, kind, nervous – or maybe unsure what else to say but “good job”? I’ve learned to listen for five specific forms of feedback that are legitimate and credible:
When people give specific feedback to a sermon I see that they were really listening, careful to take in something of importance and then articulate that to me. Instead of “Nice job, pastor,” when I hear “You know, that second point you made about God’s patience with Israel reminded me of just how patient he is with me in my own life.” Or, “That verse you read – the one about being a living sacrifice – is going to impact the way I love my wife and kids this week. I haven’t been eager to do the simple things – change diapers, unload the dishwasher or pick up the toys on the floor after a long day. But I realized today that’s a part of what Paul is talking about.”
(2) Time passed
It’s easy to hear encouragement minutes after preaching, but I listen well when someone says, “Six months ago you taught on God’s goodness, even in times of suffering. I can’t get that concept out of my head. I think about it often and it encourages me when things are difficult.” The Spirit seems to have pierced their heart in such a way that it remains within them.
(3) People’s posture and body language
Outward appearance, of course, isn’t everything; but posture and body language can be beneficial and legitimate real-time feedback of what is happening to people internally. While we preach, we can look out and notice people to get a pulse of the room. Are people are leaning in and paying attention? Are people nodding or smiling? Were tears present during that story I told about my interaction with my neighbor? Are people leaning back with their arms crossed looking bored? Are people looking down, reading and re-reading – maybe underlining – something in their Bibles? Or – unfortunately – are people sleeping?
(4) The specific, intentional and solicited feedback of trustworthy people.
I’m a feedback junky. I always want to improve and grow. Part of my rhythm in teaching and preaching is to proactively seek out spiritually mature people who I know will be both honest and honoring with feedback a day or two after I’ve preached. I find that if I ask generic questions (“So, how was it?” I will always get generic answers (“It was good”). But if I ask more specific questions, (“How helpful was the opening story during the introduction?” or “If you could summarize my sermon in a thesis statement what would it be?”) I find I get very helpful and meaningful feedback. (I’ve even developed a one-page Teaching Feedback Form that I give to people and kindly ask them to fill it out and return it to me). At times what I hear is encouraging and affirming; other times it’s pointed areas that didn’t work and how I could improve upon them. Admittedly, sometimes some of the feedback stings, but from a trusted friend or congregant, I know they mean well and desire me to sharpen my gifts – and, for that, I am grateful.
(5) The Spirit’s affirmation.
Despite what people think, the most important affirmation we could ever receive is from the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, it’s not a popularity contest and we aren’t trying to tickle the ears of our people. We are trying to serve the Lord. So, in the quiet moments in our office before heading home or when we drive home in the car, what is the Lord whispering to us? Do we sense affirmation of faithfulness to the preparation, to our motivations and to the text throughout the week – and this morning? Do we sense the affirmation of our faithfulness to the opportunity to present God’s Word? Listen to these quiet moments of affirmation or correction from the Spirit. It’s ultimately this feedback that we should pay attention to the most.
Certainly, we want to thank and express our gratitude for those who offer brief encouragement as we leave our gatherings. But lean in and pay attention most notably to the feedback given in these five forms.