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Why We Preachers Need Sermon Feedback

“The tape doesn’t lie.”

It’s an axiom with which athletes are all too familiar. The reference to tapes is dated, but the concept endures: we can always go back to game film for the truth of what transpired on any given play.

My seminary preaching classes employed the same philosophy. We’d prepare 15-minute sermonettes and preach them in front of our peers. The professor stood in a soundproof booth in the back, commenting into a microphone, while a video camera captured the whole thing.

After preaching, we’d sit down and receive feedback from our classmates. Then the professor would hand each aspiring preacher a DVD of himself. We “go to the tape” to confirm how many “uhs” and “ums” we employed or how distracting our nervous pacing was—and we also had the professor’s running commentary. There’d be encouraging remarks: “Ooh, good point.” “Helpful teaching of that verse.” “Great gospel explanation.” And there’d be constructive critique: “Help me see how you got that from the text.” “I don’t understand how that illustration relates to your point.”

Such tutelage in pulpit ministry shouldn’t just be a rhythm for novices. If teachers of God’s Word want to continually refine our craft, we should build formal sermon feedback into our schedules.

Here are eight reasons this is essential, followed by eight tips for doing it well.

Why We Need Sermon Feedback

1. It aids continued growth.

There’s a reason many industries require continuing education credits or licensure renewals. Further growth, maturation, and sharpening are always possible—and sermon feedback helps us toward these ends.

2. It accounts for the dynamic nature of preaching.

Even those who’d admit we haven’t arrived can still hit a “sweet spot” in preaching that breeds complacency.

If teachers of God’s Word want to continually refine our craft, we should build formal sermon feedback into our schedules.

A preacher stewards a vantage between the text and the congregation, laboring to represent each well to the other. The Word has something to say to the people, and the people have proclivities or questions the preacher poses to the text on their behalf. This all comes together in a sermon that’s true to the text and helpful for the people.

So even if we find a healthy rhythm of study and teaching, we may fall out of touch with how to effectively communicate those realities to our people. Formal sermon feedback provides a context in which others can counsel the “congregational connection” of a preacher who otherwise feels comfortable in his craft.

3. It protects the preacher from being ‘untouchable.’

Sermon feedback guards against the image (real or perceived) of a pastor being above the law. Far too many Christians know the pain of being in a church where nobody has input in the lead pastor’s preaching ministry.

Whether a congregant has the chance to offer humble correction or simply knows others are filling that role, it’s encouraging to know preachers are actively submitting themselves to review by people in the church.

4. It fosters a culture of feedback.

In my church, everyone who serves publicly receives constructive critique—young and old, staff and lay, male and female, seasoned or novice. Whether you’re leading Sunday school or preaching in the main service or teaching at a women’s event or giving an evening service devotional, you must be willing to receive feedback.

Planned formal feedback helps clarify expectations and reduce awkward or unnecessarily hurtful interactions. When you hear murmurings that the men’s prayer-breakfast devotional or the women’s retreat content raised theological questions, you already have the mechanism to have the conversation.

5. It’s a great discipleship opportunity.

Formal sermon feedback allows us to model giving and receiving encouragement and critique. Those are four distinct “muscles” that require exercise:

giving encouragement
receiving encouragement
giving critique
receiving critique

Being able to encourage well—succumbing neither to faux compliments nor flattery—isn’t an easy skill to learn. Likewise, members who can offer critique that’s not pedantic but meaningful, not soul-crushing but sanctifying, are worth their weight in gold.

6. It’s another venue to learn what the Lord is using in the congregation.

This isn’t to say we should allow the formal reviewers to unilaterally shape our pulpit ministry, but it’s been helpful for me over the years to learn I don’t always have an accurate read on what the Spirit seems to be using most effectively in people’s lives.

7. It shapes the preacher to be more approachable in general.

Early in my ministry, I only received feedback from people in the lobby or the hallway between the pew and the parking lot. I value such moments, but the comments were occasionally unthoughtful and ill-prepared, and I often wasn’t in the best headspace to receive them.

Now, however, having been on the receiving end of sermon evaluation for a decade, I’ve noticed it seep into how I interact with folks after the service. The formal times have trained me to interact in a healthier way in the informal times—which, I trust, has made me more approachable in those passing conversations.

8. If a preacher is married, feedback eases the burden on his wife.

This is perhaps a less-considered point, but my wife has mentioned it before. We’ve seen negative effects in other ministry families where formal sermon feedback wasn’t in place. Though a wife will often chat with her husband about his sermon, if no one else is offering feedback, all the pressure functionally falls on her.

Though my wife enjoys my preaching, she’s deeply grateful for the church’s formal feedback mechanisms both because it’s made me a better preacher and because she hasn’t always had to be the one to offer critique.

How to Do It Well

Having seen the benefits of receiving sermon feedback, here are some suggestions for implementing a more formal process in your church.

1. Put it on your calendar.

Build a consistent rhythm. The change you’re after won’t happen with one or two hallway conversations every few months. I don’t want to overprescribe—do what works in your context—but at my church we have an hour-long “service review,” after our weekly staff meeting, where we review elements of any services on the Lord’s Day. A healthy portion of that meeting is devoted to sermon feedback.

2. Teach your folks about the things they should always look for.

I always want to know, for example, if the gospel was proclaimed clearly and if I showed its implications across all my points. I want to know if I taught the text well and if my sermon’s argument reflected the text’s argument. I want to know if I helpfully addressed nonbelievers and properly imagined objectors. I want to be explicitly Trinitarian in my teaching. And so on. I hope to convey these expectations implicitly by the way I give feedback when others preach and also by periodically telling other pastors, staff, and interns which kind of feedback would be helpful.

3. Coach your reviewers on how to listen as Christians, not critics.

They should gather with their church family on Sundays expecting to be edified. Then, while giving feedback, they should express whatever helped that edification take place. Constructively, they should share anything that could have been more helpful or clear.

4. Be open about your perceived growth areas.

If you know you have distracting nervous ticks or that you tend to get stuck in the same homiletical ruts, give your reviewers a heads-up and ask them to hold you accountable.

5. Involve men and women.

If you only ever involve men in your sermon feedback loop, your preaching could become lopsided. Involving sisters will only be a benefit, and they’ll be blessed by it as well.

6. With negative feedback: receive, don’t react.

Express thankfulness for the feedback and genuinely consider its truthfulness and helpfulness.

7. With positive feedback: disciple, don’t deflect.

We’re typically tempted to say much when critiqued and little when praised. I’m arguing for the opposite. Don’t brush off encouragements—use them as training opportunities whereby you share how you came to that conclusion, why you approached things as you did, or what the Lord taught you personally that led to this or that application.

8. Have a way to capture and act on feedback.

During our service review, I pull out my laptop and type all the feedback into my sermon manuscript document. If I ever preach that text again, I’ll have notes awaiting me. I also make a yellow highlight on some of the more salient feedback I intend to put into practice in the immediate future. This has been immensely helpful as a repository of constructive comments.

And when I’m on the giving end of feedback, it’s always encouraging to see other preachers doing the same. It gives me confidence they’re taking the feedback seriously and plan to do something with it.

‘Find Your Voice’?

In their early years, most preachers hear the admonition to “find their voice.” Though this isn’t altogether unhelpful, I hope you can see a twofold problem emerges.

I don’t always have an accurate read on what the Spirit seems to be using most effectively in people’s lives.

First, “finding your voice” isn’t an isolated activity. It’s not an individual journey toward self-actualization. We need brothers and sisters in Christ to help us see what we don’t, so we can mature by God’s grace. Second, “finding your voice” has an air of finality—as if there’s a version of me I’m meant to find and, once discovered, I can lock in cruise control. This is naive at best, malpractice at worst.

A rhythm of formal sermon feedback yields a healthier version of this aphorism that combats both dangers: Find your voice in community and fine-tune it continually.


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