I often am struck by the things people say to me after a sermon. And I often feel awkward. Not as often as I used to, but often enough. Howard Hendricks used to say that what goes on in the foyer after the service can rightly be called “the glorification of the worm.” How can you avoid glorifying the worm after a sermon? How, conversely, can you avoid beating down a broken instrument trying his best and often failing?
I stole borrowed from Weight of Glory these eight commandments for how to talk to your pastor about his sermon. They are quite helpful.
1. Don’t say anything you don’t really mean.
I’d say that this is the inviolable rule on the matter. Believe me, pastors do love and need encouragement. But not all encouragement is equal (see below). Pastors really don’t want you to tell them it was the greatest sermon you’ve ever heard (unless it was). Most pastors, because of the nature of their vocation and the necessity of being able to see through the facades and masks people use to hide what they really think and feel, have pretty highly attuned B.S. detectors. We know when you thought we tanked the sermon even if you’re saying it was awesome—usually because we know we tanked it.We also know when the sermon was just okay. If it was just okay, don’t feel the need to say, “Awesome sermon, bro! That melted my face off!” If you say anything, feel free just to say something like, “Thanks for the word, pastor.” A good pastor, at the very least, even if he crotched the delivery, read the Word of God aloud (which has power in itself) and told the truth, so this sort of moderated thanks is appropriate. Most of us are aware of the fact that we’re not Charles Spurgeon. And, even if it was the greatest sermon you’ve ever heard, it is very important to keep #5 in mind (see below).
In any case, tread lightly in evaluating your pastor. Keep in mind how many people are consciously evaluating you in your job. Probably no more than 2-3. Most of us have anywhere between 80 and 1,000 people evaluating us every week.
2. Make your praise easy to receive.
It’s really hard for pastors to know how they’re supposed to receive your encouragement and praise. When you say something even as simple as, “Hey, great sermon. Thanks!,” we really do appreciate it, but you have to remember what we’ve been told. We’ve been told (by seminaries; by other pastors) that you’re not supposed to say, “Thank you,” because saying “Thank you” somehow implies that you agree that you’ve got game and that you know you’re a rock star, and so you’re taking the glory for yourself instead of giving it to God.
On the other hand, if we listen to what we’ve been told, then every time someone gives us the slightest compliment, we have to say, “Oh, I’m glad God used me as a helpful instrument in your life this morning,” or something awkward like that. Ideally, we’d like to say both of those things, but all you said was, “Thanks,” so I don’t really want to respond with a 5 minute theological discourse on the concurrent role of the preacher and of God in a preaching ministry.
So, if you really want to bless your pastor after he preaches, do the work for him. Say things even as simple as, “That was really helpful to me, thank you.” So that we can simply respond with things like, “Good, I’m glad!” Or, you might even say something like, “That was great, Pastor, I really thank God for you and your ministry,” so that we can reply with, “Thanks,” without having to worry about it looking like we think God had nothing to do with it.
At the very least, just don’t second guess us when we simply say, “Thank you.” If your pastor has any sense or any modicum of humility at all he’s very aware that he is at best a broken vessel and that God deserves all the glory for anything good that came out of his sermon.
3. Give (constructive) criticism later.
A humble pastor won’t mind criticism. In fact, if it’s competent and well-informed, he’ll probably invite it. Most pastors don’t have anyone who is trying to help them to be a better preacher because generally the only people who offer criticism are the grumpy, self-centered, never-satisfied-with-anything types. The intelligent, thoughtful, biblically-minded congregants, for some reason, rarely speak up. Usually because they’re people who love their pastor and don’t want to discourage him. But hear me say that your pastor needs constructive criticism. Three caveats:
First, he might be the sort of pastor who only wants criticism if he’s invited you to give it. Too much criticism, even if its constructive, can be overwhelming and defeating. So, tread lightly with the criticism until you know him well enough to ask him if he’d like your thoughts on his messages, or until he actually extends you an invitation to share your constructive criticism.
Second, constructive criticism includes what he did well, not just what he could better. This should go without saying. You can offer the former without the latter, but never offer the latter without the former.
Third, do not offer your criticism until at least Monday. If you have never preached, you have no idea how spiritually and physically exhausting it is. It’s tiring for him even if he only has to preach once on Sunday. If there are some weekends (like this last weekend for me) where he preaches three or four times, it’s downright annihilating. In that case you shouldn’t be offering criticism until at least Wednesday. So write your thoughts down, tuck them into your Bible, and share your criticism later in the week.
4. Encourage liberally (but remember #1).
Obviously, this one is tied to #3. Pastors need encouragement. No matter how stoic or impervious they seem, Satan is stronger than your pastor and he is exerting all his power to try to run your pastor into the ground with doubt and frustration. View it as a crucial personal ministry in your church to regularly encourage your pastor. Even if he isn’t John Piper or C.J. Mahaney, lay it on thick (provided that you’re remembering #1). You will help him defeat Satan and you will urge him on in working hard to open God’s Word up to his people.
5. Make your criticism and praise specific.
This one is particularly important when it comes to criticism. If you don’t have specifics to offer, DO NOT OFFER CRITICISM. It is just not helpful at all to hear, “You know, I think you might just need to put a little more time and thought into your messages,” or “I think you’re trying too hard.” I’m about to try hard to kick all of your teeth out, pal.
Why do you think that? If you would explain yourself clearly and specifically, then I can either disagree with you because I think you’re wrong, or I can agree with your specifics and be helped, shaped, and strengthened by your criticism.
But this also goes for praise and encouragement. Pastors like to know what you think they’re doing well just as much as your wife (or hubby) likes to know what you love about her rather than that you just love her in general. The former is much more meaningful. Tell him what he’s doing well and he’ll build on it and make sure he keeps that strong even as he works on areas of weakness.
6. Talk about yourself.
Pastors love to see God’s providence at work. It’s so exciting to me when I preach a sermon and some dude comes up to me and says, “If I didn’t know better I would have thought that you wrote that just for me, because that’s exactly what I’m going through.” That’s incredibly exciting because it is a reminder that God is at work behind the scenes to orchestrate not only the words of the sermon but the response of peoples’ hearts to what is preached. That is an incredibly exhilarating realization, reminding pastors that they are a small but important part of something massive that God is doing on earth.
7. Ask good questions (about the sermon).
If you have a good question about something specific that was said in the sermon, your pastor would love for you to ask it—even if he doesn’t have a great answer to it. Why? Because it shows that you were listening to and engaging with his message. It validates his labor. It shows him that his 15-25 hours of prayer, prep work, thinking, reading, and writing, done to serve you, weren’t wasted. Besides, often times it’s really frustrating only to have 30-50 minutes to speak because often times there is so much more a pastor had to cut out and leave unsaid. For that reason, he may really enjoy being able to say some of the things that he left out, even if it’s only to one person who prompts it with a good question.
DO NOT ask questions about biblical or theological issues not related to the sermon. Your pastor is dialed in to one thing on Saturday night/Sunday morning: his sermon and the sermon text. Send him an e-mail later in the week if you have a question about Open Theism after his message on marriage, smart guy.
8. Think before you speak.
This is just a good tip in all of life, but especially so when you approach a tired preacher. He’s not up for your verbal diarrhea after his sermon, especially if he has to preach again in 20 minutes. So, put your thoughts together in your head before you speak, take careful stock of commandments #1-7, and only then fire away.