My thesis is this: We need a different kind of preaching feedback. Current feedback models focus on individual sermons, but the most powerful forming and distorting effects of preaching happen over time. The case for feedback focussed on sermons (rather than a sermon) runs like this:
The Diet, not the Meal
(1) It is a commonplace to point out the pedagogical deficits of preaching. Under the analysis of a educationalist, the 20-40 minute monologue has the cards stacked against it.
It’s neither within the scope of this article nor the competence of its author to enter into the educational debate as such. For my purposes here, it is sufficient to note that the pedagogical case is surely at least partly right. There are only a tiny handful of individual sermons I remember in any great details. This is despite having heard perhaps 2,000 or more in my life.
(2) Despite what I have just said, my faith and understanding has been shaped by preaching. Not, I think, by any one sermon, but rather by being exposed week after week, year after year, to the various preachers under whose ministry I have sat.
In fact, I suspect this is how preaching is supposed to work. Peter Adam has pointed out that preaching is like eating: it might be very hard to remember the meal you had two weeks ago on Tuesday. But the fact that you’ve been eating meals most Tuesdays of your life has been crucial for staying alive.
I think the real effect of preaching happens here, in the long term. Congregations learn not just from particular expositions, but from our emphases, our inclinations, our tendencies and (heaven forbid!) our hobby-horses. And these are only revealed over time.
If we carefully and fearfully handle the scriptures, if we read at depth, think at depth and pray at depth, those results will begin to demonstrate themselves. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. (With apologies to anyone for whom that last sentence triggered a 1990s TV shampoo ad).
Conversely, if we are sloppy in our exegesis, thin in our reading, shallow in our thinking and prayerless in our preparation, that will also have its formative influence, and not for the good.
Looking at the Big Picture
(3) Despite point 2, most preaching feedback is focussed on individual sermons. This is fine as far as it goes. Younger preachers need to learn their craft and feedback on individual sermons is essential to that process. But if what I have said above is true, then we need another sort of feedback: Feedback not on a sermon, but on sermons; feedback not on an instance of preaching, but on a preaching ministry. If mention of the judgement of God, or grace, or penal substitutionary atonement are missing from any one sermon, that's okay. Not every sermon needs to be about everything. But if you are conducting a preaching ministry in which these matters never appear, well, Houston, we have a problem.
(4) Practically, I think this would involve finding a group of 5 or 6 mature people who have been exposed to your teaching for a sustained period of time and asking them a series of questions. Questions would need to include things like:
- Does my preaching have emphases you have noticed?
- Have you noticed me consistently avoiding certain topics?
- Have you noticed me consistently gravitating to other topics?
- Are there matters that are in scripture but somehow never find their way into my sermons?
Noticing Our Own Habits
(5) We also need to grow in the art of self-critical analysis. What tendencies are we aware of in our own preaching? Are you someone who is drawn to controversy, to heresy-hunting, to naming and shaming of false teachers? (I once heard a sermon on John 8:1-11—the woman caught in adultery—that was somehow magicked into a tirade against Liberals, Pentecostals and Arminians.) It might be worth auditing your teaching ministry to make sure that not every sermon ends up there. In the short run, your listeners will be vigilant and on their guard. All good. But in the long run, you’ll be teaching a bad habit of mind—namely, that the badness is all out there, but we are safe and good in here.
Conversely, are you naturally a peace-maker? Someone who tends to see the best in people? Are you liable to support any effort at peace-making, even when the truth is at stake? The New Testament is full of warnings: warnings against false teachers, false teaching, cunning schemes and deceitful leaders. If you never warn people of error, you'll be teaching another bad habit of mind—namely, that we’re all on the same page, and the guy over there in sheep’s clothing is really a reformed wolf with the very best of intentions, and now a firm vegetarian.
I am so thankful for the preachers who have formed me. I suspect that on many occasions they had to take their courage in hand and preach against their natural tendencies. For that I will be eternally thankful. Preaching does its worst damage and its most powerful forming over time. My argument is simply that we should seek the sort of feedback that helps at the point of preaching’s greatest power.
Photos: Liam Moloney (head), LabyrinthX (body); flickr