Chapter 185

The Agony and Ecstasy Of Feedback

What sermon evaluations taught me

My preaching was getting better and better. People were captivated by my sermons every Sunday. I was nearing my maximum potential as a Christian communicator—at least I thought so.

My wife brought me crashing back to reality. "Darling, you have developed a couple of bad habits during your sermons that really detract from your content and presentation."

Feedback … ouch!

I genuinely recoiled at the suggestion that I needed improvement. I was not at all certain I wanted to hear what she had to say. It was easier to see the church growing—almost every Sunday—than to acknowledge I needed to refine my skills.

Yet feedback is necessary, and we grow through it. But it is not always pleasant.

When I finally listened to my wife, I realized she was right. I had developed a habit of clapping my hands together to emphasize points. It seemed a nice touch, but I was hitting one ring against the other and creating a loud, irritating clank. And to help people through difficult points of Scripture, I was pointing to my head and saying, "We've got to think through this truth together."

Hey, those were terrific gestures! I developed them myself. I had not stolen them from anyone! I really liked them. Little did I know they were driving the congregation crazy. And no one would tell me except my wife.

In search of evaluation

With this in mind, and as part of a study program, I asked for evaluation of my preaching skills. I mailed evaluation forms to 35 people in the church whom I thought would be candid. Each one had heard at least two years' worth of my sermons. The cover letter explained the project and emphasized my commitment to anonymity—no names on the surveys, stamped return envelopes.

My initial reaction to the feedback was anger and hurt. Though most of the feedback was positive, I saw only the negative. Why would these people hurt me like this? Who do they think they are? What do they know about preaching?

But once I began to think maturely about the situation, I realized they had done exactly what I'd hoped they'd do—give honest feedback. They cared enough about me to help me grow, even if the process hurt momentarily. Proverbs 27:6 helped me at this point: "Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy." (NASB)

Also, I realized I had asked the opinions of perceptive and intelligent people who observe many public speakers in their careers. They were not about to give me answers that would not be direct and helpful.

I asked for evaluation of six areas:

  • Do my introductions make a good first impression?
  • Do I establish rapport with the audience?
  • Do I reflect humility?
  • Are my presentations conducive to learning?
  • Am I logical?
  • Am I biblical?

In each category my evaluators made helpful suggestions that would improve my sermons. Here is a sample of what they said and how I refined my sermon presentation accordingly.

A number of people said I needed to project my voice more during the introduction.

I decided to give up some of the "service duties," such as the offering, so during the early part of the service I could concentrate on my first few words. Through my friends' feedback I realized I was not single-minded about the sermon when I walked to the pulpit. I now make a concerted effort to grab everyone's attention during the introduction. I know this is basic, but I had lost sight of it.

I needed to improve my initial rapport with the audience by not talking down to them.

So I became careful to smile throughout the introduction, use anecdotes that did not point to the audience's frailties, and use the pronoun we instead of you. I did this by reminding myself during preparation time that we are in this growth process together.

The reactions were mixed on whether I reflected humility. But since a number of people commented on my lack of humility, I took their word for it. I asked God to purge me of any pride over the church's health.

As I prayed and thought about this area, I also realized some people were misunderstanding my humor. My friends tell me my sense of humor is sardonic, bordering on caustic, and sometimes misunderstood by those who don't know me well or don't see the twinkle in my eye. I thought I was being witty, but I was perceived as sarcastic. For example, one day when I was stumbling over my words and not explaining my point well, I said, "Intelligent people will understand me." I meant it to be funny because I obviously was at fault, but many in the audience interpreted it as a put-down. I began to delete some things that were better left unsaid.

There were no negative comments on how conducive my sermons were to learning. People said I was honest in admitting my shortcomings. They perceived me as wanting to learn, and this inspired them to learn. This confirmed I was on the right track in sharing myself in my sermons.

The evaluators also perceived me as being biblical and careful to delineate between my insights and God's wisdom. They considered me logical and structured in what I had to say. This positive feedback actually made me work harder to ensure I remained on track.

Breaking out of a closed system

Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled, says, "A life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged. The only way that we can be certain that our map of reality is valid is to expose it to the criticism and challenge of the other map-makers. Otherwise, we live in a closed system … rebreathing our own fetid air, more and more subject to delusion."

People tell me I have become a better preacher since I asked for evaluation. The feedback pointed out areas where I did not know I needed to grow and confirmed strengths I thought I had. Indeed, the process has been so helpful I am compiling another list of people to survey. I intend to have people evaluate my preaching on a regular basis for the balance of my ministry.

Oh, by the way, I have broken those two habits to which my wife alerted me. But just to make certain she is still paying close attention, I'm developing a couple of new annoying habits. I'll see if she can spot them.