Chapter 186

Getting the Feedback You Need

How to invite a constructive critique.

"Nice sermon, preacher."

For most of us, that is the extent of the feedback we receive on our preaching. Yet we yearn for something more substantial: How do we come across to people? What aspects of our preaching style, delivery, organization, and biblical interpretation need to be improved to communicate the gospel more effectively?

To grow, we need honest evaluation, but how can we move beyond the haphazard, off-the-cuff "Nice sermon. Preacher" without getting ambushed by pet peeves of chronic complainers?

Creating good listeners

A number of years ago, Dr. John K. Bergland, who at the time was teaching at Duke Divinity School, conducted scores of interviews with people in rural North Carolina United Methodist Churches, asking them to evaluate their preachers' sermons. Bergland discovered that these laypeople were extremely reluctant to criticize a pastor's preaching. They assumed, apparently, that since the pastor has been called by God to preach and has studied preaching to prepare for ministry, the comments of ordinary laypeople are out of place.

People also hesitated to criticize their pastor's preaching because, according to Bergland, even though the preacher may not be the world's best, he or she is our preacher. Most church people tend to be intensely loyal to their local congregation; they want to be proud of it. Drawing attention to the pastor's weaknesses only reflects negatively on their church.

Over the years I have tried, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to elicit honest, usable reaction to my preaching. Sometimes laypeople are not sure the minister really wants their criticism, so initial responses tend to be positive. However, as time passes and people understand that I sincerely want their responses, even their critical responses, they become more honest.

For instance, when I gave out the standardized questionnaire that accompanies this article and asked people to complete it each Sunday for a few weeks, my scores actually went down in a number of areas!

Why? People were becoming more candid. Their initial "Nice sermon. Preacher" was becoming a more straightforward "Nice sermon, but… ." Because of my persistence, they realized that I was determined to get honest reactions, even if the reactions were negative.

Plus, in the process of evaluating my sermons, people were becoming better listeners. For instance, a number of them, when first asked, "Was this a biblical sermon?" quickly responded, "Yes." Of course the sermon was biblical: a Bible text was read at the beginning of the sermon.

However, as week after week they continued to evaluate my preaching, they stepped back and asked themselves, Was this really a biblical sermon? They began noticing that, though some verses were read at the beginning of the sermon, the text sometimes didn't control the movement and the thoughts of the sermon.

In urging my laypeople systematically and carefully to react to my preaching, then, I was making them better listeners. Critical listeners consider sermons with certain criteria in mind. Although I was receiving truthful, and sometimes (to me) painful, responses, I had given them criteria to help them have "ears to hear."

A questionnaire that helps

In the early 1970s, Boyd E. Stokes, as part of his doctoral work at Emory University, performed many months of research, interviewing scores of laypeople, preachers, and professors of homiletics, asking them what they looked for in a "good" sermon. He then selected the criteria most frequently cited. The result was the Sermon Reaction Questionnaire, a version of which is shown here.

I have used this questionnaire in three different congregations, with good effect. It's easily understood. It can be completed in just a few minutes, and it offers standardized scores, whose results can be compared over a period of weeks or months.

This questionnaire has helped me focus on particular problems. For instance, since I had always prided myself in not referring to my notes, I was surprised to see my listeners thought I looked at my notes too often. So over the following few weeks, I disciplined myself to look less at my notes, and my scores improved.

The questionnaire has also helped me see how different groups within the church react to my preaching. In general, younger respondents like my preaching better than do older respondents, and women are more positive about my preaching than are men. I'm not always able to make changes in my preaching based on what I learn, but knowing how I come across has made me a more sensitive preacher.

I've used the questionnaire in a couple of different ways. In one church, I gave the questionnaire to a selected group of laypersons to evaluate my sermons my first two weeks with the congregation. Then, two years later, I gave the same questionnaire to the same laypeople for two more weeks. That helped me gauge my progress over the long term.

I've also randomly selected a group of about 20 laypeople, asking them to attend worship every Sunday for five weeks. (That's important because even one absence can skew the scores.) I gave them questionnaires and asked them to fill them out and return them at the end of each service.

After five weeks, I met with all of the respondents and shared the results of the research. Together we looked at individual sermons and the scores they received, and I asked the people to clarify some of their responses. This discussion greatly increased the value of the questionnaire for me.

In either case, the questionnaires are scored by totaling and then averaging the scores on each item and on the questionnaire as a whole.

Some items (3, 5, and 7, for instance) are stated negatively to keep respondents from simply going down the questionnaire and mindlessly checking off the same number on every question. That means, though, when I tally the scores, I need to reverse the scores: for instance, a score of 1 on item 3, "did not inspire me," would be scored as 5. That way all the results "move" in the same direction.

To remain faithful to Christ, sermons are accountable to Scripture and a church's tradition, but they must also to some degree be accountable to the church, and that means the men and women sitting in the pews each Sunday morning. Through this questionnaire such men and women have improved my preaching and strengthened the church.


Do not sign your name.

Supply the following information:

Sex: male______; female______

Age: under 20____; 2029____; 3039____; 4049____; 5059____; over 59____

Regarding the sermon you just heard, indicate whether you agree or disagree with these statements. Circle 1 if you strongly agree, 2 if you agree, 3 if you're uncertain, 4 if you disagree, 5 if you strongly disagree.

Your honesty and frankness will be appreciated.

1. My interest was maintained. 1 2 3 4 5
2. The sermon was integrated into the service of worship. 1 2 3 4 5
3. I was not inspired. 1 2 3 4 5
4. The preacher's personality came through. 1 2 3 4 5
5. The Scripture text was not used or illumined. 1 2 3 4 5
6. The preacher used contemporary language. 1 2 3 4 5
7. The preacher did not evidence a personal faith. 1 2 3 4 5
8. The sermon was too long. 1 2 3 4 5
9. I did not understand the sermon well. 1 2 3 4 5
10. The preacher referred to notes too often. 1 2 3 4 5
11. The preacher sounded like he/she loved us. 1 2 3 4 5
12. The sermon spoke to some of my personal needs. 1 2 3 4 5
13. The sermon did not sufficiently emphasize the greatness of Christ. 1 2 3 4 5
14. The preacher showed self-confidence. 1 2 3 4 5
15. The sermon did not make me eager to serve God any more than I'm already serving him. 1 2 3 4 5
16. I identified with the preacher. 1 2 3 4 5
17. The preacher spoke down to us. 1 2 3 4 5
18. The sermon did not have a sufficiently forceful conclusion. 1 2 3 4 5
19. The sermon did not help me encounter God. 1 2 3 4 5
20. I can remember most or all of the sermon points. 1 2 3 4 5