Those who have the privilege of preaching know the sting of criticism that occasionally follows it. By criticism, I don’t mean that constructive, gracious, well-delivered bit of critique that the preacher needs, and that I regularly benefit from in the church where I serve.
Instead, I mean the mainly negative kind of criticism that comes every so often in such forms as the true-but-ungracious comment, the thinly veiled insult, the snarky jab, or even the full-frontal, verbal attack.
Whether we encounter this criticism in the form of a personal interaction after the service, Monday morning email, or social media post, it can make us defensive, discouraged or even depressed when it happens.
But things don’t have to be this way. Instead, criticism can be an opportunity, not for wallowing in self-pity or getting your fists up, but to do some good and bring glory to God.
Here are three opportunities the preacher has when criticism comes:
1. An opportunity to be humble
The proud preacher can’t stand to be criticized, let alone critiqued. Puffed up with a sense of his own importance, he must at all costs avoid any pinprick to his fragile ego. He can’t bear to hear that his sermon was too long, or unfocused, or theologically imbalanced, or that he made a repeated, annoying gesture in the pulpit, or that he misinterpreted the biblical text.
Don’t be that kind of preacher. Instead, be humble. Be willing to listen to criticism, even if it’s not given well, and to own your mistakes when you make them.
Sometimes, even the boniest criticism may have some nutrition in it, if you’re able to swallow and digest the meat without choking on the bones. Do this, and you’re not only showing humility, but you’ll most certainly grow as a preacher because of it.
As preachers, we can afford to be humble because our calling is not to show what great preachers we are, but to preach what a great Saviour Christ is.
To have that kind of humility earns credibility with a congregation. More importantly, it attracts God’s grace, because, as it is written, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).
2. An opportunity to be a shepherd
I once heard a famous speaker at a big conference preach a confrontational sermon. Then he left. Moments after preaching, he was whisked out of the building in front of a watching crowd so that he could catch his flight.
While I don’t presume to know his circumstances or judge his abrupt departure, he missed the chance to interact with those who heard him. He also dodged the opportunity for personal feedback.
The ordinary pastor will likely not miss this opportunity, as long as he’s available to talk to people after the service. But this occasionally means taking a jab or two, and that's not easy for the pastor who, moments after preaching, sometimes feels like a turtle without a shell.
Nevertheless, the preacher must seize the moment to interact with listeners while the sermon is still fresh and ringing in their ears. He must do the job of a shepherd.
Sometimes, criticism in these moments provides an opportunity to correct false doctrine or clarify something that was said. Or, if the sermon exposed someone’s sin or stirred up someone’s pain, it gives an opportunity for evangelism, discipleship, or pastoral care.
Other times, when the criticism is deserved, the pastor does his job by taking it and encouraging the one who cared enough to give it. And even then, he is being a true shepherd by serving as an example to the flock. (1 Peter 5:3).
3. An opportunity to be closer to Jesus
Isn’t it appalling how Jesus was criticized?
“Many of them said, ‘He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?’” (John 10:20)
Yet, isn’t it somehow encouraging that the true Prince of Preachers was at times criticized for his perfect preaching?
Of course, at the risk of stating the obvious, you and I are not perfect preachers. Jesus is sinless, and we are not; Jesus’ sermons were flawless, and ours are not; Jesus is in every way above criticism, and we are not.
However, if we are faithfully preaching the Scriptures and accurately representing our Lord, then even though we are not perfect like he is, we will at times be criticized like he was. Some people might even think we’re insane.
In these moments, we have an opportunity to identify with our Lord. We can draw into deeper fellowship with the Saviour who suffered for us and who promises to sustain us. And, as we draw near to him in these times, he will enable us to endure, respond to, and even learn from criticism, so that we can keep on preaching faithfully for his sake.
So, the next time criticism comes your way after a sermon, whether or not it’s justified, don’t get defensive, discouraged, or depressed, and don’t get your fists up. Instead, see it as an opportunity to be humble, to be a shepherd, and to be closer to your Lord. In doing so, you’ll not only turn a negative experience into a positive opportunity, but you’ll bring glory to Christ and bless the people he has called you to serve.