A Pastor’s Reflections: Listen, Don’t Critique
One of the biggest problems in Reformed churches, I believe, is that people come to church to critique the sermon rather than listen to it. How so? In Reformed churches there are always a number of theological commandos, people who love to study the Bible, read serious theological works, and encourage and spur others on to improve their own knowledge. These are all good things, however, knowledge apart from humility and love is a dangerous thing as Paul warns us (1 Cor. 8:1). What begins as a thirst and hunger to know God becomes a case of pride and the person no longer comes to eat the meal prepared by the chef but instead comes as the food critic.
Some people will sit down and listen to the preaching of the word, but find problems with the way a text is preached, the illustrations used, the inflection of the pastor’s voice, or the application that the pastor presses. The person will then approach the pastor and raise his or her concerns regarding the “flaws” in the sermon. I can completely understand why pastors find such “counsel” annoying. It doesn’t matter how long he studied in college, seminary, how many hours he invested in exegeting the text, praying over his preparation, or how many hundreds or even thousands of sermons he’s preached over the years. All of this is for naught. In this day and age where expertise has been democratized, all you need is twenty bucks and a website and a person can anoint himself as an “expert” on any subject. I think such a trend is especially true for seminarians—they take one or two classes, have preached maybe three sermons in their whole life, and all of a sudden they’re a preaching expert.
Regardless of the amount of training and study a person might have, we are not supposed to come to church to critique the sermon. We are not food critics but rather pilgrims who need Christ, one greater than Moses, to give us heavenly manna—spiritual nourishment that he brings through the hands of his ordained ministers. Our mindset should be that when we hear the preaching of the word that we are, as the Second Helvetic Confession states, hearing the very living word of God (§ I). We should realize that we have come to listen to the word so that it would critique us, not so that we could criticize the preaching of it. Such is the difference between listening to the sermon and critiquing it—it’s humility vs. pride.
We should also realize that God has established his church in such a way that there are people whom he has assigned to critique the preaching of the word—the elders of the church. The elders have the Christ-given responsibility to guard the purity of the preaching of the word of God. They not only listen but also evaluate and when necessary, hopefully in private or within the confines of the session or consistory meeting, critique the pastor’s preaching.
If you believe, however, that there is a persistent problem with your pastor’s preaching, then there are appropriate steps to take. First, don’t automatically assume you are correct. Maybe your pastor knows more about the text and preaching than you do. Investigate the subject of concern—read, study, and prayerfully reflect. Second, after diligent and prayerful consideration, if you’re still convinced there is a problem, humbly and privately approach one of the members of the session or consistory to make your concern known. Again, be prepared to be corrected—elders of the church are chosen because of their ability to teach and their knowledge of the Scriptures. They might see a gaping hole in your assessment and correct you, and rightly and necessarily so. Third, if the problem still persists, then request to speak with the session or consistory to raise your concerns. Again, be prepared to be corrected. Fourth, if the problem still persists, you have one of several options: (a) live with the problem; (b) peaceable withdrawal; or (c) in accordance with your church order take your concerns to the next level, either presbytery or classis. Again, be prepared to be corrected.
In the end, I suspect that the norm will be that we will not be called upon by Providence to carry a theological complaint to General Assembly or Synod. Rather, our chief responsibility as we carry out the general office of believer is to listen to the preaching of the word, not critique it.