Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Feedback and that Futile Feeling in Pastoral Ministry

Preaching a sermon can feel futile. I spend weeks outlining a series. I spend days researching and note-taking. I spend hours formatting and word-crafting. I spend forty-two minutes delivering (three minutes beyond my target time). And after the sermon, I gather more blank sermon notes than talking points for my feedback loop.

The feedback I tend to hear comes in three categories...
  1. The Aside: Pastor, when you were preaching, it make me think of this YouTube video. Here, let me show you...
  2. The Empathetic Segue: Pastor, I can totally relate to stress. Let me tell you about the week I had...
  3. The Attaboy: Good sermon, Pastor.
What sticks from a sermon are the stories and personal rants. The theological gems remain buried in the mine. A few weeks ago illustrated this futility in its finest. After studying a thoughtful book about Paul's use of the word "Mystery," I came up with a pithy but profound synthesis:
While it was not hidden [in the OT] that Messiah would rule on earth, it was a mystery that Jesus the Messiah would rule in the heavens [Eph 3].
While it was not hidden that Messiah would rule the nations, it was a mystery that Jesus the Messiah would reconcile the nations into a single people [Eph 2].
While it was not hidden that Messiah would suffer, it was a mystery that Jesus the Messiah would suffer unto death [Eph 1].
I labored over these lines. I read them slowly during the sermon. I rinsed and repeated, waiting for light bulbs to flash and revival to start. It never did. So I proceeded.

Later in the message, while soliciting responses to the question, "What Bad Press do people believe about the church?", one person shouted,"It's boring!" One of our members quickly retorted, "Not this church." After relishing in his response, I added, "That's because people love watching you play the bass, John." I illustrated by plucking an air bass and swinging my hips. [Insert congregational laugh.]

Riding on the waves of corporate approval, I added, "And it's because I do stupid stuff like play the air bass." Again, I plucked an invisible instrument. Laughter ensued.

Weeks later, the ghost of my slapping the air bass haunts people's memories. No one, however, can recall how I waxed eloquent about the revealed Messianic mystery. Preaching is vanity, chasing after the wind.

Nevertheless, I seek feedback so I can improve. Sleepy or confused faces tell me I've lost my hearers. "Amens" imply agreement (or so I assume, since I've never heard that word at my church except after prayer.) Laughter indicates people are listening, and good for them, because I am funny.

Post-sermon feedback provides a different form of insight. It tells me whether or nor the message stuck. Over the years, I've learned to probe for this feedback. I've asked men I'm mentoring to share something they would have handled differently in the message and how. I've selected a topic or principle from the sermon and asked folks what they think. My elders regularly speak into my recent sermons. Often I'll debrief with my wife.

I want to know if the message was memorable. Did it make sense? Did God speak to people? How will folks respond?

While nine years of preaching has convinced me an individual sermon does little to transform a life, I do not despair. A message may stir, push, or redirect toward godliness for forty-two minutes, a few hours, or day. My lines will wither and fade, but the Word of the Lord remains in tune. So I keep plucking and preaching as long as I have breath in my lungs.

1 comment:

Sallie Hoy said...

Pastors, teachers and public servants often feel that their messages, efforts or outreach methods are not memorable, or it memorable, not effective. Human nature seems to let us reveal the weaknesses of the words our mentors, teachers & pastors, without honoring how these same words affect long term growth. Fertilizer sometimes stinks before it does good to the plant, but it is important to apply, and give time to do its good.