I’m not short on criticism. In fact, I don’t have to work hard at all to be critical. Seems to come rather natural for me. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because being critical has given me a sharper intellectual edge in analyzing doctrine and thinking hard (read “critically”) about subjects. On the other hand, being critical is also a curse for the same reasons it’s a blessing. Because I tend to think harder and more critically about subjects, it’s easier for me to identify error or point out subtle nuances in preaching that are logically unsound, theologically questionable, or just plain biblically or historically uninformed. [Admittedly my philosophy background and training in seminary has something to do with this “skill.”]
While being critical is a strength in a classroom, it’s rarely seen as a virtue when sitting in the pews at church. Indeed I cannot think of a time when it’s ever served me well. I suspect this has much to do with our culture that eschews any criticism and sees it only as destructive rather than constructive. It also may have much to do with the notion that the pastor/preacher has some special skill and insight (after all, they’ve had formal education) that we don’t because we’ve not been formally trained and we’ve no right to question an “authority”. Why would I question my medical doctor when given a diagnosis, if I spent my life as a plumber? They have to be right. Right? Maybe being “critical” sounds too much like “criticizing” and no one wants to be labeled a “critic.” Or maybe we’ve bought into the idea that we have to earn the right to be critical by saying something positive to even things out (the math may be simple, but the logic is invalid). Since we have a hard time saying positive things, we end up not being critical at all.
Regardless of root causes, I wonder: Is it okay to critique a sermon? What do you think? Can I be critical without being labeled a critic? A few passages come to mind that suggest it may be appropriate for believers to be critical.
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.
(1 Cor 14:29)
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.
(1 Jn 4:1)
Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.
(1 Thess 5:20–22)
Here’s what I think. First of all, none of these passages give us grounds to think that the testing or weighing carefully is done only by certain people in the church. Actually, the presumption is that everyone can and should engage in critically evaluating what is said. Regarding 1 Cor 14:29 D.A. Carson argues “If Paul had wanted to say ‘the [others] (of the prophets),’ the Greek more plausibly should have been οἱ λοιποὶ (hoi loipoi) rather than οἱ ἄλλοι (hoi alloi)” meaning “all the others” (Showing the Spirit, p. 120). Blomberg adds “when prophecy is taken to include Spirit-filled preaching, it seems clear that the ordinary ‘layperson’ is often in a better position to determine how well or accurately the preacher has communicated than are fellow-preachers, who are absorbed in the fine points of the theology or technique of the message” (1 Corinthians: The NIV Application Commentary, p. 279).
Second, with regards to 1 Thess 5:20-22, while it is true that prophetic utterances must not be depreciated but taken serious and with the same respect due the Holy Spirit, it is every person who must carefully weigh “all [things]” (πάντα, neuter plural), leaving no stone unturned. The presumption is that everyone exposed to prophesy (this includes Spirit-filled preaching) will be able to discern truth when they hear it. It follows that everyone recognizing spiritual truth must translate that into their lives (“hold on to what is good”), but reject those sayings which are contrary to gospel faith. This of course requires a critical ear. Just as in Old Testament times a prophet was to be rejected when prophecies did not turn up true (Deut. 18:21-22), so too in New Testament times. Similarly, those who do not hold to the full humanity of Jesus are false prophets (1 Jn 4:1-3) and this requires the discernment by every member of Christ’s Church.
Though no one likes a tenacious critic, there is nothing virtuous about a credulous Christian. Everyone is called to be a discriminate learner. Just as the whole church is to be involved in discipline (see Craig Blomberg’s excellent post “True Church Discipline”), so too the whole church is involved in discernment. So the next time someone critiques the sermon, don’t be too critical of them. Hopefully, they’re doing their (biblical) job.
Thinking critically about about a message is important and good. Those verses don’t give us a license to talk to others (badmouth the pastor?) about it. Is the pastor receptive to input? If not, maybe that’s a more real problem. I’m more curious about the propriety of critiquing a speakers style, especially as it pertains to PowerPoint.
Being excessively dull (monotone etc.) or distracting us with awful PowerPoint (10 bullet points per slide with animations and audio effects) is a real cause of turning people off of the gospel.
Thanks for dropping by and for (critically) reading (wink).
I agree. These passages, nor any from Scripture, give us license to speak harshly about leadership or those who prepare and present God’s Word. We’re commanded to “let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Col 4:6). And, the medium is equally important, just as with the content. Visual aids should be used as an adjunct to, not replacement for, the spoken word.
I say be as “critical” as you like… when comparing biblical teaching from “spiritual authorities” of today to the Word of God. After all, it ultimately comes down to influencing and leading one towards eternal life with Christ & God the Father, or with Satan / the father of lies.
This is the question I am struggling with in, especially, the last one month. In Indonesia, the case, I think, is even worse. Due to the ‘tradition’, it is very much unappreciated when you speak up your criticism towards a sermon. I agree with your point that critical thinking should be a habit in the church, since by being critical we show that we really want to get closer to the truth. Yet, the way we express our critical thinking should also be in the light of what scripture asks us to do.
Thanks for reading Richard.
Appreciate your last point “Yet, the way we express our critical thinking should also be in the light of what scripture asks us to do.”
Completely agree. I did not address the spirit in which our criticisms are shared, since I did not want this post to go on too long.
Clearly if we value Scripture, then our speech must always be gracious (Eph 4:29).
Great points, as usual Paul. I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head. I have actually discussed sermons with two different pastors when I heard something I thought was a bit off. In one case, the Pastor misspoke and acknowledged it the next week. He thanked me for going to him in private. In the other case, it was a mere matter of disagreement on a detail and we had a blast discussing it.
When we approach pastors with gentleness and respect, even when we disagree, we can often provide deep encouragement to them. They appreciate that we’re listening closely enough to pick up on themes or specific points. I think that it is very important to listen critically for that reason as well–it helps heighten our own listening skills.
Hey J.W. Thanks for reading and for your comments.
Wholeheartedly agree that when gentleness (a manifestation of God’s Spirit in us; see my post here) and respect govern our engagements, then everyone wins!
Found nothing to disagree with, Paul. I wonder if part of a preacher’s struggle to accept critique is that this is “all he ever hears.” critical thinking of sermons should result in highlighting areas of improvement or surface questions, AND areas where theology/scripture/application/etc was done really well. I suggest try critiquing a sermon with positives as well 🙂 this may help relieve the connotation that critical thinking only results in finding what was lacking…
Excellent feedback here, Jonathan. Agree that negative critiques should include the positive. There are enough Christian curmudgeons and surely those who labor over God’s Word need to hear the encouraging impact that sermons have. Perhaps a new blog post is in order here that might balance out this one….hum.