I recently had a talk with a minister friend of mine. He was very troubled. It seems some in his congregation are growing increasingly critical of his sermons. Some want more depth. Some want more of the basics. Some want more life, more illustrations; some want less. Some more humor, some want more sincerity. Some want longer sermons. (I love folks like that!) Most want him to wrap it up early. Some say he preaches too much about Jesus. I wondered about that one. Is a Christian preacher not to preach about Jesus?
I am confident anyone who has been called to preach the Gospel has faced similar questions. And I am sure the criticism will only increase in a day when preaching is viewed as a performance rather than a calling. Sadly, there are those who want preachers to be stand up comedians. Others seem to want a doctrinal thesis each Lord’s Day. It is impossible to please everyone.
The Right Perspective
In my preaching, I have faced similar questions. Actually, I am not really troubled by such inquiries. I really try to look at these as opportunities to let the Lord teach me to be a better communicator. Criticism offered in love can be helpful. Even criticism offered in, well, rebellion, can be used to sharpen the message.
I don’t need to wonder if the Apostle Paul faced the same criticism. In 2 Corinthians 10:10, Paul quotes his opposition as saying his speech was contemptible. Yet Paul continued to preach, first and foremost, that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3).
As I listened to my friend, I was reminded of a sermon preached by one of the greatest preachers of time, George Whitefield. It seems apparent from the sermon that even Reverend Whitefield faced critics. He addressed this issue in a sermon entitled Directions How to Hear Sermons. The sermon was based on the text of Luke 8:18, where Jesus said, “Take heed, therefore, how ye hear.” Note the imperative – those who hear should consider how they are hearing!
I pray all my readers, especially those who sit in a church weekly under the preaching ministry of a pastor or elder, will read and consider the words of this great man of God. If you have time, consider reading the complete text. You can find that here.
Now, may I introduce you to the Reverend George Whitefield as he shares “some cautions and directions, in order to help you hear sermons with profit and advantage.”
1. Come to hear them, not out of curiosity, but from a sincere desire to know and do your duty. To enter His house merely to have our ears entertained, and not our hearts reformed, must certainly be highly displeasing to the Most High God, as well as unprofitable to ourselves.
2. Give diligent heed to the things that are spoken from the Word of God. If an earthly king were to issue a royal proclamation, and the life or death of his subjects entirely depended on performing or not performing its conditions, how eager would they be to hear what those conditions were! And shall we not pay the same respect to the King of kings, and Lord of lords, and lend an attentive ear to His ministers, when they are declaring, in His name, how our pardon, peace, and happiness may be secured?
3. Do not entertain even the least prejudice against the minister. That was the reason Jesus Christ Himself could not do many mighty works, nor preach to any great effect among those of His own country; for they were offended at Him. Take heed therefore, and beware of entertaining any dislike against those whom the Holy Ghost has made overseers over you.
Consider that the clergy are men of like passions with yourselves. And though we should even hear a person teaching others to do what he has not learned himself, yet that is no reason for rejecting his doctrine. For ministers speak not in their own, but in Christ’s name. And we know who commanded the people to do whatever the scribes and Pharisees should say unto them, even though they did not do themselves what they said (see Matt. 23:1-3).
4. Be careful not to depend too much on a preacher, or think more highly of him than you ought to think. Preferring one teacher over another has often been of ill consequence to the church of God. It was a fault which the great Apostle of the Gentiles condemned in the Corinthians: ‘For whereas one said, I am of Paul; another, I am of Apollos: are you not carnal, says he? For who is Paul, and who is Apollos, but instruments in God’s hands by whom you believed?’ (1 Cor. 1:12; 2:3-5).
Are not all ministers sent forth to be ministering ambassadors to those who shall be heirs of salvation? And are they not all therefore greatly to be esteemed for their work’s sake?
5. Make particular application to your own hearts of everything that is delivered. When our Savior was discoursing at the last supper with His beloved disciples and foretold that one of them should betray Him, each of them immediately applied it to his own heart and said, ‘Lord, is it I?’ (Matt. 26:22).
Oh, that persons, in like manner, when preachers are dissuading from any sin or persuading to any duty, instead of crying, ‘This was intended for such and such a one!’ instead would turn their thoughts inwardly, and say, ‘Lord, is it I?’ How far more beneficial should we find discourses to be than now they generally are!
6. Pray to the Lord, before, during, and after every sermon, to endue the minister with power to speak, and to grant you a will and ability to put into practice what he shall show from the Book of God to be your duty.
No doubt it was this consideration that made St. Paul so earnestly entreat his beloved Ephesians to intercede with God for him: ‘Praying always, with all manner of prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and for me also, that I may open my mouth with boldness, to make known the mysteries of the gospel’ (Eph. 6:19-20). And if so great an apostle as St. Paul needed the prayers of his people, much more do those ministers who have only the ordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit.
If only all who hear me this day would seriously apply their hearts to practice what has now been told them! How ministers would see Satan, like lightning, fall from heaven, and people find the Word preached sharper than a two-edged sword and mighty, through God, to the pulling down of the devil’s strongholds!
Thanks to Tim Challies for editing this portion of Whitefield’s sermon.
James McDonald, husband to Stacy, father of ten (three married), and grandfather of two, serves as pastor of Providence Church. A man who has worn many hats, James has served as a design engineer, operations planner, global marketing director, and a publisher, but his true love is preaching God’s Word and ministering to God’s people. The McDonald family lives on two acres of heaven in the middle of nowhere Illinois, where they spend their spare time raising a few chickens, adventuring in the woods and corn fields, and reading good books.