A few years ago, John McClure had a good idea for a useful book for us preachers. Professor McClure interviewed a group of master preachers and teachers of preachers, seeking their best advice on various aspects of the homiletical task.
I was particularly struck by his section on sermon feedback from the laity. How do we get reliable, useable feedback from our listeners? How do we move beyond the conventional, “Good sermon, preacher” and toward worthwhile feedback that can be used in our sermon preparation?
Fred Craddock stresses that, in the congregation, we preachers are always receiving feedback, if we will be open and attentive to that lay response:
As to sermon feedback, I have two suggestions: First, if one is approachable and accessible, there will be feedback. At first it will not be profound or critical; the listener will have to test the preacher to see if feedback is welcomed and heard. Increasingly, feedback will be thoughtful and often full of memories, both painful and joyful. A sermon may thus evoke thoughts and feelings more associated with another time and place, and perhaps even another preacher, than with the present sermon. Response to such feedback may be immediate or may call for more extended conversation. Since feedback involves memory of not one but many depressed by any comments from listeners. Secondly, since the sermon grows out of and contributes to the congregational (and sometimes public) conversation, I suggest introducing into conversation with persons present or absent at its delivery portions of the sermon. This keeps the sermon alive and at work; it also removes the awkwardness some people feel about initiating response to the sermon with the one who preached it. (Fred Craddock)
Likewise, Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that while we are preaching, in the very act of sermon delivery, we are also receiving congregational response:
I am acutely aware of the congregation’s eye contact with me, their stillness or
restlessness, their silence or coughing–even their breathing. While this does
not give me specific information about how my sermon is being heard, it does
tell me whether or not I am being listened to.
John Claypool stresses the need for pastoral habits and practices that encourage sermon feedback from the laity:
I am always very available at the end of the service at the back of the
worship space, and have made it a point to never be rushed here, but to stay t
the church as long as there is anyone who has something that they want to share.
I listen with keen attentiveness to the things that people say about the sermon
as they leave. Many times a person will ask me, “I heard what you said this
morning, but what about this or that?” Their question will often lead me to the
next word in our ongoing pastoral conversation. I work in the southern region of
the United States , which means that people have been conditioned to not be
totally frank in their face-to-face encounters. (John R. Claypool)
Barbara Brown Taylor also stresses the possibility of a systematic attempt to get feedback:
From time to time I ask specific question of my listeners. I preach to one
women’s group twice each week, at an informal service on Thursday and again at a principal service on Sunday. I have asked them to pay attention to the
differences between the sermons (the first delivered from the altar rail without
notes, the second from the pulpit with full manuscript) and to tell me about the
difference in their hearing.
Many preachers make good use of an official sermon feedback group. Sunday is
not the best day for this, however. It seems easier to give and receive
responses to a sermon after it has had time to cool off
Lutheran preacher, Barbara Lundblad, with whom I have often done preaching workshops, is full of suggestions for preachers who really want feedback from their parishioners:
A weekly text study group within the congregation (we met on Wednesdays);
the first part of the session can be a reflection on last Sunday’s sermon. If a
preacher is open to genuine questions and disagreements, as well as compliments,
the group will begin to be more honest and helpful.
Structured sermon discussion during coffee hour after worship once a month. As two or three people to be reflectors each week; one of them might read the gospel text aloud to the preacher on Monday so the preacher hears the text. It may be helpful to give these reflectors three questions or open-ended statements, such as, “I got lost when…” or “When the sermon was over I was thinking…” Try to vary the reflectors; retired people, teenagers, single people, married people, men,
women, newcomers, and old-timers.
Tape sermons and listen alone or with a colleague.
Trade sermons with a friend or mentor (trade tapes if there’s no manuscript); ask for specific feedback: Did this image work? Where were transitions unclear?
In order to grow as preachers, we must get good feedback to our preaching and then we must integrate that feedback into our work.
(The quotes are from John S. McClure, ed., Best Advice for Preaching, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1998, pp. 135-145.)
William H. Willimon
I’ll see you this Friday, October 26, at the North East District, to hear Dr. Peter Steinke lead an important seminar on Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times. You won’t want to miss this event.