Reaping Blessing from Criticism
Speakers [including teachers and preachers] and writers who put their words out in public have, and must expect to have, their words and ideas assessed and criticised or judged with respect to their merits and faults. There is nothing fundamentally wrong or objectionable with this. Listeners and readers should weigh up the accuracy and truthfulness of what they hear or read and have an equal right to comment as appropriately in response.
However, in life we find that comments or criticisms can be intended to help, to question and challenge, or to disparage, and can be delivered in a balanced, kindly, awkward, considered, hurtful or aggressive manner. Speakers and writers can react to the comments and criticisms emotionally, dwelling only on their intent and manner and feeling too often only discouragement; or they can respond objectively, concentrating instead only on the content of the criticisms (no matter what their intent or manner) to see whether there is any validity in them and what lessons they can teach.
If we follow this second dispassionate track, we can unlock blessing. Viewed wisely and exploited positively, criticism can be instructive, leading to growth in understanding and skills. This is true within the church as in the world.
Suppose members of the congregation report that they cannot understand a sermon or part of it. It can be a legitimate and honest response because the sermon may contain unfamiliar, arcane words, or it may ramble and be illogically organised, or it may not provide adequate information to enable members to grasp the message clearly and fully. The presentation is at fault – not the content – and it is vital that a minister discovers whether his preaching has weaknesses in method like these.
Some judicious questioning and probing on his part with members should bring him a closer appreciation of the background and capacities of his congregation and of ways to compile his sermons so that they can be more effective and not obscure the message.
Suppose there is a claim of an error in theology. Would the minister want to be left in darkness and liable to repeating the error? Proverbs 27:5 is to the point: ‘Better is open rebuke than hidden love’.
What if instead the members are mistaken? Wouldn’t the minister be relieved to learn of their confusion so that he could remove the misconception? Especially when he could have contributed to it! He may have used a word without realising that it was ambiguous and hence capable of expressing an unintended meaning. Or he may have omitted important facts and so have clouded his real position. Or the arguments could have been assembled in a misleading order. Or he may not have realised that his people had been taught incorrectly in the past and taken adequate counteractive measures. The voicing of concerns by members opens the way through productive exchanges to enlightenment for congregation and minister.
No minister would hold that his sermons are perfect and congregations are gracious and enlightened not to expect them to be. But they will – and should – respond favourably to sermons that edify and lift their souls, and questioningly when sermons are confusing, contradictory or deadening. There is evidence that ministers themselves react in these ways to the preaching of their colleagues.
Probing or testing our actual performance and execution is a wonderful asset for taking us beyond the personal criticism to its factual implications, for exposing imperfections and in identifying ways to higher standards.
Manufacturers of appliances and designers of computer programs regularly engage in usability tests to ensure that customers will be able to use their products efficiently. Pharmaceutical companies pursue elaborate programs to discover which blend of drugs will be most successful and safest. Government and commercial organisations test forms and documents to produce versions that improve comprehension and reduce errors and misunderstandings.
Testing or probing for explanations to problems is exciting, challenging, and intellectually stimulating. It can enhance quality and lead to improved standards in preaching to the greater edification of the congregation and increased satisfaction for the minister. The end result: not discouragement, but encouragement all round.