St. John Chrysostom is remembered throughout history as being a great preacher. “Chrysostom” indeed, actually means “golden-mouthed.” I imagine it was very likely a nickname he earned, rather than a prophetically accurate surname. It is therefore no surprise that he included some thoughts on preaching in his book On the Priesthood. Considering how prominently preaching is featured in many churches today, especially in the Evangelical tradition, it’s fun to go back and listen to preaching advice from past centuries (or in this case a past millennium!).
Let the best artificer be himself the critic of his own designs, and let his performances be determined to be good or poor, according as the mind which designed them gives sentence upon them. But let him not even consider the opinion, so erroneous and inartistic, of the outside world. Let, therefore, the man who undertakes the strain of teaching never give heed to the good opinion of the outside world, nor be dejected in soul on account of such persons; but laboring at his sermons so that he may please God, (for let this alone be his rule and determination, in discharging this best kind of workmanship, not acclamation, nor good opinions) if, indeed, he be praised by men, let him not repudiate their applause, and when his hearers do not offer this, let him not seek it, let him not be grieved. For a sufficient consolation of his labors, and one greater than all, is when he is able to be conscious of arranging and ordering his teaching with a view to pleasing God.
(First, I feel I should apologize for the clunky translation. Most of the writings of the Early Church Fathers were translated into English in the 1800’s, when very long sentences was still very much in style. Combine that with a slightly different use of vocabulary and their use of the King James Bible when quoting scripture, and these writings can oftentimes be difficult for modern readers to sort through.)
What this quote is pointing out is that preachers should not depend upon feedback from ordinary people to determine if a sermon was good or bad. Just as an artist prefers the opinions of equals in their art over someone uneducated in the field, so too should a preacher not rely too much upon sermon feedback from the pews. (Not that they had pews back in Chrysostom’s day, but that’s another matter.)
This is advice which retains its relevancy and usefulness today. All too often, we who preach leave church on Sundays feeling good or bad about ourselves based on how people responded (or didn’t respond) to our sermons. If several people compliment my sermon after the worship service, I go home in a good mood. If people look agitated, bored, or suspicious during my sermon, I can easily be effected by that, and go home afterwards feeling like I did something wrong.
Already, in my short time as a preacher and minister, I have experienced some strange instances of judgment from others. Someone once had the opinion that our little mission church needed a loud charismatic preacher who’d blow the doors down and attract in a multitude of people to make the church grow fast and furious. I am not that guy. I’m soft-spoken, mildly funny, quirky, even nerdy, and (sometimes to a fault) intellectual in my preaching. I don’t rile people up all that much, though I have developed a good rapport with my congregation. But the person who thought “we needed” a more charismatic speaker left soon after I was chosen to be the clergyman for Grace Anglican Church. And so I had to deal with that rejection. Thankfully it wasn’t a huge controversy – it was just one person’s opinions on a different track with the rest. Nevertheless, it was a lesson about the power of individual opinions and their effects on others.
What Chrysostom argues is that preachers should not put too much stock in congregational feedback on sermons, but instead, “for a sufficient consolation of his labors, and one greater than all, is when he is able to be conscious of arranging and ordering his teaching with a view to pleasing God.” Twice in the New Testament, St. Paul says much the same thing.
Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10).
Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts (1 Thessalonians 2:4).
And so the lesson is simple: preachers need to craft their sermons in such a way that it would please Jesus if he were in the congregation.
Of course, this is easier said than done, and it does not rule out the usefulness of peer review. Teachers and preachers should seek the advice of other teachers and preachers, and compare their styles with others’ styles so they can continue to adapt and improve over time.
And the whims of the congregation are still useful in some ways. If the people are largely confused, discouraged, upset, or otherwise negative in their response to the preacher, then perhaps, even if the content is accurate and true, there is something in the presentation or style that could be improved. Or on the other end if people are constantly praising their preacher(s), the preachers should take care to make sure they’re not simply telling the people what itching ears want to hear.
Not that I’m an expert, but these are some of the lessons I’ve become aware of over the years that is helpful for a preacher or teacher to keep in mind:
- Identify someone in the congregation who is visually emotive and representative of the flock as a whole – watch their reactions for confusion or surprise so you know when you need to back up and explain more carefully.
- Identify someone in the congregation who is wise in the Lord and sufficiently experienced in teaching and preaching that they can provide you periodic feedback. (They also need to be there on a regular basis so they hear the full scope of your speaking week by week.)
- Know the limits of your congregation: How long can you speak before you lose them?
How much can you teach in one go before they start losing track of you?
How much encouragement or rebuke does it take to speak to their hearts?
How much illustration do you need to provide for them to internalize biblical truths?
- Strike a balance between teaching (their minds), exciting (their hearts), and motivating (their lifestyles). This doesn’t have to mean every individual sermon needs all three, but over the course of each month or liturgical season, make sure you give all three their proper attention.
And if you’re not a teacher or preacher, or just do so occasionally, it’s worth learning a little about it, so you can gain some insight into what your pastors and teachers go through and are trying to do for you week by week. An attentive congregation is a huge blessing both to their preacher and to themselves!