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Before I started Collective Church, every church I ever regularly preached in used Comment Cards in their services. These are cards that are given to every person in the room and are collected during the offering at the end of the service. Most churches use this system primarily to gather prayer requests, but people are invited to offer any feedback they like on the cards. So, with the Comment Cards, any person in the church can write a positive or negative comment and submit it to be read by the entire church staff.
Comedians have hecklers. Preachers have Comment Cards.
Every time I ever preached at a church that used Comment Cards, I would receive at least a handful of complimentary remarks via the cards. I always appreciated the kind words and positive feedback—in fact, there were some weeks that my entire sense of self-worth came from them.
Of course, all of the comments were not positive. Not every time, but at least 75% of the times when I would preach, I would receive at least one or two negative comments on the cards.
One negative comment I received several years ago said this:
“Why does Rob wear such grungy jeans? Casual is great. Dirty, not so much.”
I feel like I should point out that this comment came through on a weekend in which I was particularly proud of the sermon. It was my first Sunday to preach after my daughter was born. I even showed an adorable newborn picture of her, just to butter up the crowd. I had people laughing in all the right places, and I passed out string cheese. I still look back at that sermon as one of my favorites. Feeling like you did a great job is a pretty rare thing, so I was trying to savor it a little bit.
And then I read the comment about my jeans.
True story: I read that comment and then went right out and bought two new pairs of jeans and saved them to wear exclusively on Sunday mornings.
As annoyed as I was that the only thing the commenter found memorable about the entire service was what I was wearing, I realized that she was probably right. In fact, my wife had said something very similar to me only a week earlier. “You’re a grown man,” she had said. “You can afford to buy new pants every once in a while.” Message received.
Sometimes our critics are right.
Sometimes I need to give my ego a little time-out and choose to learn from the people who say negative things about my work.
I wish all of the negative comments I’ve ever received were as innocuous as “Rob needs new jeans.”
During my first year as a teaching pastor at one church, I preached four weeks in a row during the summertime, and there was one woman in the church who wrote something negative every single week that I spoke. One of her comments read-
“When is [senior pastor] or [other teaching pastor] going to preach again?”
The next week, she sharpened the blade a bit and wrote this-
“Was there a message? We feel Carmack jumps from one idea to another with no connection to each other.”
I should also point out that, for some insane reason, that church’s Connection Cards offer a rating system. This enables people to give the various service elements a numerical rating from 1 to 5 (“1” being terrible and “5” being awesome). On the first week’s comment cards, the woman who left all the negative comments rated the music a 4 and the sermon a 1. So as part of her vendetta against me, this woman also wrote about how much she loved the music and hated my preaching, continuing to give me 1’s every week. Throughout my time at that church, this woman consistently wrote on her Comment Cards about how much she disliked me.
There is nothing I can do about this kind of criticism. Like I said in Part 3 of this series, I will never make everybody like me. Some people will criticize you just because they don’t like your style, which feels pretty close to not liking you.
That said, there are times when we receive criticism, and our critics are right. When the commenter said that I needed to buy new jeans, she was correct, and I responded to that bit of feedback by fixing the problem.
So here’s what we need to do-
Listen to Your Critics
By far, the most common criticism I have received about my preaching is that I talk too fast. This is a perfectly valid critique, and I have spent years working on my pacing and trying not to race the clock with my words. In fact, if you were to go back and listen to some of my sermons from five or six years ago and then listen to one of my sermons from the past few months, you might notice that I have slowed down quite a bit. It’s still something I’m working on, though. Every time I preach, I think about how fast I am talking.
Another bit of feedback I have received has been related to my body language and hand gestures. I used to wander around the stage aimlessly, wasting lots of energy by walking in circles or flapping my arms for no apparent reason. I had no idea I was doing this until someone pointed this out. I watched a few videos of myself preaching, and I realized that the person was absolutely right. I needed to be more aware of my own body while I was speaking.
If you spend any time speaking in public, I’m sure you have your own list of quirks and habits that tend to hold you back from delivering at the highest possible quality. The trick is to know yourself well enough to understand what needs to be fixed. Always work toward making the next sermon (or speech or presentation or whatever) better than the one before.
This is a habit that standup comedians, as a group, have developed. They scrutinize every minute aspect of their onstage presentation, and they work toward getting better every time they hold a microphone.
Some people get very defensive about their work, and they do not respond well to constructive criticism. They don’t want to know that they talk too fast or that their body language is weird. They only want to be told how great they are. They don’t want to get better because they want to believe that they are already as good as they can possibly be.
Sometimes our critics are trying to make us better at what we do.
Not always, of course. There will always be the critics who are mean-spirited or simply don’t like you because they prefer something else.
We need to learn to discern between helpful criticism and cruel criticism. If a piece of criticism seems designed only to make you feel bad about yourself—not just your work, but yourself—feel free to disregard and keep working on your craft. However, if a piece of criticism—while possibly painful to hear—contains something helpful or true, pay attention to it. Use it, and get better.
What bits of feedback seem to come back to you over and over again? Perhaps someone is trying to help you improve your art.
If you don’t know how you can work to improve, just ask someone close to you. They already know.