Postsermonic Etiquette

crazy-preacher.jpgor, “How to Talk to Your Pastor About His Sermon”

What stinks about writing a post like this is that now, inevitably, people are going to feel unsure about what they say to me after my messages. They’ll hem and haw and wonder if I’m evaluating what they’re saying.

Well, I am. So just deal with it.

I’m going to step up and take one for the (preaching) team here and say a few things about how to (and how not to) talk to your pastor after he preaches. I think I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of encouragement and criticism after sermons enough now to be at least marginally qualified to write this post. I’ll look forward to the discussion, though—especially from you preachers out there.

So here we go, PB’s 8 commandments (I couldn’t think of two more to round out a decalogue) for how to talk to your pastor about his sermon:

1. Don’t say anything you don’t really mean

I’d say that this is the inviolable rule on the matter. Believe me, pastors do love and need encouragement. But not all encouragement is equal (see below). Pastors really don’t want you to tell them it was the greatest sermon you’ve ever heard (unless it was). Most pastors, because of the nature of their vocation and the necessity of being able to see through the facades and masks people use to hide what they really think and feel, have pretty highly attuned B.S. detectors. We know when you thought we tanked the sermon even if you’re saying it was awesome—usually because we know we tanked it.

We also know when the sermon was just okay. If it was just okay, don’t feel the need to say, “Awesome sermon, bro! That melted my face off!” If you say anything, feel free just to say something like, “Thanks for the word, pastor.” A good pastor, at the very least, even if he crotched the delivery, read the Word of God aloud (which has power in itself) and told the truth, so this sort of moderated thanks is appropriate. Most of us are aware of the fact that we’re not Charles Spurgeon. And, even if it was the greatest sermon you’ve ever heard, it is very important to keep #5 in mind (see below).

In any case, tread lightly in evaluating your pastor. Keep in mind how many people are consciously evaluating you in your job. Probably no more than 2-3. Most of us have anywhere between 80 and 1,000 people evaluating us every week.

2. Make your praise easy to receive

It’s really hard for pastors to know how they’re supposed to receive your encouragement and praise. When you say something even as simple as, “Hey, great sermon. Thanks!,” we really do appreciate it, but you have to remember what we’ve been told. We’ve been told (by seminaries; by other pastors) that you’re not supposed to say, “Thank you,” because saying “Thank you” somehow implies that you agree that you’ve got game and that you know you’re a rock star, and so you’re taking the glory for yourself instead of giving it to God.

On the other hand, if we listen to what we’ve been told, then every time someone gives us the slightest compliment, we have to say, “Oh, I’m glad God used me as a helpful instrument in your life this morning,” or something awkward like that. Ideally, we’d like to say both of those things, but all you said was, “Thanks,” so I don’t really want to respond with a 5 minute theological discourse on the concurrent role of the preacher and of God in a preaching ministry.

So, if you really want to bless your pastor after he preaches, do the work for him. Say things even as simple as, “That was really helpful to me, thank you.” So that we can simply respond with things like, “Good, I’m glad!” Or, you might even say something like, “That was great, Pastor, I really thank God for you and your ministry,” so that we can reply with, “Thanks,” without having to worry about it looking like we think God had nothing to do with it.

At the very least, just don’t second guess us when we simply say, “Thank you.” If your pastor has any sense or any modicum of humility at all he’s very aware that he is at best a broken vessel and that God deserves all the glory for anything good that came out of his sermon.

3. Give (constructive) criticism later

A humble pastor won’t mind criticism. In fact, if it’s competent and well-informed, he’ll probably invite it. Most pastors don’t have anyone who is trying to help them to be a better preacher because generally the only people who offer criticism are the grumpy, self-centered, never-satisfied-with-anything types. The intelligent, thoughtful, biblically-minded congregants, for some reason, rarely speak up. Usually because they’re people who love their pastor and don’t want to discourage him. But hear me say that your pastor needs constructive criticism. Three caveats:

First, he might be the sort of pastor who only wants criticism if he’s invited you to give it. Too much criticism, even if its constructive, can be overwhelming and defeating. So, tread lightly with the criticism until you know him well enough to ask him if he’d like your thoughts on his messages, or until he actually extends you an invitation to share your constructive criticism.

Second, constructive criticism includes what he did well, not just what he could better. This should go without saying. You can offer the former without the latter, but never offer the latter without the former.

Third, do not offer your criticism until at least Monday. If you have never preached, you have no idea how spiritually and physically exhausting it is. It’s tiring for him even if he only has to preach once on Sunday. If there are some weekends (like this last weekend for me) where he preaches three or four times, it’s downright annihilating. In that case you shouldn’t be offering criticism until at least Wednesday. So write your thoughts down, tuck them into your Bible, and share your criticism later in the week.

4. Encourage liberally (but remember #1)

Obviously, this one is tied to #3. Pastors need encouragement. No matter how stoic or impervious they seem, Satan is stronger than your pastor and he is exerting all his power to try to run your pastor into the ground with doubt and frustration. View it as a crucial personal ministry in your church to regularly encourage your pastor. Even if he isn’t John Piper or C.J. Mahaney, lay it on thick (provided that you’re remembering #1). You will help him defeat Satan and you will urge him on in working hard to open God’s Word up to his people.

5. Make your criticism and praise specific

This one is particularly important when it comes to criticism. If you don’t have specifics to offer, DO NOT OFFER CRITICISM. It is just not helpful at all to hear, “You know, I think you might just need to put a little more time and thought into your messages,” or “I think you’re trying to hard.” I’m about to try hard to kick all of your teeth out, pal.

Why do you think that? If you would explain yourself clearly and specifically, then I can either disagree with you because I think you’re wrong, or I can agree with your specifics and be helped, shaped, and strengthened by your criticism.

But this also goes for praise and encouragement. Pastors like to know what you think they’re doing well just as much as your wife (or hubby) likes to know what you love about her rather than that you just love her in general. The former is much more meaningful. Tell him what he’s doing well and he’ll build on it and make sure he keeps that strong even as he works on areas of weakness.

6. Talk about yourself

Pastors love to see God’s providence at work. It’s so exciting to me when I preach a sermon and some dude comes up to me and says, “If I didn’t know better I would have thought that you wrote that just for me, because that’s exactly what I’m going through.” That’s incredibly exciting because it is a reminder that God is at work behind the scenes to orchestrate not only the words of the sermon but the response of peoples’ hearts to what is preached. That is an incredibly exhilarating realization, reminding pastors that they are a small but important part of something massive that God is doing on earth.

7. Ask good questions (about the sermon)

If you have a good question about something specific that was said in the sermon, your pastor would love for you to ask it—even if he doesn’t have a great answer to it. Why? Because it shows that you were listening to and engaging with his message. It validates his labor. It shows him that his 15-25 hours of prayer, prep work, thinking, reading, and writing, done to serve you, weren’t wasted. Besides, often times it’s really frustrating only to have 30-50 minutes to speak because often times there is so much more a pastor had to cut out and leave unsaid. For that reason, he may really enjoy being able to say some of the things that he left out, even if it’s only to one person who prompts it with a good question.

DO NOT ask questions about biblical or theological issues not related to the sermon. Your pastor is dialed in to one thing on Saturday night/Sunday morning: his sermon and the sermon text. Send him an e-mail later in the week if you have a question about Open Theism after his message on marriage, smart guy.

8. Think before you speak

This is just a good tip in all of life, but especially so when you approach a tired preacher. He’s not up for your verbal diarrhea after his sermon, especially if he has to preach again in 20 minutes. So, put your thoughts together in your head before you speak, take careful stock of commandments #1-7, and only then fire away.

Preachers truly called by God delight in preaching. They see preaching as a happy burden, even when it’s more burden than happy (which I am happy to say, in my experience, is very rare). But the more happy and less burdensome you can make it, the more you will serve your pastor, yourself, and your church.


27 thoughts on “Postsermonic Etiquette”

  1. Is it a sufficient response to Saturday’s sermon to say that my wife and I made our Sunday-night small group listen to the podcast and we listened again?

    (P.S. Kudos to the tech crew for getting it there so quickly.)

    I mean… awesome sermon, bro’. That really curled my toes.

  2. Very nice Bryan. Could I get this in pamphlet form to hand out? There is nothing quite so awkward as post-sermon communication done poorly. And for the individuals, they only have to do it once, not dozens of times each week. I have remedied this situation somewhat by not making myself greet everyone after the service. I simply stand near the front, or begin to tear-down our stage set-up. Plenty of people come to talk to me, but they approach me and then usually they have something to say other than good job.
    The one thing I might critique would be your seeming hesitancy to say thank you. I have found it to be the only comfortable response, even when someone seems to be praising me without any reference to God’s work. If someone says “That was a great sermon” or the ever popular “Good sermon, pastor,” I find a simple, humble thank you is the only response that makes sense. (Maybe I should try pointing to the sky like I just caught a touchdown pass…) I actually do not recall any sem prof ever telling me not to say thank you.
    Incidentally, my best cornered-after-the-service story was the time a Seventh Day Adventist cornered me on Christmas Eve (after I had preached the nativity story) to argue with me about the Sabbath. He actually began that conversation with “So, you mentioned the Sabbath…” as if my sermon had mentioned the Sabbath and he was asking a question about my topic! He must have known your 7th commandment.

  3. Most of those rules could apply to worship leaders too. I have been leading worship for over 10 years and I still don’t know how to respond to ‘Worship was great today.’ Flattering? I think, but did I have something to do with that, yes, no, maybe. I know I don’t take the credit but I did plan and lead the music, oh man. I too have found the only sensible response is “thanks” and sometimes I add in there, “it was fun” because I usually think experiencing God in worship is fun no matter who is leading.
    Thankfully I am now a part of a community that recognizes the fact that if worship was ‘good’ it was 99% God and 1% the worship leader, so when I hear a compliment I can join in with them and say ‘it was good’ and we all know because God was moving in us. That’s nice.

  4. Vince,
    I agree with Jesse.

    That’s what I’m saying to pastors from now on.

    Thank you. (All glory to God, of course).

    I can empathize with that. I never know how to compliment my worship leaders (who are excellent). I need to take my own advice on some of these with regards to them.

    Two minor suggestions, though: I think we probably want to steer away from describing worship as “fun,” don’t we? That seems to be sending the signal that if it wasn’t “fun” it wasn’t very “worshipful.” Most hymns aren’t “fun” for me (like Hughes’s “Oh, Happy Day” is fun), but they’re often deeply worshipful.

    Second, I like to let people know that I think that the good that comes out of my sermons is 100% God and 100% me. It is entirely, 100% a work of God. And I prayed over, thought through, planned, wrote, and spoke 100% of it. That adds up to 200% but I don’t really care because God’s math is different.

    Thanks, man!

  5. Well here’s my excuse for all the dumb things I say to pastors – usually when I’m caught off guard and face to face with a pastor (or really any person of “status” or that I don’t know very well), I panic a little inside thinking I need to quick say something and then I blurt out the dumbest thing imaginable. Bryan, you’ve experienced many of these from me in the EC hallway. 🙂 Usually I manage to pack several of your listed “dont’s” all into one phrase or sentence. Then said pastor gets tripped up or annoyed and I feel stupid and its just awkward for all parties involved.

    Perhaps all you intimidating PhD/pastor people should just quit harassing us poor, lowly educated, socially inept folks by leaving us alone between sermons, eh? 😉

  6. PB – maybe you could save us all some trouble and just list in bullets the few exact phrases that are acceptable. I’ll keep them in my pocket and next time a pastor approaches me I’ll pull it out and feel confidently prepared. 😉

  7. Well now you know my secret and you’ll notice all the time. And yes you are – with every letter you add to the beginning or end of your name you become more and more conversationally intimidating to regular joe’s like me.

    Dr. Pastor Bryan C. McWhite, PhD.

    I won’t even be able to look you in the face once you have your PhD. I may as well start covering my eyes now. That’ll just eliminate any chance of idiotic blubbering. 😉

  8. I guess I must have missed some stuff, but my sincerest apologies if anything I said in jest was not nice or in any way related to what became not nice. 😦 Again with my idiotic blubbering.

  9. Wow, removed comments. Sometimes you can see a string moving in a bad direction, but this all seemed pretty positive.

  10. Right Darius. And that person need to respect their elders. The AARP community should never be the target of ridicule.

  11. You know what comment I get sometimes? “You were pretty loud today.” Nothing about effectiveness, no mention of the Holy Spirit or worship… just a statement regarding the obvious nature of my instrument.

    Next time I see you I’m going to try that one out. I can’t wait for you to see how it feels…

  12. Steve – you’ll love this one. Back in 2001 when I was a ridiculously avid U2 follower/fan, I actually met Bono and Larry Mullen Jr. (the drummer, for those of you who don’t know U2). Naturally I was at a loss for words, but when he came up to shake my hand I blurted out the dumbest thing imaginable — “You’re a great drummer.” I couldn’t tell if he was amused or annoyed, I think I saw him half roll his eyes, and I wanted to just melt into the ground.

    To be fair I was half frozen and majorly food and sleep deprived, but still. It was awful. Needless to say, I just kept my mouth shut when Bono came around. That went a little better. 🙂

  13. No joke. I could hear Jesse’s singing louder than my drums. I was loving it though.

    Jesse, sing with us more often bro… like, every week please. You rule.

  14. Bryan, hey I completely agree with you on the percentage of God and myself included in planing and leading worship, I didn’t communicate that well above. You are right, It is fully God and fully myself in those times.

    But I would have to respectfully disagree with your statement about not describing worship as ‘fun’. I find worship to be one of the most enjoyable things I do. Yes, there are hymns & songs that are tough to sing, but they are truth, worship songs speaking of the blood of Jesus, or the grace found in Him, or the glory of God are all very enjoyable and fun to me, because they are my hope! This is good news, this is connecting with God in song (and since I love music, I love being able to communion with God through it). We as humans are singing songs loves songs to God…and he listens – all that is really fun for me. So I guess when I respond to a compliment and say ‘yeah, it was fun’ I mean that because I just experienced God in worship. There are times when God brings repentance or conviction into hearts during worship, probably hard times and I would be careful not to say ‘that was fun’ but it still is a very positive and life giving experience that results in joy.


  15. I never thought there would be rules to giving compliments. From now on, I will make sure not to tell you how incredibly awesome I think your wife is. Mostly because SHE is the one who deserves the praise…not you.

    Goooo Leslie! (cheerleader jump!)

    Oh and Steve-try to keep it down. Drums are meant to be played quietly and with no emotion. In fact, I don’t even know why we use drums in church.

    Am I taking this too far yet? :o)

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