A few years ago a couple approached me with clenched fists after a sermon.
I thought, this can’t be good.
All weekend people thanked me for teaching on a topic that had frustrated them for years. I worked tirelessly on the message and felt that God had honored the time on my knees and at my computer.
It was a good weekend.
Then, this couple, ironically both professors at a local Christian College, accused me of “twisting my words” and “misleading people.” For 12 minutes they raked me over the coals as my tear-down crew walked by wrapping up speaker cables and moving chairs.
It takes a lot to rattle me.
Three hours later I was still trying to quell that nervousness, the kind of feeling you get after you’re in an automobile accident. After their verbal blistering, I had to simply walk away; but they chased me down and gave me more.
Stewing on it a few days later, I was amazed by two things:
First, I was amazed at how much that one negative conversation overshadowed the twenty-five or so positive ones that also took place.
Second, I was amazed by how negative people still affect me after preaching all these years.
One of the temptations we pastors can succumb to is preparing and delivering sermons based on the compliments, requests, flattery, and feedback of the people we serve.
While we always want to preach to meet the spiritual needs of the people we serve, what if God wants us to preach on something that will royally tick them off?
Just this week in my time with God I began reading the book of Ezekiel. Look at what God told Ezekiel when he called him to preach,
The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them.
And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house.
You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. (Ezekiel 2:4-7)
I was struck by that. Not only because I’m usually more rebellious than anyone I’m speaking to, but because of how chicken I can be.
I want to be liked.
I hate getting criticized.
I don’t want Ezekiel’s job.
But that’s our calling.
As my dad tells me, “You stand up there and tell the truth and take the hits like a man. That’s just what leaders do. It’s not easy, but if it were, everybody would be doing your job.”
Pastors, if you’re having trouble wanting to please people through what you say on Sundays, you’ll do well to heed the advice of the great 4th-century pastor, St. Chrysostom. In Book 5, section 7, of On the Priesthood, his preaching “how-to” book for pastors of his day, he urged,
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 in 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.
How much does criticism affect you?