To anyone mystery-shopping my sermon

Over the years I have benefited from the occasional helpful criticism of my preaching.  And, may I add, my preaching was not helped at all by the sniping from another segment of the audience.

Smiley-face here.

Mystery-shoppers are people who, with the pastor’s full acceptance, visit your church as first-timers and later file complete reports on a hundred aspects: Their impression on arriving at your campus, whether the signage was adequate, if someone greeted them in the parking lot, whether they spotted trash or clutter on sidewalks, the friendliness of your people, condition of the bathrooms, and of course the service itself: the choice of music, the flow of the service, the arrangement of the platform, and the sermon.

Ah, the sermon.

It’s a rare pastor who wants you to unload on him about his preaching.

But it’s a wise preacher who seeks reactions and helpful input from other ministers and trained listeners.

Most of us feel insecure enough about our weekly effort to expound the Word of God without inviting a stranger to pick it apart.

I’m suggesting, however, that pastors would benefit from doing this very thing.

Invite someone to mystery-shop your sermon.

Looking back over my fifty-plus years of preaching, I can recall specific criticisms, helpful or otherwise, sent my way as a result of my sermonizing. (The fact that I still recall it says it had an impact.)

–Howard Taylor was pastoring Calvary Baptist in Greenville, Mississippi, and had me over for a revival. A couple of services into the week, he said, “Joe, preach for decisions.”  That was something I needed. Looking back, I’m confident I was loading the messages with information and teaching, but was not effectively applying them and not “drawing the net,” as we say.  That was 30 years or more ago and I’ve benefited ever since from Howard’s suggestion.

–A deacon in a church in Tonbridge, Kent, England, told me why we had had no response to the public invitations (“altar calls”) both Sundays following my sermons.  “Had you told us when you began that today you would be extending an altar call, we would have been prepared.  But you sprang it on us there at the end, and caught us by surprise.”

Where had I heard that before? We had been taught this very thing in the Billy Graham Evangelism School in Birmingham, held at the same time as the crusade at Legion Field by this great evangelist.  The instructor, himself a noted preacher and author, pointed out that “Mr. Graham begins the invitation as soon as he walks to the podium and starts to speak.”

Some lessons bear repeating until they take.

–Various church members urged me over my 12-plus years of pastoring First Baptist Church, Columbus, Mississippi, to remove the humor from the final part of my sermons.  I can hear them yet: “Joe, you’re preaching along, doing good, and people are really with you. And then you spoil it all by inserting some joke toward the end.  Don’t do that.”

They were right, but taming my lifelong sense of humor was not a simple thing. If a funny remark popped into my thoughts, it certainly demanded being expressed, didn’t it?  (It took a long time to bring this side of me to the cross and put it under the rule of the Holy Spirit.)

–In my first pastorate, Unity in Kimberly, Alabama, the leading layman suggested I leave the slang out of my preaching.  That was the first criticism my sermons ever received and it was on target.

Over the years, people have suggested I shorten my sermons, lengthen them, tell fewer stories, tell stories better, preach social issues, preach more prophecy, preach less of this or that, and to take “You know” or “Okay?” out of my sermons.  They were often right.  Not always, but often, at the moment at least.

I can hear a pastor saying, “I don’t need to ask for criticism. I get enough of it as it is now.”

True enough. But my response is that you would appreciate a different kind of analysis, one from someone who knows the difficulty of preaching and is not just sniping or belly-aching.  You would love to have the helpful analysis of someone you chose and enlisted to visit your church.

It’s not enough for them to sit in their office, visit your church’s website and watch your message online. It’s not the same.  (We’ll take that if we can’t get anything else, but ideally you want this mystery-friend to visit your church and sit in the congregation.  The congregation’s reaction is a part of your sermon.)

Here are my suggestions concerning enlisting a friend to mystery-shop your preaching….

1) Take three or four key church leaders into your confidence on this, making them aware of what you are trying to do. Get their prayer support.

2) Do this once a quarter for one year.

3) During the week following your friend’s visit, sit down in your home or his/hers and have that hour-long visit.  Listen to their report (hopefully, they will also hand it to you in written form) and follow up with your own questions.

4) Receive it all with thanksgiving and appreciation.  Do not become defensive.

5) Remember no one but you is seeing the friend’s report.  (That is essential!)  So, you do not have to do anything he recommends.  It’s all grist for your mill, as the saying goes.

6) Whom should you enlist to do this?  A seminary near you will provide a wealth of resources.  Retired pastors would love to do this.  Or an unemployed preacher or other staffer.  Sharp laypeople from churches in nearby towns would do excellently.

7) Should you pay them for mystery-shopping your preaching?  If you’re able to do so, then you should.  If not, write them a great letter of appreciation afterwards.

Someone is saying, “The Holy Spirit is the only audience I play to.”  As noble as that sounds, it isn’t true.  If so, speak in Hebrew and be done with it.  As the shepherd of the Lord’s flock, you are there to feed them in ways that work for them, spiritual food that is palatable and digestible and nourishing.

Anyone who thinks that is simple and easy is not living in the real world. We need all the help we can get to do it well.

I’m suggesting we invite criticism from someone who understands.

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