There are two kinds of people it is very difficult to hear after a sermon. There are those who are always negatively picking apart the sermon and never ready to encourage. These are the perennial critics who are continually looking for fault in the sermon and seem unable not tell you about every perceived error they find. Such people offer little encouragement for the preacher and seem more concerned about showing how much better they would have handled the text or simply proving how much they know by critiquing the sermon ad nauseam. Though their critique may be right some of the time, their comments will register as little more than white noise to the preacher who will simply come to expect yet another round of criticism when they approach after the sermon.
The other tough group are those who think all messages are a tour de force. It is lovely to know that these individuals really want to encourage the speaker but their opinion soon becomes of little value when it appears every sermon is deemed amazing and fantastic. It certainly gives the preacher little confidence when even the sermons he knows were not A-1 are credited as the best thing since Peter at Pentecost and he hears other speakers, who perhaps should have spent a little longer in their studies, also being lauded in similar fashion. Again, the views of such people will soon fail to register with the preacher when the opinion seems to lack credibility. The truth is, nobody’s sermons are always A-grade efforts which totally nail it every time.
The problem with both of these views is that they lack any light and shade. Everything is either absolutely excellent or completely terrible, with little in between. It often belies the fact that the view is not based on the content of the message at all. Rather, the assessment is predicated either on the need of the individual to look thoughtful, encouraging, intelligent or whatever or it is simply a reaction to the personality of the preacher e.g. if we like him, everything he says is wonderful; if our hearts have turned against him, he will have no harder critic than us.
In part, the question revolves around how we listen to sermons. Some advice I heard a long while ago from Stuart Olyott was this: listen with a critical faculty not with a critical spirit. I often remind myself of this when listening to sermons and when choosing whether to comment on them to the preacher. If we heed this advice, we will find we don’t fall into either of the unhelpful traps outlined above.
So what is the difference between critical faculty and critical spirit? A critical spirit is one continually looking to find fault, trying to pick holes in whatever is said. Critical faculty, by contrast, is simply asking questions of the sermon to assess it properly. It is asking questions that help us properly evaluate whether what was said accord with what we are reading in the passage. A critical spirit is detrimental to the hearer and preacher alike. It will stop the truths of scripture from reaching into our hearts and allowing us to be shaped and moulded by the gospel. A critical faculty, by contrast, allows us to properly evaluate what is said and stops us simply accepting any old nonsense spouted from the pulpit whilst allowing us to genuinely rejoice in the truths that are legitimately brought out of the passage.
When assessing the sermon, be sure to employ your critical faculty. Ask questions such as where is this in the passage? Who said it? Why did they say it? Does this application naturally flow from the exposition and, in either case, how? These questions will help us work out whether a sermon is genuinely good or not. They are not borne out of a desire simply to criticise and show off, they flow from a real desire to know what scripture actually says. It means we can really rejoice when truth is proclaimed and we can filter what is perhaps not so much the word of God. It will also keep us from simply feeling sermons are good when it strokes our predispositions or we happen to find them uplifting or challenging (as fits our preference). It will help us to be shaped by scripture rather than assessing God’s word according to our own felt needs.