Keeping Ourselves on Target

A good reminder for preachers and teachers.
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From the book Mastering Contemporary Preaching

When I first began teaching publicly, as a youth minister in the early seventies, I taught in a conversational, dialogue style. After all, there were just twenty-five kids. When my material wasn't all that useful, one of the students would raise a hand and say, "Can we move on?" Then I'd realize I was missing the mark, or I had overstayed my welcome in the Book of Leviticus, and we would move on.

I stayed with that style for more than a year, but then we started outreach programs, and all of a sudden the group jumped from 25 to 150. My teaching style soon became inappropriate for the larger group; I actually had to start putting together formal messages. In a panic, I went to a senior pastor friend and said, "I have to start giving full-blown messages to 150 high school students. What do you suggest?"

He said, "Well, if I were you, I would get a copy of Berkhof's Manual of Christian Doctrine and just start at chapter 1 and teach these kids." Sounded fine to me. So I read the first chapter of Berkhof, did some underlining and preparation, and that night began delivering it to a roomful of students.

Five minutes into that talk, I started to see glazed expressions. Students were looking around the room to see who was there. Others were looking at their watches, passing notes to each other, drawing on the backs of the chairs in front of them.

Right then, I knew this teaching was not useful. I was so disheartened by what was happening that I stopped about a third of the way into the message.

"I have to apologize," I said, "for the fact that I am missing the mark tonight. What I prepared to say is obviously not on target. And I want to make a commitment to you students. If you'll come back next week, I'm going to talk about something straight out of the Bible that is going to make a difference in your understanding of God, in your appreciation of the Christian faith, and in how you live your daily life. And if you'll give me another opportunity, I'd like to prove that to you."

The next week most of them returned, graciously, maybe just to humor me. But from that day on, I have lived with a sanctified terror of boring people or making the relevant Scriptures irrelevant. That experience helped me die to pride on the issue of having my teaching evaluated.

Every preacher is evaluated, one way or another, by every listener. I want to get evaluation that will help me be most effective in reaching people with God's truth. I consider getting accurate evaluation part of my job.

The Right Questions

Constructive evaluation won't happen, though, no matter how willing I am to receive it, unless I'm asking the right people the right questions at the right time.

By right people, I mean people with great discernment whom I have learned to trust. It will only distract, confuse, or harm me to get input from everyone. Instead, I want to go to wise counselors.

By right questions, I mean that I want to find out how I'm communicating at a variety of levels:

  • Each illustration—did it communicate what I intended?
  • Each message—did it serve its function in the series?
  • A year's worth of messages—are they covering the topics and passages this congregation wants and needs to hear?
  • My preaching as a whole—is it helping to accomplish the goal of my ministry?

Finally, by right time, I mean I want to receive evaluation when it's most effective. Obviously, that's when I can do the most about it. Finding out after I deliver a message that it was slightly off track is somewhat useful. But how much more productive it is to find out before I put twenty hours into something that wasn't well aimed! So increasingly, I ask "evaluation" questions during the planning stages before I preach. Each weekend, for example, I preach the same message three times—once on Saturday night and twice on Sunday morning. I try to get evaluation immediately following the Saturday night service, so I can make adjustments before I preach the same message two more times. As a result, some Sunday mornings have found me in my office at 5:30. But getting evaluation early keeps me from making one mistake multiple times.

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