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The single oddest response I ever received after a sermon (true story) came from a man I had never met.
"Excuse me," he said, "Do you mind if I disturb you for a moment?"
"No," I said.
He put his thumbs in his ears, wiggled his fingers wildly, and made a noise that sounded like Ruga Ruga Ruga. Then he walked away. I haven't seen him since.
It was the oddest response I have received, but not the worst. The moments after preaching are an unusually vulnerable time. All preachers want their sermons to be about something more important than their own performance. And yet the messenger is enmeshed with the message; it takes a little time for the sermon to go off and sink or swim on its own and leave the preacher alone.
Everyone who preaches must come to grips with post-sermon comments. So without further ado, I present to you my top five most hated comments to receive after a sermon.
1. "Your preaching has improved." Sometimes when I hear this one it is strengthened by enthusiasm; your preaching has really improved. I think this comment is generally intended as a compliment, but it's hard to say. Certainly it carries the message that your previous sermons left plenty of room for improvement. Lots of horrible things may be improving—Charles Barkley's golf swing, movies in the Twilight series—but I still don't want to watch them. On the other hand, it's better than hearing, "Your preaching has really gone downhill."
2. "I'm so glad you said 'X'." But in fact you didn't say "X"; you were trying to say the opposite of "X." It makes you wonder what sermon they were listening to. I once spoke about the dangers of legalism: there are churches where a pastor could be filled with pride and lovelessness for years, but if he ever smoked a cigar he would be fired. Afterward one of the listeners said to me, "I'm so glad you spoke out against smoking. I've been waiting to hear that a long time." It made me want to improve my preaching.
3. "I heard Andy Stanley/Tim Keller/Jon Piper/Rob Bell give a similar talk one time." Only it turns out that their talk was actually much better than the one you gave, and the enthusiastic listener wants to give you a play-by-play account with commentary on why it was better. Sometimes the person will helpfully give you the list of podcasts to which he listens regularly. People rarely tell you about a talk they heard that was worse than the one you gave. Similarly, when a woman gets pregnant, no one tells her stories about happy pregnancies. Pregnant preachers must develop very strong nerves.
4. "I'm just not being fed." This is an all-purpose comment, offered more generally than in response to one particular message. But it does make me wonder, if preaching is a form of feeding, why is there no tipping afterwards? Perhaps preaching would improve if churches kept a large brandy snifter next to the pulpit so folks could drop in a little something to say, "Thank you for the effort."
5. "The Lord told me to tell you …" "… that you look tired," "… that you hurt my feelings," "… that this church needs more messages about stewardship/missions/culture wars/the Colbert Report," "… that you chose the wrong clothes." This sentence can end in a hundred ways, none of them happy.
Preaching is a mysterious business, and in some ways it's more mysterious to me now than when I started out. Sometimes the message you wish you could put in the discard pile will be the one God uses to change someone's life. Giving a bad message can bring just the humility you need to remember that preaching—and the kingdom in general—is never subject to human management or control.
What should we aim to hear when we're done preaching? After Jesus' first sermon, people were cut to the heart, and they asked what they needed to do to be saved. That's not a bad response to pray for. It sure beats Ruga Ruga Ruga.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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