Keeping Ourselves on Target

A good reminder for preachers and teachers.
Keeping Ourselves on Target

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.

Asking someone to evaluate your preaching is a delicate operation, and the people, questions, and timing are going to vary with each pastor and church. But let me share how I have tried to gain the information that would make my preaching better.

Evaluating One Sermon

The elders at Willow Creek would always respond truthfully when I asked them about the accuracy or relevancy of my preaching. But unless I asked, they wouldn't say anything. So over the course of time, we have formalized the process. Now the elders evaluate every message that I preach, and they give me a written response to it within minutes after I complete the message. One elder—our most discerning when it comes to preaching evaluation—collects responses from the other elders, summarizes them, and writes them on the front of a bulletin and gives it to me before I leave.

For example, on a recent Wednesday night I gave a strong call to honoring the lordship of Christ. One elder called me (though usually his comments would just be written on the bulletin) and said, "I really do appreciate all of what you said and the style and the tone of what you communicated Wednesday night. Now that you've made that emphasis, I feel it's important for you to remind the people regularly in ensuing messages of the assisting work of the Holy Spirit. We need his power to submit consistently to that kind of lordship."

I said, "Good word." That's the kind of correction I need, because sometimes I will feel so strongly about a subject that the sheer force of my personality causes complications I didn't intend. People think I was angry about something. And so hearing how my tone and demeanor come across is very important to me.

This past Wednesday night, I again spoke on the lordship of Christ, and several elders remarked that they appreciated the spirit and tone with which I spoke. In this message, they said, I was not strident, but gave a loving call to discipleship. That meant a lot to me.

I realize the thought of having elders evaluate every message—or any message—is a frightening thought for many pastors. I confess that the primary reason this system of accountability and evaluation works in our setting is because of the enormous trust and love that has been built between my elders and me. When I work sometimes twenty-five or thirty hours on a sermon, and pour my life into it, and pray over it, and write out three drafts—if the evaluation is not done with great sensitivity and with no ulterior motives from the evaluators, the system would be imperiled. If I ever, even once, sensed a private agenda or hobbyhorse one particular elder wanted to ride, this form of evaluation we enjoy might unravel.

Having said that, however, we have taken several steps to ensure effective evaluation.

First, I freely admit to them I'm sensitive about having my preaching evaluated. I have told the elders probably a hundred times, "I am extremely vulnerable about these evaluations in the first four minutes after I get down from the pulpit. I would appreciate very much if whoever's doing the evaluating would put a lot of time into thinking about how to present constructive criticisms to me." The elders have understood that and worked hard on it.

Second, we filter all the evaluations through one person. It used to be that if I had said something a little off the mark in an illustration, by the time I got to my office, I'd heard about it seven or eight times. After the third elder would say something, I would say, "Enough already; I got the point." But each one felt responsible to say something. So finally I went to the elders and said, "Time out. The seven pats on the back when I preach well are nice, but the seven slaps when I blow it are excruciating. Let's filter all the comments through one elder so I'll hear things only once."

We chose as the person to collect responses a man who has a rare ability to affirm that which should be affirmed. The agreement is this: If an elder senses a message was right on the mark, then there's no need to find this elder appointee and say anything. If the message was incredibly insightful—I think it's happened once or twice—then make a point of telling the appointed elder. And if there's a problem in the message, naturally, the elder appointee should hear about that. But there isn't a formal caucus after each message, because over the years this particular elder's evaluation has been recognized as almost always illustrative of the feelings of the group. And usually he will talk to two or three elders before he talks to me.

A third principle that makes the system work for us is that there's give and take on the evaluations. A lot of times, the elder appointee will say something like this: "You might reconsider the use of such-and-such a word, given the fact we have so many former Catholics." I'll ponder that and say, "I didn't realize that would offend them. It's no big deal to replace a word there. I can use another word, and everybody's happy."

But other times he'll say, "Might you consider not making reference to the football player?" And I'll say, "If this is one of those 'might you reconsider,' I think no; it's very important for the non-churched men I'm trying to reach." As many times as not, the elder will say, "I can understand that."

Of course, periodically, there are the comments such as, "Please change this; please delete the use of that word; please delete that illustration. We can talk about it later, or call me at home, but we have strong reservations about that concept." And in those cases, I change it. The elders (and board members and staff people, whom I occasionally ask for evaluation) are discerning people who know when I hit the mark and when I forgot to load the gun.

I used an illustration one time about sitting next to a black attorney on a plane returning from Washington, D.C., and went on to talk about our conversation. One of the board members stopped me on the way out after the service, smiled, and said, "Was it necessary to say that attorney on the plane was black? Were you proving that you're impartial? What were you saying there?"

"It never crossed my mind," I said. "I was just reporting the facts. He was black."

He said, "I would guess that as many people wondered why you noted that he was black as benefited from the point of your illustration."

I said, "Now that's a good insight." To me, I was just reporting the facts, but reporting that fact clouded my illustration in many people's minds; that one word made them miss the whole point of the illustration.

I know I've heard other speakers mention offhandedly in an illustration, "I saw this obese woman," and I'm painfully aware that if I said that, many people in my church would have their self-esteem destroyed. They would be out of commission the rest of the sermon and not hear anything else I said. And the offhanded comment had nothing to do with the point of the illustration!

In fact, I got so tired of having ancillary issues become the dominant issues in my preaching, simply because of carelessness, that I now write my sermons in three drafts and include every word of every illustration. Now I'm not suggesting for a moment that other preachers inflict themselves with a discipline that I have chosen willfully and joyfully to submit to. I just got sick of reading, "Did you realize who might have been hurt by your reference to that? Your off-the-cuff remark about this may have meant this …"

Writing out sermons does offer many fringe benefits. I've found it helps me structure a sermon, because I can see the main points emerge. And writing helps expand my vocabulary. When someone talks, he tends to use repetitive word forms. When he writes, he realizes that two pages ago he used that particular word so it would be inappropriate to use it again. But the primary reason I write out a message is so that when I reread it before I deliver it, I can ponder. Who is that going to trip? What ancillary issue will that make dominant? It helps me say exactly what I want to say and not raise other issues that block the main point.

If, after reading the sermon I'm preparing, I still have a question about the appropriateness of a certain point, I may talk it over with an elder. This is especially true of messages for Wednesday night, when there's no second chance to fix them. The elders and I meet to pray before services, and if there's a troubling issue I'm going to get into, I'll say then, "I feel I have to mention this certain topic, and I was planning to handle it this way. Are you all going to feel comfortable with that?"

Having elders or other trusted people evaluate each sermon sounds like work. It is. But this evaluation has saved me so many times from saying something I would regret later, that I have reached the point where I wouldn't want to preach without it.

Evaluating a Year's Worth of Sermons

Sometimes, though, I need to step back and look at more than one message or series. The zoom lens is fine, but sometimes you need to use a wide-angle lens to get everything in. I've found it natural to look at a year's worth of messages at one time.

The only way I can do this, though, is to get away from the church for an extended period in which I can pray, read, and look back over my previous year's sermons. I have started taking a summer study break each year, and I'm convinced it has improved my teaching. Only when I'm away from the crush of the daily routines can I see patterns of strengths or neglected areas. Suddenly I notice topics or themes that have gotten lots of attention and others that have been overlooked.

But when a year's worth of preaching is at stake, I don't want to wait until it's over to listen to people in the congregation. After 100 messages, evaluation comes almost too late. What I need more is to hear people's interests and concerns before I start the year.

As a result, I have developed a three-step approach to planning a coming year's sermons, and I get input from people at every step.

In April, I select eight or nine people from the congregation. I choose people who are members of our main target audience (suburban business people who wouldn't feel comfortable in many traditional church settings). Sometimes I'll add someone who is highly creative, or who represents a large segment of the congregation in terms of his or her age, career, family situation, or whatever. I give these people an assignment: "Circulate in your social circles and find out on what issues people would like clear teaching from the Word of God. Then, based on that, put together what you feel would be an ideal sermon series addressing those needs. Come up with a series title, how you would break down the topic, and what your emphasis would be. You can work with anybody you want, and you have thirty days to do it."

People think. Hey, this might change what 1 have to listen to! and they get motivated. They talk to their friends and people they work with. Some of them invite groups of people to their homes for input.

Then this group and I go away together for two and a half days. We meet from 8 A.M. till midnight, with a few hours off to eat and let the jets cool. The main thing I do is listen and take notes. I ask the first person, "Read me one of your series titles and the sermon titles that would be a part of that," and we discuss it. Usually one idea will trip another idea, and we'll end up with thirty or forty viable sermon series.

For example, I just preached a series entitled "Seasons of a Spiritual Life" that included four messages: "The Season of Spiritual Seeking," "The Season of Spiritual Infancy," "The Season of Spiritual Adolescence," and "The Season of Spiritual Adulthood." That title and breakdown of messages came straight from this group.

After that I launched a series about Jesus entitled "Someone You Should Know." What a great title! Later I worked on still another idea from this group: "Families in the Fast Lane."

During the month following this meeting, I go over all the ideas the group came up with. I rule out any topics I just covered in the past few months, as well as any that are extraneous to the scope of Willow Creek's ministry. From the remaining proposed sermon series, I choose twenty I feel I could really work with or that stimulate some interest in me.

Then I convene a second group made up of elders and senior staff members. We go away for three days and make the final selections for the coming year—which of the twenty contenders we will preach, and in what order.

It's amazing to me the wealth of wisdom that comes out of a plurality of godly people who look at life differently than I do. Last year, in the first planning session, someone had proposed a series of sermons on fear: a message on the fear of failure, another on the fear of living alone, another on the fear of dying, and so on. When the person proposed it, I thought. That series will never make it. Those fears were simply not things that kept me awake at night. But I did leave it in as one of the twenty contenders for the second planning group to consider. When the elders and senior staff began to discuss it, I told them frankly I just couldn't see it working. But these highly discerning people looked at me and said, "Bill, just because you don't wrestle with these fears doesn't mean other people don't. People have these fears—normal people. Take our word for it that this subject is pleading to be spoken to."

So I agreed to preach the series, even though it wasn't one I would have chosen. But as they suspected, it was tremendously beneficial for our church. In fact, "The Fear of Dying" was one of the most highly requested tapes in recent years!

How Well We Meet Our Overall Goal

So far I haven't mentioned the usual barometers we use to measure our preaching: informal comments from people after services, letters they send, the number of tapes ordered, or comments from our spouse at home. Not that I don't think these measures are important. The problem is that I (and other preachers, I suspect) tend to put too much importance on them. And if we're not careful, that can lead to a subtle imbalance in our preaching.

It happened to me. Here's how.

Over the last thirteen years, the period in which Willow Creek has developed, society has fragmented at a frightening pace. When we started the church, maybe 5 percent of our congregation was made up of people who were so badly wounded they were dysfunctional. They grew up in homes with alcoholics/ or were sexually abused or verbally abused, or were abandoned, divorced, or victimized in one form or another. Now, as a result of trends in society, that percentage has grown to probably 15 percent.

During this time, I have been careful to use the normal ways of listening to people and getting feedback about my preaching. I have a commitment to stay after a service as long as anybody wants to talk. After a typical service, I'll have serious conversations with probably thirty people. In addition, people write to me; I'm contacted by between 100 and 150 people a week.

But what I have not been sharp enough to pick up on, until recently, is that this sample of conversations and letters doesn't reflect the total congregation. It's skewed. Why? Because the people who will take the time to stay after a service in order to talk, or who will take the time to write a letter, are from the segment of the congregation that tends to be dysfunctional. They are so wounded that they write impassioned letters, and they are so hurting they are willing to stand for forty-five minutes in order to talk to me.

What I didn't notice, because it happened so subtly over time, was that I was not being contacted by the 85 percent of the congregation who are fairly functional, normal people who want to get on with their lives and grow. The preponderance of my interaction was with the 15 percent: wounded, needy people who were screaming out for me to be helpful. They did not want me to talk about picking up a cross and carrying it to serve Jesus Christ. They did not want me to talk about denying themselves. They did not want me to talk about making a difference with their lives. They wanted to be helped and loved and encouraged and nurtured.

So when I would give a message on "God will be with you even in your pain," or something like that, all the normal indicators of preaching effectiveness would go sky-high. Letters and phone calls would start coming that said, "Thank you for that tremendously helpful message." People would stand in long lines to tell me that message was just what they needed. I looked at all that and thought. If I really love the flock, if I'm here to serve the flock, that's the kind of preaching I'm going to do.

Then I went on my summer study break. As I evaluated the past five years of sermons, I began noticing subtle shifts. Five years ago, I realized, 70 percent of my messages were what I would call firm discipleship or gospel-oriented messages. Only 30 percent were more general, helpful messages. But over the years, those numbers have almost flipped. I was floored.

I reread Loving God, and when I finished, it dawned on me, Chuck Colson thinks we ought to be producing fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ in our churches. All I'm trying to do is patch up people's lives. All I'm trying to do is lift burdens off sagging shoulders.

I began to ask myself. What about the 85 percent? Who is challenging these people to full discipleship? And who is asking these people to become kingdom men and women? Who's asking these people to lay down their lives for the cause of Christ? I'm not. And I'm the only preacher they have.

I could say very honestly I had not done anything consciously to preach a cheap gospel. I was trying to proclaim a compassionate gospel. Let any sensitive pastor talk with 125 people a week, the preponderance of whom are wounded, victimized, and crying out for help, and it takes a toll. You begin to think. How can I add the burden of kingdom responsibility onto the shoulders of people who are bent over already? I don't have the heart for it. My authentic motivation for that subtle shift was to be more responsive to a broken people. But as I spent days earnestly seeking the mind of God, it became clear to me that even though the motivation for the subtle shift was admirable, continuing down that path would be disaster.

When all this crashed in on me, it was both exhilarating and devastating. For weeks, I wrestled with what had happened. I came back and talked to the elders about it, and the minute I alerted them to this, everybody could see it. They said, "We knew something was happening, too." But no one had the luxury that I had of spending several weeks trying to hear what God was saying. The elders are godly people; I only had to mention the change in a cursory fashion and they said, "That's it. It's got to change."

Our solution has been to offer regular seminar and workshop teaching and therapy on all of these areas of victimization and pain. We are able to say to the 15 percent, "There is a place for you; there's hope for you; there's a context for you to receive the nurturing and expertise that are going to really solve your problem." But it's primarily in our counseling center, not in our Sunday service. And that makes sense. Allan McKechnie, the head of our counseling center, has pointed out to me that lasting change rarely comes out of large-group therapy, which is what I was attempting. It comes in the context of small groups or one-on-one discussions.

That frees me to be able to do the kind of teaching that exhilarates me and fulfills me and that is a true representation of who God made me to be. It's with the 85 percent.

Take, for example, a recent Wednesday night message. A theme of this whole ministry is "You Matter to God." During that recent message, the first or second after my study break, I said, "We talk a lot around here about the fact that you matter to God. That's right, and that's true. But let me ask you this: Does God matter to you?"

It's interesting what has happened as a result of our sharpened focus. I used to drive home on a Sunday feeling as though I had been run over by a truck. I would talk after the service with dozens of people who were struggling to make it through another day, and I would feel totally defeated. I would come in the house, and Lynne would say, "That was a great message this morning." And I'd say, "What message? I don't even remember preaching."

But since this new understanding has come, I talk to just as many people, but because of the subject matter I'm preaching these days, the conversations invigorate me. People are wrestling with what it means to be a man or woman of God. Even the wounded people see their need in a spiritual way. I'm not doing therapy; I'm doing discipleship. And that kind of talking doesn't exhaust me; it infuses me with energy.

From this experience, I have learned some important lessons. First, for my preaching to be effective, it's imperative I know—and stay riveted to—the overall goal of my ministry. At Willow Creek, we ask ourselves, "What do we want the end product to be? There's this enormous machinery—buildings and staff. But after the people finally come through our ministry, what are they supposed to look like?"

We have answered that, "We want to develop fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. They should think Christianly, act Christianly, relate Christianly."

I know I haven't drawn that target on the wall often enough. Too often I've been caught preaching as if the goal of my ministry were to help people lead happy, well-adjusted lives and be more helpful to each other. Baloney! We have to shoot much higher than that. I want to preach in such a way that I help produce people who can rise above petty scrapes and get on with following Jesus Christ.

Second, I rigorously and regularly have to measure my preaching against this bull's-eye. Are the messages I'm preaching contributing to that? Are they really leading people to become more devoted to Christ? It's so easy to drift, incrementally and unconsciously, from that goal. But when that happens, my preaching, no matter how clever or prayed over or prepared, is undermined.

Why Fool with Evaluation?

Sometimes I'm tempted to think. It really would be so much nicer if I didn't have the elders reproving me every time I slip up, and if I could just preach the way I want to preach and forget about anybody's evaluation.

But then I realize why I have to take evaluation seriously. It's because I preach, as every pastor does, before a righteous and holy God, and I know he evaluates my work. Every time I take out a new pad and write a new sermon title with a passage under it, I pray, "Lord, I would like this to be an unblemished lamb, a worship sacrifice that you would really be proud of. I'm not going to be happy, and you're not going to be happy, with a sick, dying, blind, diseased, ravaged lamb. I will not offer it; you will not receive it." So to me it's a holy thing to start a new message. If God has given you speaking gifts and called you into the ministry, he expects unblemished lambs.

But that's also a good, freeing realization for me. I give a lot of messages that I don't think meet the standard I would have liked. But then I can go back and say. Did I really do my preparation effectively? Did I pray on my knees as I should have? Was it biblical? Did the elders say that it was approved? If I can say yes to those questions, then I'm done with the message, and I can walk away from it, no matter what anyone thinks. If those who came through the line said they didn't appreciate it, and if I got ripped apart by an extremist on either side of the message, it doesn't affect me. I did the best I knew how in trying to offer an unblemished lamb. That's the extent of my responsibility.

The rest is God's. I never have the final word on any passage or on any topic. When I get to the end of myself, that's where the real message starts. My prayer, when I'm driving home from church, is "Now, Holy Spirit, that I'm done and out of the way, do your real work. I tried to give you enough truth and opportunity to work with. But the result in these people's lives is up to you."

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