26 June 2009

After the Sermon

by Phil Johnson

ne of our frequent commenters, Sir Aaron, posted a comment the other day which prompted some thoughts about preaching and the typical kinds of on-the-spot feedback preachers get. He wrote:

I'm always fascinated by stories from Pastors who are accosted immediately after their sermon. When I hear these stories, I always remind myself that I'm not that different in my own pride. So if I find I have a question, I never ask the Pastor after the service (especially since he wants to greet and talk to other people too). I merely tell him that I may have questions and ask permission to talk to him later. Then I take some time to research, study, and pray about the situation.

I think that's a generally sound policy. Almost every pastor I know will tell you that few things are more annoying than the guy who always wants to straighten out some fine detail in your theology right after you finish your sermon. It's invariably some incidental detail, hardly germane to the point of your sermon. But this guy can't wait to explain to you why something you said is wrong and if you only understood the meaning of the seventh toe in the image of King Nebuchadnezzar's vision your whole perception of the Bible would be opened up. This fellow never wants to discuss it during the week. But he figures the 10 minutes immediately after your closing prayer belong to him, and he wants to make the most of it.

Or there's the guy who has a novel view of sanctification. It's really just a re-tread version of some old antinomian/perfectionist scheme, but no one has ever understood it quite like him, and rather than being chastened by that fact, he is proud of it. Every week he wants to try to convince you how much better your sermon would have been if only you shared his understanding of "the crucified life," or whatever.

Somehow, a few of these people, piranha-like, usually manage to get to the front of the auditorium first. Their criticism colors your mood as you try to interact with other people. It can really be a severe trial, especially if one of the perennial critics wants to stand there and debate with you for a long time.

Having said that, however, in most cases, I don't mind it at all when people give me feedback right after a sermon, even if it's negative. (In fact, negative comments from people who aren't constantly negative are almost always helpful on one level or another.) What's frustrating about the type of people I just described is not that they disagree with something I said in the sermon—it's not even that they are predictably negative—but that they clearly have an agenda or a mental defense-mechanism that keeps them from hearing the real point of the sermon and taking the preaching seriously.

I actually love it when someone raises a question or objection that shows he or she was listening carefully and with a discerning heart. If they are right, I might actually learn something. (Hey: it happens more often than you might think.) If they are correcting a fact I got wrong ("You said 'Henry James,' but you meant William James"), they might even save me some embarrassment in the second service. If I have stated something in an unclear or muddled way, it gives me an opportunity to clarify. Or, if they have a wrong belief that was challenged in my sermon, it's an opportunity to refer them to some book or other sermon that will give them a better understanding.

So I don't want to discourage people from approaching the pastor after a sermon if they disagree or don't quite understand something. Go for it.

Just don't drag it out, and don't make it your weekly habit. And if you're going to tell your pastor on the spot when you think he got something wrong, be sure that you are even more diligent to give him encouraging feedback on the spot when you benefit from his teaching (Galatians 6:6).

Phil's signature


Anonymous said...

amen to that, brother.

deekdubberly said...

great advice for the preacher and parishioner alike. As someone who is frequently both, I appreciated your words of wisdom

Anonymous said...

and are these nitpickers just cantankerous in a weekly fashion or do they not 'trust' you for some valid or invalid reason? How do you persist (or should you) in helping this unsettled brother?

donsands said...

Good words.

There's the other types who don't really listen to the sermon, but will say, "Great sermon, loved it!"

One of my pastors told me he likes to answer those, and say, "What did you love about it in particular?"

I there's usually a long pause.

Brad Williams said...

Yay! Good advice, Phil.

For the record, I have had this happen a lot as every preacher has. I try to be positive about it, though. Sometimes, folks who are continually nagging me about fine sermon details make great students if you can win their trust through patience. I think that Dan wrote about paper pastors a few weeks ago, and what I find is usually happening is that folks tend to compare me to whomever they might be reading. And usually, in our congregation, those authors outclass me in intellect, substance, and style, so I thank God that people read. Even if they are reading lousy stuff, it can open the door to discipleship if I invite them to come to lunch next week and talk about the issues.

Finally, I also admit that I am a lousy talker after preaching. I'm generally relieved to have finished, worn out by preaching, and really just can't wait to sit down and reflect on the service. It's hard for me to be much of a hand-shaker in the minutes following a sermon. So if folks want substantive communication, it'll have to be later anyway. If they just want to prattle, I generally just try to smile and nod.

Rachael Starke said...

Early in our marriage, we came up with the rule that each time my husband taught, we would wait at least one full day before I offered up my own feedback, or passed on what I heard from others. It takes him a day to kind of "step back" and very objectively review what he planned to teach, vs. what the Holy Spirit enabled. Then he's able to receive both encouragement and critique with the right spirit. It works well for us. :)

And, also speaking as a wife of a lay teacher, I also try and let my pastor or teacher's wife know how a sermon has blessed me, or relay the encouraging words I've heard from others. Pastor's wives are often just as big a(n undeserving) target for the criticism; I think it's really important we're intentionally building them up in this area too.

Great reminders.

FX Turk said...

I never benefit from your preaching, Phil, and I'm sick of it. I'm moving to California immediately to fix that ...

Chris said...

Now Frank's comment was funny.

Being a PK has really made me want to do the pastor a great service and stay as far away from him as possible after the message. If I end up in a situation where I'm passing him, I simply say 'Thank you, Pastor, have a great afternoon.'

And being one of those Bible nuts who understands how important the 7th toe of the figure in King Nebuchadnezzar's dream is, that's sometimes hard to do, trust me!

Phil Johnson said...


Bring it.

Andrew Faris said...


Good word, especially since I was in Proverbs 9 this morning. That bit about how wise men appreciate reproof because it makes them wiser still...

Andrew Faris

Gary Benfold said...

My favourite after sermon comment is the young guy who came up to me three times and said 'That's the worst sermon I ever heard.' Eventually, one of the elders realised he was bothering me but hadn't heard the young man; so the elder put his hand on my shoulder and said 'don't worry about him. He's a bit simple and has a tendency to repeat what he hears others saying...'

Anonymous said...

I promise, that in the future, I wlll take my thorazine before church (thus squelching my little agitation problem) and resist the almost irresistible impulse to comment on the sermon.

Jay said...

It's amazing the things people will say to the preacher after he smashes their toes flat with his sermon.

Caleb Kolstad said...

Very helpful post Phil!

Just remember not to feed the trolls!

danny2 said...

i'd also like to add, that specific comments are the most helpful.

to just hear that you lost them, or that they thought you belabored a point isn't really much help, unless they explain to you where you lost them or what point you hammered too much.

with specifics, they actually give me something to work on.

The Squirrel said...

Good thoughts, Phil.

I've noticed a huge difference between the honest question, asked in order to clarify some point that wasn't understood, and the "attack" question, asked in a way designed to "straighten out" the preacher's "errors."

I've actually gotten to the point where I enjoy both types, but answer the second with much less patience then I used to. And, as you say, when it is week after week of attack questions, it does get a bit tiresome.


olan strickland said...

That picture cracks me up. The kid in the middle looks like he has smoke coming out of his ears.

I've had a few encounters after preaching where smoke was coming out of a few ears - but it wasn't because of cigs (I can't spell cigarettes so I abbreviated it) :)

Patrick Eaks said...

I agree with Phil, most comments immediately after the message are most helpful. Many times people will come up to me and offer a further insight into the word other then what I was actually hitting on. This is always most helpful to me from the standpoint that Phil mentioned, you can learn a lot from those brothers and sisters who are willing to share with you.

Also, I don't mind people disagreeing with what has been said. I hope it is not because I was unable to communicate it to them clearly during the preaching. That is one of the things that can be frustrating as we proclaim the word of God, that we did not communicate it to be understood clearly by those that are listening.

Thanks Phil for your insight into this matter.


TAR said...

If I think the Pastor missed something or had an error..I always go hame first and check MY theology..
before dropping him a note..

He is free to talk to me about it or not as he choses ..

I look at this an an opportunity for personal growth..If i am wrong ..I have been corrected..If I am right then I have affirmed previous teaching ..

Julius Mickel said...

Hmm from low number of comments this mught be an OUCH post (very needed in the 'reformed' community).
I met a guy awhile back who had planned to go to the same conference i was going to (true church conference 09) and he explained how he couldn't wait to speak to some of the speakers about these things (he said he regretted not being able to speak to RC Sproul and others at the Ligonier Conf about this issue). After each sermon of the conf he would point out everything that was 'off', i tired to engage him as before but to no avail (thus I avoided his contentious company the rest of the conf).
Brother Phil you hit it on the head, these are people who enjot arguing and almost NEVER receive correction or instrustion from the sermons they listen to (apparently they are part of a select remnant).

Likewise the person who 'thinks' they are being helpful and encouraging by telling you how they loved your sermon but when you reply 'oh yeah like what specifically blessed you' they reply 'uh, well ....'

Ebeth said...

I usually hash things out with Garry before talking to a pastor.

Unknown said...

The comment that gets under my skin (very thin skin) is: "Good job, pastor." I am baffled as to how to interpret that. My mind-reading goes into high gear as only a sinner can.

And, when it has not been a good "job" in my opinion, the more it seems I hear that comment. I'm beginning to think that it is just a very dismissive comment made with good intentions stained by questionable motives.

Now I will go and repent and eat a Dairy Queen Blizzard.

Rick Frueh said...

I always found it curious that the pastor is supposed to greet people after the sermon as if they were congratulating him for his performance. The preacher expounds about eternal judgment in the lake of fire and then is seen smiling and laughing with exiting parishioners.

It seems somewhat incongruous and can soften the sharp edges of conviction.

donsands said...

"I always found it curious that the pastor is supposed to greet people after the sermon"

I went to Philadelphia back a few years for vacation, and to see Billy Graham at The Vet.

I didn't know where to go to church, so I picked one, Tenth Presbyterian Church.

I was blessed by the service, and especially the sermon, and I didn't even know where I was, until I heard that voice of James Montgomery Boice.

After the service he was by the front door, and I was able to talk with him, and tell him how his radio ministry helped me, and how his voice is very distinct, and the Lord really blessed me this day through him.
He was very blessed as well.

I'm glad Dr. Boice was available. He was a very gracious pastor. And I still remember that sermon: Romans 11:36

Sonja said...

there's the other side of the coin:

people who have a problem with a pastor's sermon(s) and tell everyone but the pastor himself, thus sowing seeds of discord.

Anonymous said...

Back to thorazine, our happy little chemical labotomy substance thingey....

Anonymous said...

geesh, no offense, but try a job in the world out there, I've literally had my hands slapped for making the wrong move. Correction is our friend! Peoples lives and all that are at stake! And the names Ive been called would curl your hair.
But, honestly, I only praise the pastor.

Anonymous said...

And brett, if I get a "good job" comment, I do not consider it dismissive, but an indication I had a stellar day. what sounds insulting to you, sounds very very encouraging to me.

Terrie said...

Brother Phil, this is the perfect opportunity to tell you how blessed my husband and I were by your 10:30am "The Only Door" sermon on Father's Day -- and Jubilant Sykes' amazing rendition of "Were You There." We live in Orange County and try to attend Sunday morning service at Grace once a month at least. Like Dr. MacArthur, you have the gift of verbal clarity and a talent for exposition.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Thank you for pointing this stuff out. Good reminder to a young man, such as my self. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I just looked back at my old comments, and thought, wow, that sounded a bit testy! Sorry, no word smith I.
Just thought that folks who say they loved the sermon, or "good job" pastor, were sincerely trying to encourage you all. We aren't all rocket scientist in your congregations, and sometimes the words are not impressive, but the sentiment is still there.
I tell my manager "good job" sometimes, and she often will open up, with some relief, about her frustrations. And she is way way above my payscale!
So, maybe some of the folks you have in your congregation are mirroring how it goes on their workplace, or expressing what they would think would be encouraging.
And also, we are all part of the body, and each person has something to bring. It is not a performance that we come to watch, but a service we come to participate in...
I am sorry if this seems a bit off base...

Anonymous said...

Ok, this really really really is the last comment ever! (really!)

I have only spoken to a pastor once in my life in concern...(that is not too often, I'm old: hence the need for thorazine. ;)
It was an email about a book that is out that caused me grave concern, because my friends were reading it (me too) and they were seeing it as truth.
My pastor replied that it was just a book of fiction, and that I should read a book by Randal Rouser...he said for me not to worry.
I took his lead, and have never mentioned it again. He is the shephard of our flock, and a very good one!
But, by what I gather here, I maybe should have not raised the question?
I think it is appropriate to do so, because:
"I no longer call you servants because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you! No one has greater love than to lay down their life for their friends."
I have heard some say that pastors should not consider there congregants friends, but Jesus did.

JSA said...

Wow, I had never noticed Galatians 6:6. I have tended to never congratulate my pastors on a good message, since I figure it is the spirit speaking through him that deserves praise. In a few times that I was overwhelmed by a pastor's message and felt compelled to provide feedback, I prefaced the feedback with a big long disclaimer: "I know that you don't want flattery, or praise that could be seen as puffing up your pride or pandering to vanity, but I feel I must share." How neurotic of me! :-P

Regarding the nitpickers, I doubt that it's typically caused by mistrust of the pastor. I think these people are convinced of the amazingness of their own views, and they want to get their message to as may people as possible by influencing the pastor. These folks often go after anyone who they feel has a big voice, betraying that their intention is about broad influence. I've met more than one crazy homeless person who writes letters about his religious conspiracy theories to Billy Graham, for example. This isn't to say that the nitpickers at church are paranoid schizos, but just to illuminate one common underlying motive.

Unknown said...

I talked to a pastor friend of mine about the "good job" comment post-sermon. He said two things that made sense to me and I will see if there is any reaction: First, he told me to get a back bone and not take the comments too seriously. Second, anyone who would say good job to the proclamation of the word had better have the authority of one who can say "well done, good and faithful servant." There is only one person that can tell a pastor good job and He is the one who can throw you into hell.

I said amen to the first and am still stunned by the second.

Gilbert said...


Interesting and thought-provoking on the second comment. However, I think it can also mean that you were edified by the sermon, to which I have no problem.

However, it is interesting to see Phil, Dan and Frank in their youth years hanging out and smoking. ;-)

Aaron said...

One of my posts made into a Pyromaniac blog? What is the world coming too?

TAR: The last sentence of my original post, which was omitted in the quoted text (but the comment was linked) is that I generally find that I was the one who was wrong or the point is so trivial as to not merit discussion.

BrettR: "Good Job" has become a greeting like "How are you." I don't think it means much anymore. But in any case, I try to give specific feedback or just shake his hand and say nothing. For example, my Pastor spoke on spiritual gifts. I have heard many sermons and classes on this topic so I was pleasantly surprised when he provided information I had not heard before. I told him so after the sermon and added that he gave me a lot to mull over and study.

Rick Freuh: So after a sermon on hell, we should also skip the potluck?

Aaron said...

Lisa: why would you think you shouldn't have brought this issue up to your Pastor? That's precisely the type of thing you should be asking about. The problem is not questioning or criticizing, but the manner in which it is done. Let's use Phil as an example. He's a Pastor by profession which means (based my knowledge of him) a very well studied guy. His views on most subjects are probably widely accessible to the public. By the time Sunday rolls around he's probably studied his topic in intimate detail. So he gives his sermon and no sooner than he steps off the podium does a parishoner rush up to him and question him, not with the purpose of understanding, but with the purpose of convining Phil of the error of his ways. Not to mention, that Phil probably has at least one other service to do as well as numerous other duties and people to attend to in the meantime. So how fair is it for somebody to accost the pastor and monopolize his time?

Phil has already said that he appreciates positive and negative comments. So the underlying issue is not the criticism, the questions, or certain comments. It's the spirit and the manner in which they are made. My original comment was made not to avoid discussion with the Pastor but to ensure that when I did so, I wasn't bound up with my own pride.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding. I was feeling sorry for the poor old Joes out there who were just trying to encourage their pastors. My husband sees it your way, he thinks there are a number of folks who have "motives", and I told him, I don't understand what anyone would have to gain by sticking out their neck to comment. I just don't get it.
But what hit me, and worries me a bit, is this sudden realization of my own attitude towards the pastorate. You know the old saying, dont put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble...for one thing, it we could be miscommunication by having different presuppositions without even knowing it. In my case, it hit me after reading the post on "only God can say good job"...I had never thought through my attitude towards the pastorate.
Now, I do believe that only God can judge any of our work. I also believe the gifts and callings in the body are equally honorable. Maybe that is what I need to rethink.
Let's face it, in the world, the CEO is more honorable than the cleaning lady. But, in the church, the cleaning lady and the pastor, in my thinking, are just the same. They both are judged by God. Yet, would you hesitate to say "good job" to the cleaning lady? Or, would you fail to mention that smell in the bathroom?
This is just the way I think. But , I am wondering, gosh, I have thought this way for so long, but maybe I am totally off base.
Could you share some scriptures about the calling of the pastor? I really have not examined this well enough.
Might be an epithany moment for me.
Really appreciate your indulgence.

Anonymous said...

Ooh! found this verse!
“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward.” (I Tim. 5:17,18)
Wow. I was wrong.

Aaron said...


I'm sure Phil could regale us with stories of people who confonted him after the service. I know my Pastor has shared some instances with me. I remember one specifically. A KJ onlyist really tried to convince my Pastor of the error of preaching from the NASB. So my Pastor spent many months studying the arguments of KJ onlyists so that he could minister to this guy. Instead the guy was completely unreasonable and left the church after basically accusing the Pastor of being a heretic (I might be exxagerating a bit). My Pastor said he felt like he wasted a ton of time studying when he could have been studying other important matters and ministering to real needs in the congregation. Apparently that was quite a lesson for him.

It just goes to show that these people who confront the Pastor aren't necessarily up there to encourage him.

I might add that many of us here are very detail oriented. We routinely discuss minute exegesis of verses. So if my Pastor says something, my initial tendency is to review it with a fine toothed comb. I just do my best to temper my enthusiasm for Scripture with humility, because my Pastor has usually studied a passage far more extensively that I have.

HSAT, the Pastor should be available to explain any areas that you don't truly understand. If I didn't understand or follow one of his points, I think it's the Pastor's responsibility to teach me (but immediately after the service isn't always the best time).

<><><> said...

Thanks for answering. I never critize the pastor's sermons, I must admit I am a "great job Pastor" type, but I probably have only spoken to my pastor three times in the couple of years he has been our pastor. I did not mean to give the impression I was a big pain, but seems I have succeeded in being a big pain to you all!

Aaron said...

You weren't a pain to me...