Praise is powerful in more ways than we might think. There is the obvious encouragement that comes from sincere praise, the false inflation that comes from flattering praise, the insecurity that comes from faint praise, and the discouragement that comes from praise withheld. Actual criticism is another matter as it too can serve to help, hurt or destroy. Motives do matter. Calvin Coolidge observed: “The political mind is the product of men in public life who have been twice spoiled. They have been spoiled with praise and they have been spoiled with abuse.” This is a problem, for all “public” men. Self-evaluation is never safe by itself, and the swirl of opinions that surround public men can leave them either over-inflated or discouraged; or worse, fluctuating between both. Sometimes it’s hard to know who to believe.
The issues here involve way more than the preacher and his sermons; they also involve the people who are receiving the messages. Their own hearts are always added to the mix. It’s possible to have ears and yet not hear, or to hear things that were not said. Was the sermon just for you or was it intended for everyone but you? Was it overly pointed or right to the heart of the matter? Did you think it would never end or were you disappointed that it stopped so soon? These are the kinds of responses preachers get, sometimes from the very same sermon. Both sensitive and insensitive souls are usually present. Some are generous with praise, while others are sparing and, for some, it has apparently never crossed their mind to comment.
There is one form of praise and criticism that is always present while a sermon is being delivered; the same form that is present when anyone speaks i.e., body language. There are moments (for most preachers), when they know that they have everyone’s attention: all eyes are fixed; no extraneous activities; everyone is focused. Now we must readily acknowledge that most everyone has an occasional bad Sunday when they don’t feel well or had little sleep or are under the influence of antihistamines. Exceptions noted. There is, however, a class of folks who voice their disapproval on a weekly basis with their eyes closed, arms folded or by other expressions of their disregard. Some are more subtle than others. How then should these be interpreted? Is this a deliberate attempt to communicate their disinterest, disapproval and disdain, or are they simply oblivious to how it looks from the front. Would they do this if they were up front and everyone was looking at them or is their body language intended for the preacher’s eyes only? It’s distracting at best and it’s often discouraging. When this is set over against those who are clearly engaged, whose body language and facial expressions flow with the content of the sermon, the messages sent are stark in their contrast.
Now I am especially blessed, on the whole, to have a very encouraging congregation that is generous with its praise, honest in its criticism, and engaged in its worship. Of course none of the observations I have made above apply to those to whom they don’t apply. Nevertheless, I have heard other preachers mention such things and it’s hard for preachers to find an opportunity to address these matters without getting themselves into some hot water. Therefore, as a service to those who might be less blessed than me I offer up these comments on their behalf. You are welcomed.