How to Get Useful Sermon Feedback

5 keys for success

Published

This article originally published on Working Preacher.

It’s the end of the service and parishioners file out the door. 


“Good sermon, Pastor,” they say, a common refrain.

Eager for useful feedback, we might ask in the moment, or follow up later in the week during Bible Study with a request for specifics: “I’m so glad you enjoyed the sermon! Can you tell me what prompted you to say that? What worked?”

As much as we crave a useful critique that will help us  improve our preaching, this probably isn’t the best method to get the feedback we seek.

The problem with cold feedback

Parishioners attend a worship service because they want to be fed: they want to reconnect their lives to the wider community of believers and to God. 

If they say the sermon was good, we can trust their hope was met. 

To ask them why, however, puts them on the spot.

It’s like asking a dinner guest at the end of the evening as they stand in the doorway with their coat on and keys in hand complimenting the meal, to tell us what worked about the balance of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. 

Not only would the question feel out of place, but our guest didn’t eat with our criteria in mind. They ate to receive a gift of hospitality and be nourished and may not be able to provide a useful critique without warning or preparation. Do they even know what “umami” means? Can their palate distinguish sour from bitter?

When we ask a listener on their way out of church to tell us why the sermon worked, we’re putting them in the same awkward spot. 

We’re asking them to think fast, remember the elements of the sermon, and consider what particularly moved them and why. 

They may not have a working vocabulary that can meaningfully describe what worked. They may not have reflected on why the sermon resonated as it did. They simply recognize they felt something meaningful.

Further complicating the matter, they may also recall parts that didn’t work and feel the tension of whether to leave those parts aside or find a way to tell you that won’t hurt your feelings while, most importantly, remaining in your good graces.

Whew. It’s a more complicated ask than we may realize.

So, what is a preacher to do? 

We know sermon feedback is essential. It’s necessary to understand where we’re connecting and where we’re missing our listeners. It’s critical to growth and improvement. 

How do we get the feedback we genuinely need to prepare better sermons for our listeners?

The power of asking in advance

Rather than put listeners on the spot, we can ask and prepare them to offer a tremendous gift to us and the congregation. 

We can ask them to commit to appraising our sermons for a season—with preparation for how to do so constructively and meaningfully.

Yes, this request asks for some sacrifice on behalf of the listener. For the time committed, they will be asked to do more than passively be fed.

But this sacrifice is a gift of service for the benefit of the entire congregation—and framed as such, becomes a sacred ministry for the sake of your church. 

***

5 keys to getting useful feedback

To ensure the feedback we receive is useful, we need to do more than ask in advance for feedback. 

These five essentials will ensure you receive information you can put to immediate use.

1. Identify what you hope to gain and craft questions around that focus.

In asking listeners to appraise your sermons, first clarify what you hope to learn and improve.  

This answer will determine what you ask appraisers to listen and watch for.

You might be in the process of developing a particular skill—like the effective use of body language, succinct storytelling, introductions that draw people in, or preaching with or without a manuscript. 

If so, ask questions that are specific to your focus. Here are some examples of goals and related questions:

  • If the hope is to craft sermons that are clear and focused, you might ask:
    • Did the sermon offer only one message? What message(s) did they hear?
    • Did they follow the sermon from beginning to end without getting lost? If they got lost, when did that happen?
    • Was the length of the sermon the right amount, too long, or too short to develop the message?
  • If the hope is to ensure every sermon offers Good News, you might ask:
    • What insights did they gain into the world of the Bible?
    • What hopes and dreams does God have for them?
    • How does the text relate to their daily life?
  • If the hope is to learn whether transformation occurred for the listener, you might ask:
    • What perspectives shifted because of the sermon? 
    • How did you see things before the sermon and how do you see things now?
    • The intention of this sermon was to foster [grace, forgiveness, compassion, justice]. Was this sermon successful in doing so? If so, how? If not, what did you hear?

2. Use your goals to determine whom you’ll approach for feedback.

Clarifying what you hope to learn will influence whom you ask.

For instance, if there are listeners with a particular expertise, ask them to offer it.

Actors could offer knowledgeable feedback about the sermon’s delivery; members of Toast Masters could comment effectively on  the sermon’s content and progression; biblical scholars (with or without a degree) on the text’s exposition.

Other people to ask are those who attend different worship services, including in-person or online; those who represent a variety of political and social viewpoints, ages, races, physical abilities, neurodiversities, contexts, or for whom English is not their first language. 

Perhaps most importantly, ask listeners who are emotionally intelligent and sensitive.

Don’t ask those who might use this opportunity to vent disagreements with you or the church. 

Ask those with whom you have a secure enough relationship that they will see the invitation as the vulnerable and courageous thing that it is, and who will offer genuinely useful feedback that is both clear and kind. 

3. Teach your listener how to provide useful feedback

Share the goal(s) you identified for your preaching.

Define terms.

Ensure you both have the same understanding of “an introduction that draws people in“ (Did you want to hear more? Did I spark curiosity or create a question you needed the answer to?) or “effective use of body language” (Did my gestures fit the content? Did they seem purposeful or nervous? Did they distract or draw attention where it should be?)

Provide examples of responses to your questions that demonstrate both the type of feedback that’s helpful and the length you’re looking for. 

What kind of praise guides you to repeat things that work? What kind of critique is useful and not hurtful?

4. Clarify the commitment

Clarify what you are asking your listeners to do.

How many sermons will they commit to? How long will it take to offer feedback after the service? How much time will it take to prepare them for this task?

Consider these questions:

  • How will you prepare them for what you are asking? In writing? An orientation meeting?
  • How many sermons over what period? 
  • How will they submit the appraisal: through a form or survey you create, an email response to a set number of questions, or in an open conversation?
  • By when are they to offer it? Immediately afterwards or a few days later to test what is retained? 
  • Do they need to listen in person, or can they watch live online or with a recording?

How long are the responses to open ended questions to be? A couple of sentences? More?

5. Show them behind the curtain

Most listeners don’t know what goes into composing a sermon. 

Because we aim to put people at ease in worship, we don’t reveal the blood, sweat, and sometimes tears that go into our sermon prep.

Share the steps of your process with your appraisers. This glimpse of your process will give them a fuller picture of the effort and attention you give to preaching and shape more astute questions as they listen.

Share with them what compels you to preach, your hopes and intentions for preaching, the time and focus it requires you, and what you find difficult and draining versus easy and life-giving.

Your appraisers will not only hear and appreciate your sermons differently, but every sermon they receive in the future. 

***

Securing meaningful sermon feedback is worth the effort

We must receive feedback to grow.

This is why musicians have teachers, athletes have coaches, and writers have editors.

Without outside perspective, we cannot get the 360-degree objective “view” of our content, delivery, style, and impact.

Asking listeners with a clear invitation and appropriate preparation leads to the best chance of receiving useful, actionable appraisals so we can preach as compellingly as possible.

And our preaching skill matters because it helps people encounter the life-giving, transformative good news of God’s love. We love our listeners well when we endeavor to preach as capably as we can.

To ensure sincere, quality feedback, you AND your listeners will be best served when you:

  • Know what you’re asking for, why you’re asking, and for how long.
  • Ask those who would respond knowledgeably and dependably, with clarity and kindness. 
  • Help them understand what goes into crafting your sermons. 

You’ll finally receive the feedback you’ve hoped for all along. 

And your listeners will hear even more compelling Good News.

Looking for a more in-depth look at practical sermon-crafting strategies that engage your own spirituality and backstory? Check out Backstory Preaching’s Sermon Camp (in partnership with Faith+Lead) starting 5/19/24.

  • Lisa Cressman

    The vision for Backstory Preaching woke the Rev'd Dr. Lisa Cressman in the middle of the night, and she's been trying to keep up with the Holy Spirit ever since. She's Backstory Preaching's Founder and Steward, sharing insights from 25 years as an Episcopal priest, preacher, spiritual director, and retreat leader. Lisa is the author of Backstory Preaching: Integrating Life, Spirituality, and Craft and a Certified Daring Way facilitator. She holds a BS in Nursing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an M.Div. from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, CA, and a D.Min. in Practical Theology from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN.

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