There is a general nervousness about assessment, evaluation and feedback amongst those in public ministry, particularly amongst those who are ordained, but also for anyone engaged in doing things ‘up front’ in a ministry context. This is natural and understandable; in many contexts, being involved in public ministry often requires that you (literally) stand apart from others and so few slightly separated from them. And doing this is a risky business, since you cannot always tell how people are responding. I think the issues here have been exacerbated by the shift to online activity during the pandemic, since you are then even more isolated from natural, human feedback. And when we ask for feedback (if we dare!) it is often not given well. (Here are my eight top tips for giving feedback well.)
But just because you are not asking for evaluation, it does not mean that people are not evaluating you! And I think we might be in for some surprises when we do start meeting again together, as I suspect a lot of people will have voted with their virtual feet, and we will find our congregations configured quite differently from where we were last February.
In some ways, preaching has become more prominent in online services, since other parts of our gatherings are diminished in the medium on online services. Can we know what good (online) preaching looks like? Can we hope to offer useful evaluation to others, and receive it for ourselves? There are, of course, distinctive elements to online preaching, which I have explored previously. But I think the core of preaching, in person or online, remains largely unchanged.
When I was teaching homiletics (preaching) in a theological college, I used to start by exploring the issue of what good and bad preaching look like. I did this indirectly—not by asking the question ‘What does a good sermon look like?’ since this could easily have led to theoretical answers. Instead, I asked in turn for the group to think of a sermon that, for whatever reason, they would consider a ‘good’ sermon, and then to describe what that sermon was like, before quite separately asking them to think of a ‘bad’ sermon, and then describing what that one was like. (They were allowed, in either category, to think of sermons of their own or of others!)
Several striking things always emerged. The first was that there was a remarkable and surprising unanimity around what both good and bad sermons look like—regardless of theological tradition, experience or temperament on the part of the listeners. This suggests that the characteristics of good preaching transcend the specific details of theological commitments on the part of both preachers and listeners.
The second was both mundane and equally striking. No-one had any hesitation in being able to identify what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ looked like. For some reason, we instinctively seem to know whether what we are listening to is worthwhile. Of course, this will vary from person to person in relation to any particular sermon; within a congregation, people will respond differently to the same sermon they have heard preached. But over time, consistent things seem to emerge. This raises a profound question: if we know what a good sermon looks like when we are listeners, why is it that (to put it bluntly) when we stand up to preach ourselves we don’t do a better job? This implies that self-awareness is a key attribute for good preachers; a key challenge is to translate what we know when we are hearers into what we do when we are speakers. We need to be able to imagine and understand how we sound to others—to see and hear ourselves as others see and hear us—if we are going to grow into being effective preachers.