John Piper has preached a couple thousand sermons in front of a few hundred thousand people around the world. Only the Lord knows the true count. Whatever the exact numbers, it’s a lot of sermons in front of a lot of people. And a young preacher wants to know, Pastor John, how your preaching has been critiqued over the years. Here’s his email.
“My name is Aaron and I’m a very new preacher from Australia. Pastor John, I have read your book Expository Exultation. And I found it thoroughly helpful. My question for you is this. In your early years, and perhaps even now, what kind of criticism have you received for your preaching? In particular, have you received feedback in regard to your volume, how loudly you preach sometimes? I love your passion, but have people ever given you feedback, teaching you to adjust your tone, dynamics, and expression? What did you do with the criticism? And what have you learned from it over the years?”
I’m laughing because I can remember some really funny feedback.
Aaron asks about the loudness, tone, and dynamics, but let me broaden this out and give you ten criticisms that John Piper’s preaching has received over the years, and how I’ve tried to respond to each. It includes what he’s asking, but it also includes more.
1. ‘You’re too loud.’
Number one is the reason I was laughing. Char Ransom — bless her heart, she’s with Jesus now — was one of my great cheerleaders in my early years as a pastor at Bethlehem. She told me about fifteen years into my ministry, “I liked the early John Piper.” I thought, Uh-oh, and asked, “Well, what do you mean, Char?” She said, “The teacher, not the shouter.” Now, she said it with a twinkle in her eye, and she was a loyal listener for another fifteen years, but I tried to take that to heart and do what I have told so many young guys to do.
By all means, let your affections show if they’re real, but be sure they correspond to the realities of the text, and be sure they are varied, because any single sustained tone or loudness will start to grate on the ear and sound artificial after a while if it’s not varied. So, cultivate variety, authenticity, and appropriateness to the text and to the audience. I don’t think she ever thought I got it right, but some people can love you in spite of things.
2. ‘Your voice trails off.’
Early on, my wife said, “You drop your voice at the end of sentences, Johnny. People can’t hear the end of your sentences.” And that was true. I listened. I think that’s true for a lot of young pastors — they get into a bad habit. It was simply a bad habit. It wasn’t any constitutional inability. It was just a learned quirk that needed fixing, and I think I was able to overcome it (at least, she hasn’t said anything about that for twenty years or so). So, thank you, Noël, for good advice. Wives are often your best critics.
“You’re not looking at all the parts of the congregation. Your eye contact with significant segments of the people is nonexistent. You seem to look at these two or three directions, but you neglect this part of the people. You neglect that part of the people. You don’t look at the balcony.” Now, that was extremely helpful, and I knew it was true as soon as they said it.
For a new preacher, just getting the content right is a huge challenge, right? And there’s not a lot of mental resources left over to think about, “Oh my goodness, where am I looking?” But with a bit of effort and the relaxation that comes from experience, you can overcome that. Then it can become second nature to naturally look everywhere during your preaching.
4. ‘You overuse words.’
“You overuse certain words.” This is my wife again, and she’s the key critic here. This was a recurring issue over the years. I didn’t solve this. I don’t know that you ever solve this (at least I don’t). She has to tell me this every few years. “You use unbelievable too often.” “You use absolutely too often.” “You use precisely too often.” “You use amazing too often.” Now, those would be criticisms separated by three or four years.
“We will all be criticized. There is a way to take all of it to heart in some measure and make it part of improving.”
I suppose this is why I am so insistent for young preachers to give serious thought to finding fresh ways of saying things, because often young preachers think that if they can just say what comes naturally, they’ll sound fresh. That’s a lot of bologna. They won’t sound fresh; they’ll sound like they’re in a rut. We default to our natural ways — to familiar words. And familiar words start to sound hackneyed, which will communicate to the people, “He’s not really seeing fresh beauties in the Bible and in Christ. He just says the same old stuff over and over again.”
5. ‘You sound angry.’
“You sound angry.” Really? Yikes! I don’t want to sound angry. I’m not angry. I’ll even say, “I’m not angry.” “You sound angry when you say you’re not angry.” Well, that’s the way it comes across. At one point, I remember, I had to stop listening to Martyn Lloyd-Jones — I love Martyn Lloyd-Jones — because he did sound angry. I kept listening to him and thinking, “From my American ears, this growling Welshman sounds angry.” He’s not angry, but he sounds angry.
So, I made a conscious effort to pray, “Lord, fill me with real, authentic joy and humble amazement at grace, and let that spill over. Don’t let me be angry or let me sound angry.” In other words, I think the best way to push out bad sounds is not mainly to try not to sound a certain way, but to sound a better way because you really feel that better way.
6. ‘You use jargon.’
“You use words people don’t know.” What? People don’t know obsequious? People don’t know parsimonious, pusillanimous, lascivious? Well, of course they don’t. So, get real, Piper. Do you want to impress, or do you want to communicate? I want to communicate. So, I tried to fix it. And now I’m a real stickler with our seminary guys when it comes to taking their academic jargon into the pulpit. Use ordinary language.
But I do believe that there is a place for teaching words — words that would be good for people to know that they might not ordinarily know. Words like propitiation, expiation, redemption, sanctification, glorification, and lots of others that might not be part of people’s ordinary vocabulary. I think this can be done without sounding academic or too teachy in the pulpit.
7. ‘Your preaching is too complex.’
“Your message is too complex. It goes over our heads.” I can remember a couple telling me that my second year — maybe it was my first year — at Bethlehem, and they left the church. They just left the church. So, I have tried to work hard to make complex things more understandable. I think all the great truths in Scripture can be explained in understandable language — not necessarily acceptable language, but understandable — which leads to the next criticism.
8. ‘You have disproportionate emphases.’
“Your preaching is too oriented on the glory of God, too Calvinistic.” “It’s too out of step with contemporary culture on issues like sexuality and relationships of men and women.” “It’s too blunt and uncompromising on the sin of abortion.” And so on. Now, this sort of criticism only concerned me not because of the content — I wasn’t going to change biblical views to fit the audience — but because of the proportion. So, I tried to form the habit of checking my emphases and asking others to see if something was being emphasized that was good and true but maybe out of proportion with other things in Scripture.
9. ‘You lack application.’
“You don’t give enough application, Piper. You focus mainly on exposition, and not enough on application to real-life situations.” And my response to this has probably been inadequate. In fact, Tony, I wonder if ten years of Ask Pastor John is my way of doing penance for all those years without ten minutes of application at the end of the sermon. I’m catching up.
If I were to try to defend myself, I would say something like this — and maybe it’s inadequate: I try to do exposition itself in such a way that, even as I do it, it feels like application. It feels relevant to real-life situations. Whether I’ve succeeded, I don’t know.
10. ‘You preach too long.’
“You preach too long.” Lots of things affect the length of a sermon in the local church:
- Wearing out your nursery workers. Poor nursery workers, down there waiting for this long-winded preacher to get done.
- Managing the ebb and flow of parking. Say if you’ve got two services, you’ve got to get the parking lot cleared out.
- The hunger of your people. Can they take it?
And my response to this criticism of length has been that I will try to keep my finger on the pulse of the people and all those other considerations, and not expect or demand more of my people than they can gladly receive (as well as all those other factors). But in general, I have found that it is hard for me to do adequate, faithful exposition week in and week out in less than 45-minute messages. And the folks seem to relax into that routine with pleasure.
So, what I hope Aaron hears in all of this is that we will all be criticized. There is a way to take all of it to heart in some measure and make it part of improving over a lifetime of preaching.