Pastor of First Baptist Church of Georgetown, Texas
Used by Permission
Long before Jennifer Lawrence and The Hunger Games popularized archery, I was a college student learning the art of stringing a bow, pointing an arrow, and shooting a target. My goal was simple: Learn how to string the bow, aim the arrow, pull the string to my face, and let the arrow fly smoothly toward the target. Occasionally, I hit the bull’s eye, the red round target centered sweetly in the middle of the larger target. A bull’s eye brought excitement, happiness, and applause from my peers.
Archery, bows, and arrows appear as kid’s games. Once upon a time, boys played “Cowboys and Indians” in grassy backyards to sounds of whooping and hollering with rubber-tipped arrows that stuck to things such as windows. Hunters in our modern day hunt with bows and arrows in an effort to track their game such as a deer or an elk and shoot fiercely in the rush of competitive energy. Olympic athletes train with bows and arrows in their efforts to qualify for Olympic competition.
Archery can be traced back to antiquity. The Romans in their warfare used auxiliary units of horse and foot soldiers who were known as the sagitarii, skilled archers who could hold a bow and sling an arrow with precision. Roman archers in the first century used the Mediterranean release: An arrow is placed on the bow; the string is pulled back with two fingers and drawn to the chin, aimed and released. Roman archers were poised to nail their targets, to pin the arrow on the enemy, and to hit the sweet spot of the bull’s eye whether beast, enemy, or traitor.
As a preacher of 30 years, preaching and archery I have known. Occasionally through the years, I learned to string the sermon bow, release the sermon arrow, and pray God would use it to touch the target—my hearers’ ears and hearts. Never, however, in my wildest dreams did I imagine being the target of a fierce, fiery, ferocious arrow aimed at me in fury because I preached the Gospel or challenged people to follow Christ. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine becoming the target of someone’s harsh words or the bull’s eye of one of my critics.
It happened one out-of-the-blue Monday, a day of recovery after a Sunday of preaching multiple worship services. Mondays long have been a day for restringing the bow, laying out my sermon arrows of preparation and strategizing for the next Sunday’s sermon. I do simple tasks on Mondays and angle toward Tuesday for deeper study and sermon preparation. By Tuesday, my spirit is renewed, my weariness has waned, and I am ready to tackle the spiritual warfare of the biblical text, the world of my hearers, and the word I expect to deliver to the people God will place in the sanctuary that week. However, on that particular Monday, I made a horrible mistake—I checked my e-mail.
The 21st century has posed new problems for preachers: Facebook posts, in-sermon texts, tweets, and saints who string bows and sling fiery arrows at preachers. My brothers and sisters in Christ who preach have relayed the news of such messages. While some are encouraging and uplifting, not all of them are flattering: “…no inspiration”; “I just didn’t get it”; “The pastor had an off day Sunday”; “not relevant”; “Boring”; “Oh, I can podcast my favorite preacher”—and biggest criticism of them all—”the sermon just didn’t feed me… maybe I can find a preacher who feeds me.”
E-mail is a cheap way to sling arrows, possibly equivalent to the anonymous letter of days past, a way for critics to let their voices be heard. On that Monday, I opened an e-mail, long and well-crafted, strung on the bow, slung with force, and aimed right at me. I will skip the details, except to say it quoted Jesus having said, “I came not to send peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34) and that it cut sharply and hurt deeply.
I was in a new church and had waltzed into what I thought was a field of dreams only to discover I had stepped into a warzone where a shield, helmet, chest armor, and a bow in the hand might be necessary to survive. A critic had wounded my soul. How does the preacher respond when he or she is the target of a well-crafted and forcefully shot arrow of criticism?
Look into God’s Word
The natural inclination when criticized is to take up arms, find a bow with long arrows that you can dip into tar and light with fire, and shoot back with force at the critic or enemy. However, wisdom reminds us of the Bible’s instruction for handling critics.
First, you could take the approach of not arguing with fools. Maybe silence silences the critic—maybe. A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his or her own mind (Prov. 18:2).
Second, you could realize that accepting God’s call to preach and signing on to speak His Word sets you up as a target. Moses followed God’s call, spoke God’s Word, and was up to his neck in snakes, frogs, insects, hail, and locusts. Joshua followed God’s call, spoke God’s Word and found victory and trouble all in a day’s work—not to mention that his cohort of a congregation dwindled to a mere 300 faithful few.
David, who preferred a slingshot to a bow and arrow, found his life threatened as he spoke God’s Word. He also followed God’s call and wound up with his rebellious son Absalom wagging his tongue at the Jerusalem gate in a family revolt against all things spiritual, as well as his own father. In the Psalms, David wailed, “Those who sit in the gate talk about me… I am the song of drunkards.”
Job, if maybe we venture to imagine at some level he preached, saying two interesting things: “But He has made me a byword among the people, I am one at whom men spit” (v. 17:6), and, “They abhor and stand aloof from me, and they do not refrain from spitting at my face” (v. 30:10). Jeremiah lamented: “Look at their sitting and rising; I am their mocking song” (Lam. 3:63).
The apostle Paul preached in places such as Ephesus and Philippi and faced beatings, stonings, whippings, dangers, disasters, detours, perils, and problem people along the way. In fact, a case could be made in Scripture that many who preached lived as fugitives, moving from place to place as itinerant preachers, soldiers of the cross, capable of dodging arrows, and wise enough to know when to stand strong, when to retreat, and when to strap on the armor and rise to speak.
The previous paragraphs make an arrow fired with the touch of a button through an e-mail a small thing compared to other saints who were fired upon for following God’s call and speaking His Word. So far, I have yet to experience someone writing a mocking song about me, stoning me, or spitting on me. Still, the fact remains, an arrow of criticism creates a wound. For others, criticism incites cynicism and might diminish the Holy Spirit’s work in his or her life.
One key to handling criticism is to recognize the hazards of preaching, but to hang on to God’s Word when the soul is wounded. Surprisingly, God’s Word that you preach becomes a personal, healing balm for wounded warriors and for Monday assaults. After all, Paul reminds the preacher that God’s grace is sufficient—His strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). How do you handle the critic?
Handle with Grace
I have learned that in spite of the difficulty, you cannot take all criticism personally. Some criticism you might take personally, but not all. I tend to live by this theory, “It’s usually something else.” You can learn from your critic even if all you learn is that he or she was having a bad day, another problem was affecting his or her mood, or the person had a serious conflict with your sermon or opinion.
In the case of my critic, I learned he disagreed with my theology on the Holy Spirit entering a person’s heart when Christ enters at salvation and my once-saved-always-saved approach. I also had a hunch that his business was not profitable for him. We talked face-to-face, and the fury of his e-mail faded as we discussed the theological differences, shook hands, and moved past it, which, quite frankly, might not always be the easiest thing to do.
Handling criticism with grace, though, releases the preacher’s spirit to be forgiving, free, and focused on the next sermon for your many listeners rather than the lone critic.
Criticism flies in the face of any preacher. In a culture of disrespect, declining spirituality, and with more avenues for critics to fire pointed arrows, any preacher in this modern techno-age can expect to receive criticism, whether unsolicited, unwarranted, or unfair. While I would not overly analyze criticism too much, because it could be paralyzing practically and spiritually, it never hurts the preacher to remember Paul’s words from Ephesians 6.
Paul provides four simple, yet powerful, words of wisdom.
- First, preachers are servants of Christ, whose aim is to serve Christ more than to please men and who do His will from their hearts. If preachers allow it, critics can cause them to harden their hearts and lose joy in serving Christ.
- Second, Paul said, “Be strong in the Lord.” How many times have I had to ask the Lord to guide me, help me, encourage me, and strengthen me to preach the Gospel of Christ? Arrows hurt, but it is always wise to trust in the Lord’s strength and mighty hand in a moment of pain, discouragement, or weakness.
- Third, Paul knew that he was not wrestling with flesh and blood, but against principalities, powers, rulers of darkness, and spiritual wickedness in high places. The image of a wrestler combating an opponent highlights Paul’s wording. Satan prowls and attacks his enemies. Sometimes we find ourselves in a spiritual wrestling match and realize Satan occasionally employs people.
One of my staff members at the church where I am privileged to pastor lived on the mission field and served Christ there for years. He occasionally reminds me: “Spiritual warfare.” He is not overly worried about it or weird about saying such things; he simply says it as a fact, having seen the animism, darkness, and wickedness where he served. Africa and the United States share a common theme occasionally: Evil shows up and seeks to injure God’s kingdom, His work, His church, and His servants.
- Fourth, Paul tells the servant of Christ and preacher to put on God’s armor to withstand the wiles or methods of the devil. A breastplate of righteousness, feet shod with peace, and a shield of faith provide a few tools the preacher will need to deflect forcefully fired arrows and to quench the fiery darts hurled at your sensitive heart. “Be strong in the Lord,” Paul said, and “pray fervently, ferociously, and pour out your heart to God” (Ps. 62:8). If I am reading Paul correctly, he asked people to pray for him as he preached. Criticism in the form of a painful arrow might be an occasion to pray for yourself, your critic, and every other preacher who stands in a pulpit facing the prospects that on Monday morning, a critic’s arrow might come his or her way.
If none of these words prove helpful in addressing your critic, remember A.W. Tozer’s chief aim for all who preach and serve God: The Pursuit of God. Fill your heart and your quiver with such a pursuit above all else. Tozer challenges every preacher, “I want deliberately to encourage this mighty longing after God” (p. 17). Considering critics’ arrows, it never hurts to deepen your hunger for God. Furthermore, Tozer adds, “Complacency is a deadly foe of all spiritual growth” (p. 17).
So if you cannot handle your critic, at least learn to dodge the flaming arrows, pray for your critic/archer, and chalk it up to the joy of ministry and the fact that maybe God allows arrows to fly your way to jolt you from complacency and that you might learn to trust His every word that He called you to preach. Pursue Christ. Preach. Pray. Also, remember at all times and on all occasions to grab a shield of faith when you rise to preach!
[Dale Flynn and his wife, Liz, are Word of Life Local Church Ministries missionaries in Eastern MD. Dale is a Local Church Ministries curriculum editor and is the editor of this Ministering to the Minister E-Transfer national electronic Pastor’s newsletter. The Flynns make their home in Elkton, MD. Questions or comments about this article may be addressed to Dale at: DFlynn@wol.org. ]