It is a lot easier to criticize than to be criticized. Most of us think it is bad for people under us to criticize, but we think the people over us deserve a bit of it. In the local church, we see ourselves as Moses, and our critics as the grumbling people (Numbers 21). But when it comes to those in authority over us we see ourselves as the apostle Paul, and our leader as the apostle Peter who needs a good rebuke and correction (Galatians 2). We often see the critics under us as carnal and negative, while we pronounce our own criticism of those over us as information, correction, and expressing our personal opinion. Face it, when it comes to criticism, most of us are better at dishing it out than at taking it.
In fact, ministers sometimes call criticism ‘sin.’ It sure seems sinful. Perhaps we do this because we associate criticism with the people who seem so gifted at doing it. They seem… well… they seem so ‘carnal.’ We say to ourselves, ‘consider the source’ and dismiss whatever they said. We assume these critics are bad people with bad motives. Sometimes they are. Maybe often. So we dismiss whatever they say as ‘stinkin’ thinkin.’ We reject the messenger and we also reject the message. And, this is how we cut ourselves off from an opportunity to grow. Refusing to hear criticism, (or hearing it only from those we like and respect) sets a time bomb ticking in our ministry. It may not go off for many years yet, but it will eventually go off. The point of this column is that we should at least hear our critics. Hearing our critics today just might save us tomorrow.
But, lay aside personal criticism for a while. Movements have critics too. It is even harder for a movement to hear its critics. Movements have a herd mentality — ‘if all these people think like me, we must be right.’ In America ‘might makes right.’ The majority rules. If enough of us all head one way, we just assume that we are headed the right direction. (We forget that the Gadarene swine were also in good formation, had good unity, and were all headed the same way.)
Movements don’t have to hear their critics, especially at the early stages. The Spirit is moving. Growth is explosive. Success is sure. People are being ministered to. It is so easy to say, ‘This is of the Spirit, don’t criticize.’ Movements (in their early stages) can simply steamroller right over their critics. And they can get away with it… for a while. But this refusal to self-examine will eventually cause the movement to self-destruct.
Consider the movement I am in — the ‘holiness movement.’ This movement was criticized in its early stages for several things, but the movement didn’t need to listen. They could steamroller the critics. And they did. They were too successful to listen. People were getting saved by the tens of thousands. New churches sprouted up every week along with new colleges/Bible schools, para-church organizations, publishing houses, and even entire denominations. Gigantic gatherings of thousands of people flocked to camp meetings — sometimes-larger gatherings than any secular gathering in the area. Camp meetings even started charging ‘gate fees’ to attendees and thousands coughed up the cash without complaint. The ‘evangelists’ were famous and powerful communicators. They held their audience ‘in the palm of their hand.’ When you have this much success you don’t need to listen to your critics.
But there were critics anyway. For instance, in the holiness movement, from the start there was criticism of the movement’s tendency toward emotionalism (‘getting blessed,’ or ‘running the aisles’, or ‘shouting’). Some critics warned that there was too much emphasis on instantaneous sanctification and not enough on the gradual or progressive side. Others criticized the tendency toward legalism. But in the heady early days of a movement — when thousands of people are caught up in the excitement — a movement can roll right over its critics, ignoring them completely… for a time.
Or consider a more recent movement — the ‘church growth movement.’ In the 1970’s there were critics who warned of an over emphasis on numbers and where that might lead us. They were stomped down with, ‘The people who don’t want to talk about numbers don’t have any.’ Other critics warned that there appeared to be an anti-education bias, but they were steam rolled with, ‘those who can do, those who can’t, teach.’ Still other critics raised concern about adapting the church too much to market principles. They were overrun with, ‘But it works — look at all the people coming now.’ The critics of the church growth movement — when it was on the upswing — were dismissed as ‘losers’ and whiners.
Now that the church growth Supernova has collapsed on itself, many of us wish we’d listened more carefully to this early criticism. They may have been half-wrong, but they may have been half right too.
Enough about movements, back to the critics we face personally. That’s more practical. What should we do with personal criticism?
1. Invite it through evaluation.
Some people don’t need an evaluation form, they are simply critical by nature. But most people seldom offer criticism (to you) unless they have a safe way to do it. A feedback form done a few times will get most of us all the criticism we need (or can handle). A sheet like this gives the entire congregation a chance for input, not just the outspoken ones. And sometimes this input puts the hypercritical people in their place — reminding them how poorly they represent the whole congregation. But, at other times, the collected input may agree exactly with what the outspoken critics have been saying all along. (This is time to eat humble pie.) The best feedback forms are simple and include only a few questions: (1) What are we doing that is GOOD and we should keep doing? (2) What are we doing that we ought to CHANGE? (3) What are we not doing that we should START? So, ask for criticism and get it from the whole church.
2. Look for the grain of truth.
While we might resent or reject our critics, there is often a grain of truth in what they say. We should ask how much is true? 50%? 25%? 10%? Only 1%? Critics don’t have to be completely right to be helpful. In fact the majority of criticism may be ‘mostly wrong.’ But somewhere among the false criticism there is often a grain of truth. Ignoring this grain of truth would be like dismissing small concentrations of lead in our water supply. Eventually the little grains pile up and poison a person’s effectiveness.
For instance, I develop Bible study curriculum in my work. So, getting criticism is a way of life for me. I sometimes get angry tirades blasting me for using the NIV version of the Bible. I personally favor the NIV over the KJV, so I am tempted to simply dismiss such criticism. However, when I look for the grain of truth, I wind up seeing a dedicated saint who has read ‘the Bible’ for years — the only Bible they knew of. Then along comes this whippersnapper and tears their familiar Scripture out of their hands, replacing it with new and totally unfamiliar words. To them the NIV isn’t ‘the Bible.’ It is something else. Then, to boot, I discover that they attend a church which has also torn away all the familiar Hymns and gospel songs of their past, and forced them to learn new and unfamiliar praise choruses. By the time I am done looking for the grain of truth, I meet a dear person who has had their whole Christian culture jerked out from under them. There is a grain of truth here… maybe not directly about the KJV, but about jerking people around. I can learn from that.
3. When they are 100% wrong, at least look for a valid warning.
Sometimes you can’t find even 1% truth in criticism. It is flat out wrong. You are ‘falsely accused.’ But you can almost always find a ‘warning.’ Ask, ‘What are they afraid of?’ Even when the criticism is invalid, sometimes their fear is sound. For instance, a while ago a layman from Wisconsin circulated a series of letters accusing the Bible study curriculum I produce of being ‘soft on homosexuality.’ There was 0% truth in the accusation. We had run an article that said something like ‘The church should try to get homosexuals saved and delivered from sin.” He perceived this as too soft.
However, even though there was not one grain of truth in the criticism, there was a good warning there. What was his fear? That the church would come to accept homosexual behavior as normal. Not a bad fear. In fact, a good warning. In the last few decades the church has adapted to all kinds of behavior the Bible condemns. (For instance, who of us would have imagined 25 years ago how quickly the church would come to accept divorce?) Could we adapt to homosexual behavior in the next 25 years? I hope not, but it is a worthy fear… and a warning. So even when there’s not a grain of truth in what a critic says, the Lord can at least help us accept a good warning. It is one of the ways God uses our critics to make us smarter and better.
Sure, none of us enjoys listening to our critics. We’d rather just steamroller right over them crushing their criticism into dust. However, listening to them today just might save us in the future.
So what do you think?
Reference: Salt & Light: Mt. 5:13-16 — Leaven: Mt. 13
© Keith Drury, 2005. You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.