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Evaluation and Anxiety

I have been using the word “evaluative” as kind of a code word to avoid using terms like “judgmental” or “critical evaluation” or “skeptical attitude.” The words I was avoiding have a value judgement in them from my end, and I don’t feel that is always helpful to share bluntly. So I”ve been using the less challenging term “evaluative.”

So, when I describe what I felt the very first time I got up in front of the congregation, with many people’s facial expressions and especially body language (as in: very stern looks on faces, arms crossed, sitting slightly at an angle to me and leaning back) giving signals that said to me “Let’s see what this guy is made of” and a few others, I warned about an evaluative attitude taking people away from worshiping God, and very soon began preaching a biblical reminder that the worship service was not to be primarily about me, and whether I was satisfying people as a pastor, but about whether people were being drawn closer to God by the time of worship.

Folks in the pew need to know that your facial and body expressions do get noticed by preachers and worship leaders. And those expressions can affect them negatively. Since beginning to explore why people sit that way in church, I’ve also opened up to realizing that it is a remnant of the “sit still” commandment (12.1.1. in the CRC addendum to the 10 commandments) and the “Show no emotion” commandment (12.1.2.) and while I am presenting this in a bit of flippant way, I do understand that old patterns are hard to break. And in my provocative playing with fictional addendums, I am asking “Where is it commanded in scripture to sit still and show no emotion in worship?” Yet, I do understand it is what people are used to, but you need to know that guest ministers have told me they were thrown off by some people’s body language. I myself once had two calls to different churches, and my wife and I had a very hard time deciding between the two calls, and finally the deciding factor was that when I started my sermon when we visited one of the churches, my wife noticed a lot of people slightly lean forward in an expression of eagerness to “hear a word” and that simple movement made the difference for us. Odd thing is, that when we shared our decision with the children who were still at home, they said they did not want to come with us to that city, but wanted to move to the other one, were more family was nearby, and so in that conversation we switched back to the other choice.

Back to the topic at hand. Recently it became apparent that people were “evaluating” sermons based on no specific criteria besides whether they had liked it or not. Many, I know, were raised on roast sermon for lunch on Sundays, with the soup and buns. And, to be clear, that is a very different thing than discussion of the sermons theme and how it grew and nurtured or even challenged you in a good way personally. No, it tended, from what people have told me, to be more a very critical evaluation of what the pastor said or didn’t say and had very little to do with scripture, with grace, with the message that was brought. This habit too, is a hard one to break.

So, it seemed worthwhile to give people tools and criteria with which to properly evaluate a sermon, rather than leaving them to their own categories such as “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” This then moves us toward another meaning of evaluative. This kind of evaluation, hopefully, has a different attitude behind it, not one of judging or being critical or skeptical, but one of being helpful to the Elders in helping the pastor create sermons that communicate God’s Word better. It does this by giving specifics.

Now, I need to add a piece here. Healthy evaluation has a different ‘feel’ to it than unhealthy. In a congregation that has anxiety in it, it is easy to excite the anxiety. (read the last part of Numbers 13 and first part of 14 for an example of a fearful faithless people multiplying anxiety) So a question to ask yourself when you are part of an “evaluative” conversation where a person is expressing opinions about a sermon or worship service is “Is this person discharging anxiety and fear onto me?” and “Am I buying into this persons anxiety?” I believe that in such a conversation the details of the sermon being helpful or not are not important, but the fear and anxiety are. At that point it is useless to talk sermon details unless the person can be honest about the feelings that are driving them. This anxiety is very much like static electricity. It gets zapped from one person to another, and until someone discharges it into the ground, it will stay in the community. At times, you can find groups of people who are all gathered around the same “anxiety charge” and you will find the words coming from them not making much sense. That is because of the anxiety and fear driving the evaluation.

And finally, to me, at this stage of life, when I am a pew side participant in a worship event, my main evaluative question is “Do I feel closer to God now than I did before?” or variations o that theme such as “Did God bless us by becoming present?” I may not have enjoyed or liked the experience or the music, or the preacher, but whether I liked it or not is never the point of Christian worship. Of course, when I am leading in a service, I am usually too focused on the job to actually participate well in worship myself. But that is a topic for another time namely: why pastors need the opportunity to experience worship rather than lead it.

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