14 May, 2015

The Importance of Criticism

Winston Churchill once said, “ Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things. ”   Many people fail to realize the wisdom and importance of this statement. There is a vast difference between being critical and offering criticism. Criticism should not offered to insult or tear down, but to bring insight into things or areas that can be improved upon. For example, I'm sure we can all remember times when we were in school where we handed in a paper and when it was returned to us, it was covered with red ink. Often times I was upset and discouraged when that happened, until I finally realized that the intent of the teacher was not to "put me in my place" or tell me how bad my paper was. (OK, with some teachers, that was exactly what they were doing. No, the intention was to teach me, to instruct me and help me to improve my skills and abilities. We can either receive that criticism with a humble heart and humble spirit, or we can arrogantly resist that criticism and refuse to change. We should welcome constructive criticism rather than getting offended by it. 

This morning I was thinking about how so many of us are the type to get offended by constructive criticism rather than to humble ourselves and ask, "Is this true? Is this an area I can improve and grow?"  I was reminded of something that took place several years ago. I had met a husband and wife in town and over a period of months run into them several times in a coffee shop and developed a casual relationship with them. In our conversations they had mentioned that they were still trying to find a permanent church home and that they would like to come visit the church where I pastor, but they were fearful that if they came and decided that it was not the church for them, that I would be offended. I assured them that I would not be, and they promised to come soon. 

Several weeks later, they did come and were pretty complimentary after the service, yet I could tell that something was wrong, even though they insisted that there was nothing wrong. I sent them a note that week thanking them for coming and inviting them to come back again, but they never returned, nor responded to two phone calls or the note I sent them over the next few weeks.  Our normal routine of seeing each other a couple of times per week at the coffee house stopped occurring, and it was obvious that they were avoiding me. After a month, I sent them a hand written note reminding them again that I was not going to be offended if they did not like our church or felt like it was not the church for them. I took it a step further and told them that they could help me as a pastor by giving me their honest opinion and insight toward our church. I asked them if they would play the role of the "critic" and give me an honest assessment of the church from their vantage point. It took a couple more weeks before they finally responded, but they finally did. 

They sent me an email and began by being very apologetic and saying that at first they were not going to do what I had requested, but finally came to an agreement that it could help me and the church. Let me say, when you invite criticism it still stings and we must be willing to accept that criticism and not interpret criticism the same as a person being critical. In all honesty, their criticism of the church service was both positive and negative as they pointed out what they liked and were impressed with, along with what they did not like or turned them off. Even though I had invited their criticism, was was a bit taken back by what they said at first. But then I began to think on it, and I had to admit that these things existed or happened in the service they attended. I finally decided to remove the names from the email and then print it out and distributed it to my church to discuss it. I'm not going to go into what their email said, but I will say that when my church saw it, they were, for the most part, deeply offended, even angered by it. It was like, "how DARE they say this about us?" But the facts were staring us in the face. We had in fact allowed these things to be done in our worship service and excused them away "because we are just family around here and we overlook each others faults." Those were the actual words that one person offered as a defense rather than ask the question, "How can we improve?"  I've saved that email for more than 5 years now and I go back and read it from time to time and I have to be totally honest and say that while we have improved in some of those areas... many of them remain the same... and it is hindering our church from growing. The sad but honest truth is that we would rather not offend someone close to us than admit we need to "fix" something and make the church more appealing to first time visitors. A better way to put it is, we refuse to change... and when we refuse to change, we are sentencing ourselves to stagnation and death. We can excuse things with the down home, "It's just us around here" or we can get honest enough to admit that we have to decide if we want to stay the same or improve ourselves. That question is true of every person or group or business. We can pay attention to the details and make changes to improve and help ourselves to grow, or we can remain defiant and refuse to change. The answer to the following question will determine our future, whether we are talking about the church, a business or an individual: The question is:  Will we accept criticism and make strides to improve, or will we dismiss it as someone being critical and continue on as we have always been?

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