How to Listen to a Sermon
Can I make a confession? I have come to believe that I am a bad sermon listener.
You might think that’s an odd confession to hear from a pastor – from a man who spends a good chunk of his life preaching and preparing to preach, but I’ve come to believe that it’s true. While I was on vacation in July I had an opportunity to hear a wide variety of preaching. Some of the preaching struck me deeply, but some of it didn’t. At one point I was left asking the question: Is it this preacher’s fault that this sermon wasn’t very meaningful to me? Or do I bear the blame?
This may be the part where you expect me to say that there are some preachers out there who just aren’t very good. You perhaps expect me to blame the guy up front. Maybe your tendency is to think that way when a sermon you hear doesn’t particularly make much of an impact.
Jesus himself suggests differently, though. In Luke 8:18 he says that we should “care then how you hear.” That we all bear some responsibility when we don’t “get something” out of a sermon. You see, preaching is a two way street. Yes, the preacher has a responsibility to open the Word of God and say truly what is there, and to do so in a way that doesn’t put you to sleep. And yes he has a responsibility to make the text make sense and to make an earnest application of the text.
But we as the sermon listeners also bear a responsibility as well, and it’s a responsibility that I wonder whether we consider all that often?
I want us to ask the question: how should we listen to a sermon? What is our responsibility when it comes to preparing ourselves to hear God’s Word on the Lord’s Day? If you’re like me, and you feel like you may not be a very good sermon listener, what can you do? How can you get better?
1. Remember the Purpose of Preaching
If I asked you why we have preaching in church, I wonder what variety of answers we might hear. Some would surely say, “Well we’ve just always done it. Church wouldn’t feel the same without a sermon.” Some might say, “We have preaching to encourage us to get through another week.” Others might say, “I need to have an emotional moment with God.” Still for others they might think that the purpose of a sermon is to give us fodder to go argue with other people.
I fear that all of these answers unfortunately find their focus and purpose too much in us – in the listeners. In the end, if we think the preaching exists for our sake, then we haven’t gotten to the bottom of it really. The real reason for Preaching is that the King has a message for his people. The real reason that preaching exists is that the entirety of God’s Worship has to be centered around God himself, and on His priorities and his goals and purposes for us. By putting the speaking of God at the center of our Worship and the center of the Lord’s day we are remembering that God is the one who rules and runs his church. When a preacher preaches he preaches “as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). In other words, when God’s word is faithfully preached, it is God himself who is speaking.
God may be doing any number of things when we hear him speak. His purpose for us in one sermon may be to show us that we’ve been wrong about something (he may want us to think different). His purpose may be to lift us up out of our discouragement and sorrow (he may want us to feel different). Or his purpose may be to confront us over something wrong we’ve done (he may want us to act different).
If the King of the universe has something to say to us, it should be our impulse to lean in and want to hear, with great interest what he has to say to us. This is why I say in the first point that one step to listening to a sermon is remembering what an extraordinary and solemn privilege we have to hear the words of the King. Listen carefully, because he has something to say to us!
2. Prayerfully Prepare
If we want to be better sermon listeners we need to prayerfully prepare. The first part of that is key.
Without God’s illumination of the sermon we may hear a pep talk, or we may feel like we understand the history of God’s people better, but without his Spirit that’s all we’ll hear. All of us have hungry souls that were made to know God. We were made for more than just intellectual exercise. We need the Spirit to take the Word and drive it home to our hearts, and that means asking the Spirit to do that. Sermon listening certainly does require that we use our minds, but it takes more than our minds. It takes our hearts. Ask God in prayer to prepare your heart to receive what He has to say.
One of our children had a habit of walking into the kitchen and simply grunting and groaning. They could speak just fine but wouldn’t ask for the food that they wanted. We wouldn’t give our child what they asked for until they said it in words. Expecting to listen well to a sermon without prayer is like being a child in the kitchen and expecting to eat without asking your parent for food. The food’s all there, it’s in the cabinets, but you need to ask so you can receive. Do you pray that God will do something to you with the sermon? Do you pray that God will chastise you if you need it, or that he’ll show you his grace if you’re feeling low under the weight of sin? Prepare yourself through prayer.
But the second part of this second point is that we should prayerfully prepare. Besides praying, how else can we prepare ourselves to hear a sermon?
We can prepare by taking care of our worldly business during the week before. Preparing to hear a sermon doesn’t begin on Sunday morning. It begins the week before. When Monday comes each week we should be thoughtful about our week so that we ask ourselves, “How can I work right now to make sure I am not distracted by other things on Sunday?” This means that we can prepare to hear the sermon by taking care of work or school related concerns on Friday and Saturday so that Sunday doesn’t have to be spent on those things. It means doing our shopping and other preparation so that when we’re in the pew we aren’t thinking, “I need to go buy groceries or finish that assignment.” If we prayerfully prepare, we will endeavor to get those things out of the way so that we have a distraction free Lord’s Day to hear and ruminate on the Word when and even after we hear it preached.
We can prepare by sleeping the night before and eating a healthy breakfast. It’s amazing what a distraction hunger can be! It’s a little less surprising to hear that sleepiness is a problem. If you’re staying out until 2am on a Saturday, expect to have trouble listening to the sermon a few hours later. If you stay out that late and don’t listen well to the sermon, be willing to take responsibility for your role in failing to hear the sermon.
3. Actively Listen
Finally, we should listen actively to the sermon. By this I mean that sermon listening is not a passive experience. No, you don’t speak during the sermon necessarily. But a sermon is something you should be engaged in. How can you be actively listening to a sermon?
For one thing you can use the notes that we provide and make notes of your own on the page. These notes are to help you know the structure of the sermon, to keep the main point of the sermon in your mind, and to ask yourself how each of the points serves the main point.
Some people find it helpful to listen to a sermon with a pencil or pen in hand so that they can write down points that strike them as important. Note taking isn’t required, but it might help you stay active as a listener.
Another way you can actively listen is by asking yourself whether the text really says what the preacher is saying. Paul warns us in 2 Timothy 4:3 that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching.” We can resist this error by following the example of the Bereans. In Acts 17:11 the Christians of Berea listened to Paul’s preaching in an active way. “They received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” The passage praises the Bereans for their active and discerning listening. It’s okay to listen and ask whether what the preachers is saying is actually true. It isn’t okay to ask if the sermon agrees with your opinion: the real question is, does the sermon agree with the text? Follow the lead of the Bereans and actively listen.
Listening to a sermon isn’t easy, because it isn’t meant to be a lazy or passive experience. Sermons are not meant to just fall into our laps. We should work at it and be active. We need to love God with all our “heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and that takes effort and work. So let’s do what it takes to become better sermon listeners.