Over the past few weeks I have been helping a few of our men think through the task of preaching. We have spent a lot of time considering what preaching is, what a good sermon is, and how you might go about preparing and delivering a sermon that is faithful to God’s word and helpful and challenging to those listening.( A blog post about the craft of sermon writing is a topic for another day perhaps.)
One thing that came up several times in our discussions was the whole issue of listening. When we considered how long each of us had been involved in churches, and how many sermons we had likely heard in all that time, we realized that it is so easy to just hear sermons without really listening to them. Having grown up in the church, I have heard literally thousands of sermons, and have preached hundreds more, yet I cannot remember the details or even the main message of all that many of them now.
The best sermon in the world is wasted if we don’t listen to it well.
When visiting people as an elder, I often ask the question “what was the last sermon you heard about? And how have you responded to it?” It is quite easy to walk out of church having been exposed to a good, faithful sermon, yet not having absorbed anything of substance.
Why is this? Well, it could be a number of things. We are sinful people and are resistant to the Word so often, resistant to changing our sinful patterns of behaviour, so we don’t often come prepared to respond to what we hear. Or we are distracted by our children, or the thoughts of lunch, or the argument we had with our parents. Or we are assessing the preacher in our heads, making mental notes on what was unhelpful or good, leaving with a mark out of ten for the sermon in our heads but no actual content from the Bible bouncing around in there. Or we think we already know and do what is being said (unlikely though that is), so we shrug off whatever the preacher says.
So what can we do to be better listeners? It is about preparation, active listening, and digestion.
1. Preparation. Before you get to church, read the passage to be preached on beforehand. Think about it, consider what questions it raises for you. If you are familiar with the passage you are better prepared to make the most of the sermon. And get to church on time! That way you are relaxed, you are not stressed and busy, and you can be ready to participate.
2. Active listening. Have a Bible open during the sermon, and follow the preacher’s points. It makes all preachers so happy to see heads go down to the text when a point is made. This is a learning thing for all of us, and all of us should be convinced in our own minds that this is coming from the text. However good your preacher is, however much you trust them, look yourself too. And it can be very helpful to take notes. They don’t need to be extensive; you are unlikely to have to give that sermon yourself later on! But especially note key applications or things you want to think about afterwards.
3. Digestion. The song after the sermon and the morning tea conversation are so encouraging, and so often have the unintended effect of completely wiping your memory of the sermon and how you might respond. Many find it helpful to immediately spend some time praying silently after the service finishes to cement ideas they have. And if you can have a good conversation about the sermon over morning tea, it will help you and the one you are speaking to! Take some time later on, either that afternoon or the next morning, to consider what you have learnt and how you might respond to it. In the past, I have replaced my usual personal Bible reading with the text from the day before every Monday, forcing me to consider my response and to pray about it.
Sermons are important in the life of the believer. Turning up late, listening idly, and then forgetting wastes your time and the preacher’s too. Digest it well, by yourself and with others, for all of us need regular meals to be healthy!