I do believe in preaching. But I also believe – with equal ferocity – in the importance of hearing God’s Word. Ideally, a sermon should be listened to with rapt attention and deep affection. In its wake, the sermon should evoke both faith and action in the life of the believer.
Yet often we achieve less than this ideal. Sermons can be ‘water off’ the Christian’s proverbial ‘back.’
So how can we make more of the sermons we hear? Let me offer ten recommendations to help us squeeze the juice out of the sermon.
Accept your relentless need for the Word of God. What bread is to your body, sermons are to your soul. Essential. In this sense, sermons are unlike desserts. Desserts are tasty but optional; by contrast, sermons are life-giving and life-sustaining. Here’s the truth: we will benefit little from sermons if we do not first believe they are terribly important. Let the believer come to the preaching-moment utterly convinced of their need for God’s Word. May they say to their soul on sermon’s-eve: “This a means of grace! A necessity for growth in godliness!”
Read the passage beforehand. Does my pastor preach consecutive sermons? Then the opportunity before me is great! Let me read the text when Sunday is still far off. Let me ponder it in my home, even as the pastor ponders it in his study. This creates in our soul the same sort of desire that is aroused when reading a menu. Ponder the passage in prospect and you will more eagerly await the meal!*
Rest well the evening before. I’m probably not the only pastor who often looks out on a tired congregation on Sunday morning. There can be many reasons for this, but some of them are controllable. Could it be that Sunday morning worship is often being ruined by Saturday evening leisure? Television, internet and smartphones are keeping many of us awake till the wee small hours. Does this make for sharp concentration on a Lord’s Day morning? If you cannot keep your eyes open during the sermon, it may be a sign that your Saturday night routine needs changing.
Sit nearer the front. This might not apply to everyone, but I would say that if: a) your hearing is not so good, or b) you are easily distracted, you would be well advised to sit near the front of the meeting room. This always baffles me: we want to hear preachers clearly, yet we fill church halls from ‘back to front’. Should it not be the other way around?
Look and listen. Besides your mind, the most important parts of our body during a sermon is your eyes and ears. Listening is a challenging skill. Truly hearing with our ears takes concentration, an undistracted mind, and of course the help of the Holy Spirit. Our eyes can also help our ears. Looking at our bible can help us follow what the preacher is saying. Looking at the preacher can help us grasp his message, which isn’t just conveyed with verbiage, but with facial expression and body posture.
Take some notes. There are different schools of thoughts about this, I know. But many people have found that taking limited notes can aid concentration during the sermon. As well as helping listeners focus, notes also enable the hearer to review the sermon later. I do have one caution though. Remember that a sermon is not an academic lecture. God is addressing us through His Word! Every once in a while, note-takers should drop their pens in wonder and worship!
Be aware of typical distractions. Crying babies, fainting fits, coughs and splutters etc! Wherever there are people, there will always be distractions. At one level, this is part and parcel of worshiping in community. Yet we must be prepared for typical distractions, and re-divert our distracted minds whenever we find them wandering.
Think about the sermon but don’t stop listening to it. Although our primary posture during sermons is one of listening, it is inevitable that we will often find ourselves ‘conversing’ with the sermon. Questions will arise. Something the preacher said (perhaps incidental) will send our thinking down some avenue or other. We may even have a “quibble” or disagree with something the preacher said. All of this is well and good; but perhaps one word of caution. Don’t be so absorbed in your own thoughts, that you stop following the thoughts of the preacher. Listen to the whole sermon.
Talk about the sermon afterwards. A great way to maximise sermons is to talk about sermons. I frequently talk about the sermons I preach with my wife. This is less on a “critiquing level”, more on a personal level. How does the passage affect us? How does it speak into our thinking, our faith, our practice? This is hugely beneficial. Whether with a fellow member, friend, or in the family, some kind of brief discussion will promote application and a prayerful response to God’s Word. Try it!
Review the sermon during the week. This is an extension of the last recommendation. Why not download and listen to the sermon again on Monday? Or read over last week’s sermon notes in your morning devotions? In our church, I am often encouraged to hear members referring to Sunday sermon themes during the Wednesday evening prayer time. However you do it, some further reflection on the sermon will surely be beneficial.
* Even where the minister ‘chooses’ his text week on week, you can usually find out what he is preaching on by asking him.