During my lifetime I reckon I’ve heard about 4,000 sermons. Often I have been challenged, uplifted, provoked, transformed. Sadly, other times, I have been bored.
I believe preaching is one of the most important things that the church can do. First Corinthians 1:21 says, “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (NIV).
But isn’t the way a sermon is heard at least as important as the way it is preached? Paul says “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).
The writer to the Hebrews makes things even more explicit: “For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith” (Heb 4:2).
How to prepare for listening to a sermon
I am not known for my skills in home improvement, but I did once have a go at repainting a room. I spent hours with my paint roller, making sure I didn’t drip paint on the skirting boards and the paint was applied smoothly. When I ﬁnished, it looked very good! After it dried, I showed off my handiwork to a friend. They ran their hands appreciatively over the paint, but then suddenly, a large chunk of paint ﬂaked off! The paint, even though it was fresh, was just peeling off the wall!
What had gone wrong?
I hadn’t prepared the walls properly. It seemed like too much work to sand down the walls and too much effort to use some primer.
Everything that I spent so much time doing simply didn’t stick.
I wonder whether that is true for us in church? We spend so much time listening to sermons, but it never seems to stick. Perhaps it’s because we haven’t prepared ourselves properly. It would be odd if your pastor turned up one Sunday with no notes and simply asked, “Has anyone got any ideas what I should preach on this morning?” But is that our attitude when we come to hear a sermon?
The most important preparation we can make is to prepare prayerfully. In Ephesians 6:19, Paul asked the church to “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me” (BSB). In Colossians 4:3–4 he asks the same: “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message … Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” We, too, should pray for clear, biblical, applied preaching.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know that each Sunday ﬁve people were praying that God would speak to you? So why don’t you pray for the five people sitting nearest to you in church? If everyone in church did that each Sunday, then everyone would be lifted to God in prayer.
As well as praying for others, we must also pray for ourselves.
Many people pray when they come into church, and that’s a great habit. But our prayerful preparation shouldn’t begin when we sit in our pew. If preaching is important, we must invest time preparing for it, and we should pray before we leave our homes. How many of us miss our private devotions on a Sunday morning, then tell ourselves it doesn’t matter because we will be praying and reading God’s Word in church anyway? That is not a sign of prayerful preparation.
What should we pray for? We should pray for the sermon, the preacher, and the listeners. Prayer can help even uninspiring sermons hit their mark. Prayer can help preachers who are wrestling with their sinful nature and having a difficult day. Prayer can also help listeners who are distracted or hard-hearted or troubled.
A man went to see his doctor for advice about being cured of snoring. The doctor asked:
“Does your snoring disturb your wife?”
“My wife! Why, it disturbs the whole congregation!”
So one thing we can do to help us prepare well for Sunday is to get to bed early on Saturday night.
Sometimes we can’t avoid a late night or disturbed sleep, but if we’re continually sleepy when we listen to preaching, there may be something wrong. Perhaps we’re not making hearing God speak enough of a priority?
Preparing thoroughly can also mean thinking about the message before you hear it. If you have regular expository preaching in your church, you probably know the passage on which next Sunday’s sermon will be based. Why not read it before you come to church? Discuss it with someone or even read a commentary. See if you can work out what the preacher’s points are going to be. By doing so, you’ll be thinking over God’s Word, and you’ll be ready and open for the Sunday preaching.
We should look forward to the Sunday sermon. I know that sometimes the preaching in your church is not all you want it to be. You know what? Often it’s not all your pastor wants it to be either! But it’s not presumptuous or fanciful to expect God to bless us when he’s told us that preaching is a blessing.
As the Bible puts it: “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7 ESV). We can be expectant because God is more than able to do amazing things with struggling preachers and half-hearted listeners and average sermons. He’s the one with surpassing power, not us.
How to listen to a sermon
A sermon is served as a Sunday dinner, not like an intravenous drip. It has to be chewed, digested, and swallowed. We cannot simply sit back and expect to be fed if we are not willing to play our part. So not only do we need to prepare for a sermon prayerfully, thoroughly, and expectantly, but we must also listen well. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about how we should listen to sermons.
Too often we equate worship with singing. Certainly, our singing ought to be worshipful, but the whole service is a worship service. Everything that we do during a Sunday service ought to be worshipful, and that includes listening to the sermon.
So what does it mean to listen worshipfully? Simply that we should respond to the preaching in a way that brings glory to God. So while we’re listening, we should pray short, silent prayers of praise, or ask God to help us to take the message to heart.
Different people’s memories work in different ways, but taking notes can be a great benefit to listening attentively. Jotting down the main thoughts of a sermon helps keep your mind focused. Not every sermon is ﬁtted for a point-by-point outline, but you can almost always identify the big ideas and Bible references. If taking notes doesn’t work for you, then think of other ways to help you listen attentively.
In Acts 17:11 Luke writes, “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (NIV). It’s important we trust our pastors and others who preach in our church. We need to be willing to submit to the authority of our church leaders, but we mustn’t treat them like celebrities or make the mistake of thinking they’re infallible. We should not ask, “What did the preacher say this morning?” What we should be asking is “What did the Bible say this morning?”
Having said that we should listen critically, we are not above God’s Word. If a preacher says it, maybe we should do it, maybe not. But if God says it, we should always obey. There can’t be any exceptions to that rule. The worst thing that can happen to us in a sermon (and I really mean this) is that we are challenged by God’s Word, but we harden our hearts and refuse to respond. That’s the worst of all outcomes.
How to respond to a sermon
So we’ve prepared to listen to a sermon prayerfully, thoroughly, and expectantly. We’ve listened worshipfully, attentively, critically, and submissively. That’s it, surely? No, there’s one last step— and that’s the most important of all. We must respond well. That’s the point of listening to sermons, after all.
One way of responding thoughtfully is to discuss the message with other people—for example, over Sunday lunch. (You’ve heard the old joke, I’m sure. Q: “What did you have for lunch today?” A: “Roast preacher.”)
Don‘t roast the preacher, but do discuss God’s Word. Surely the Word of God is more enlightening than politics, the weather, or sports? See who can remember the outline of the message. See if anyone caught the main application or if anyone can repeat the major verse or reference.
And why not take it a step further?
Each week, see how the Word of God can be put into action in your life. Write down the date, the title of the message, the main idea, and an outline in a notebook. Then, ask questions like these:
- What has God commanded?
- How does he want me to change?
- What habits do I need to get rid of?
- What do I need to think about and pray over?
Next Sunday, you can see how you’ve done at putting the Bible into practice. What prayer requests has God answered? Keeping a journal to remind us of God’s Word can be a great spiritual beneﬁt.
Do you remember we said earlier that a sermon is like a Sunday lunch? Well, don’t leave the sprouts! Sometimes God’s Word has things to say that we may not like to hear but which we specifically need. We must not throw away the biblical truths that will challenge and change us.
Imagine you hear a sermon about the importance of resting on a Sunday. What we might like to hear and remember from that sermon is, “I should put my feet up today!” That’s what we’d like to hear, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the preacher’s main point, not indeed all that God was saying through his Word. If that’s our conclusion, we’ve eaten the sermon dessert but left the sprouts—we’ve left the part of the sermon that’s good for us.
What God probably wants us to remember from that sermon is not, “I should put my feet up!” What God probably wants us to think about is, “What can I do to help myself and others rest on Sundays?”
So what’s the best way to tell if we really are listening to sermons? By looking at the way we live. Our lives should repeat the sermons that we have heard.
So how do we stop sermons from being boring? As Philip Ryken puts it, “With a soul that is prepared, a mind that is alert, a Bible that is open, a heart that is receptive, and a life that is ready to spring into action.”[1
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- ‘Tuning In’ by Philip Ryken, in Tabletalk Magazine, March 2003: The Power of Preaching. Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2003.