Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Listen Up: How to Get the Most Out of a Sermon

There are a great many books written about how to preach, but not so many written on how to listen to sermons. And yet, the primacy and importance of preaching is well known and attested in the scriptures. It pleases God to use preaching, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the blessing of Christ, to shape and strengthen the faith of Christians and to oblige us to obedience.

It is very easy to slip into what Scripture calls “dullness of hearing,” to hear the weekly sermons without faith, and to see little or no moral fruit in our lives as a result. As Jesus makes clear, ultimately it is how we hear that reveals who we are (John 8:43, 47, 10:4, 27). Here are some practical helps for becoming a better sermon listener during corporate worship. 

Before the sermon:
  1. If you feed on God's word during the week you will be better fed on Sunday. It's a simple principle - if you've kept your mind in the scriptures during the week, the mind (and heart) will be warmed and ready to better receive the word on Sunday. The opposite is true - if your mind has fasted from the scripture during the week, the mind and heart will be cold on Sunday, and not as apt to glean deeper truths from the word. Action step: be in God's word during the week!
  2. Prepare your heart. Getting the most out of a sermon will not happen because the preacher injects the word into your heart and mind as you sit passively and unresponsively  - quite the contrary. It will happen as you prepare your heart for what you are about to receive. Fan your desire for the sermon on Sunday with preparation. Action step: By Saturday evening our thoughts should begin turning towards the Lord's Day. If possible, you should read through the Bible passage that is scheduled for preaching. You should also be sure to get enough sleep. Then in the morning your first prayers should be directed to public worship, and especially to the preaching of God's Word.
During the sermon:
  1. Bring a Bible and use it during the sermon. In the church I serve, we use multimedia a lot and so it's not really necessary to use your Bible during the sermon because the scriptures are projected. However, I don't think this is necessarily a good thing. Oftentimes we pretend that we know the Bible so well that we do not need to look at the passage being preached. But this is a mistake. Even if we have the passage memorized, there are always new things we can learn by seeing the biblical text on the page. It only stands to reason that we profit most from sermons when our Bibles are open, not closed. Having your Bible open and using it helps check the preacher and his sermon work, too - like the Berea's (Acts 17:11). Also, it is very encouraging for a preacher to hear the rustling of pages as his congregation turns to a passage in unison. It tells him how engaged they are with the scriptures (a sign of spiritual maturity) Action step: bring and use your Bible.
  2. Really listen to the sermon. Listening to a sermon--really listening--takes more than our minds. It also requires hearts that are receptive to the influence of God's Spirit. Something important happens when we hear a good sermon:God speaks to us. Through the inward ministry of his Holy Spirit, He uses his Word to calm our fear, comfort our sorrow, disturb our conscience, expose our sin, proclaim God's grace, and reassure us in the faith. But these are all affairs of the heart, not just matters of the mind, so listening to a sermon can never be merely an intellectual exercise. We need to receive biblical truth in our hearts, allowing what God says to influence what we love, what we desire, and what we praise. Action step: actively listen to the sermon with heart and mind.
  3. Take notes. I provide our congregation with a sermon handout. It has all the scriptures I reference and the major points of the sermon. Sometimes, I even provide a discussion guide on the back for deeper consideration of the message. Taking notes, even if minimally done, helps engage the mind and active learning and listening. Action step: purchase a notebook to take regular sermon notes.
After the sermon:
  1. Talk about the sermon with others. At lunch after corporate worship, share what you learned and what the Lord spoke to you through the sermon, with others. Action step: make the "processing" of the sermon a communal affair - perhaps with family or friends at the meal.
  2. Put the sermon into action. Hopefully, the preacher has given you applications and directed some action for you that arose from the sermon. Reflect immediately after the sermon on how you might put this word into practice. Action step: consider this action during the remaining part of the Lord's Day and how to implement it on Monday.
  3. Pray. Pray for the Lord's blessing on the word preached and how it has already and will further affect your life.  Action step: pray!