Profiting from Preaching
Why do we stick with sermons? An uninterrupted discourse demanding close mental concentration for more than half an hour rates zero as an effective modern means of communication. Without discussion, visual aids, musical interludes, snappy repartee, how can you expect people to listen?
Even when a more traditional church service is broadcast or televised, the sermon has to be divided up into short sections with less taxing music or chit-chat in between. Is the onus really on you to profit more from preaching, or should our whole concept of preaching be changed?
Our answer is blunt. The sermon must stay for two basic reasons. God commands it. "Preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:2) is still God's command. When the church was founded, preaching was at the heart of its worship and evangelism, so Christians and sermons go together.
God uses it. He isn't limited to preaching, since a thousand means can awaken faith — a thunderstorm or an illness, a good deed or a beautiful sunset, bereavement or war. But his normal means is preaching, as happened to Lydia: "The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message" (Acts 17:14). The Shorter Catechism sums it up succinctly:
The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners.
So sermons stay. How can we profit more from them? Some basic truths about preaching will help us.
Preaching Is Instruction
There are many other valuable methods of instruction in the church — books, Catechisms, discussion, Bible classes, cassettes, videos. But to preach is to teach, from the most famous sermon of all time in which our Lord "began to teach them" (Matthew 5:1), through the dramatic preaching of Pentecost which is described as "the apostles' teaching" (Acts 2:42), to Paul's final charge to Timothy to "preach ... with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2).
Be ready to be taught. You may know more than your minister. He may not be as gifted a teacher as others. But you have to be a pupil in God's school and he has many lessons still to teach you. Approach the sermon with prayer: "Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law" (Psalm 119:18). Pray specifically for the minister, that he would preach clearly and powerfully. And do not give any less mental attention to understanding God's Word than you do to your everyday affairs or other studies.
Take notes if that assists your concentration; don't if it distracts you from the message. Look up cross-references if that helps you to remember them; don't if it makes you lose the thread of the sermon. In a slower age, profitable discussion of the sermon provided the staple of many a homeward conversation. It can still be discussed at home, especially as a topic for simple explanation and questions with any children in the family.
What if you disagree with something the minister says? Turn it to profit by studying the biblical reasons for your disagreement. You may feel you can act the part of Priscilla and Aquila who "explained to Apollos the way of God more adequately" (Acts 18:26). But remember your own human tendency to error, and avoid all carping criticism. Ministers are only too conscious of their own shortcomings and long to preach better. Pray and encourage whenever you can and then expect new power from the pulpit.
Preaching Is Encounter
True preaching not only enlightens the mind, it stirs the heart. A great orator can sway his hearers and even change a nation's history. But preaching is qualitatively different. As the word reaches the listener, the Author is at work. The result is an encounter with the living God.
This is why we can never limit the effect of preaching to our ability to remember the three or four points of the sermon. We may forget even the text preached on, but still know that the sermon was a powerful spiritual experience when God and his will became very real to us. A monotonous preacher and a listless congregation may seem a far cry from the experience of the stranger in Corinth who, stirred to the depths of his being by the preaching he heard, fell prostrate exclaiming, "God is really among you" (1 Corinthians. 14:25). But pray for such meaningful encounters with God and expect them as his Word is preached.
Preaching is also encounter with fellow-worshippers. If God is speaking to you through his Word, he's doing the same for others. Signals from the brain have different messages for different parts of the body, but they affect the whole. And as our great Head conveys his messages to individual members through the preaching, it is as if a spiritual electricity runs through the whole body. The result should be an increase of mutual love and unity in service. If you don't find that happening in your own congregation, question first your own willingness to listen to God through his preached Word. True encounter with him is life-transforming.
Preaching Is Persuasion
Sometimes we're afraid of this because we've come across zealous evangelists or sect leaders who obviously manipulate and even enslave their hearer's emotions.
But true preaching isn't just a catalogue of doctrines. Even if it gets us excited about our faith, that's not enough. It's intended to produce results. Firstly, conversion as the Spirit "persuades and enables us to embrace Jesus Christ" (Shorter Catechism 31). But there are wider results. God wants you to be a better person, more obedient to him, more committed to his service. Pray that through the sermon you will see his will more clearly, and actually go out and do it.
Ezekiel's hearers enjoyed the melody of his oratory, but God's verdict was: "They hear your words but do not put them into practice" (33:32). A timely warning to us all!