What Are You Supposed to Do with a Sermon?
Do not merely listen to the word... Do what it says.James 1:22
I've been told that many churchgoers switch off the moment the minister starts his sermon. Different reasons are given for that; such as, "I can't understand what the minister is on about," or "I prefer action, like music and singing, rather then just having to sit there and listen". It is probably fair to say that preaching and listening are not as easy as they used to be. Or should I say, people do not listen as much to speakers as they used to. Not only are discussion and input more popular than in earlier days, our generation is also used to much more hype. Think of all the changing images on any TV presentation.
It Takes Self-Discipline to Listen to a Sermon
Of course, the preacher also has his part. Preaching is a two-sided activity. Like every public speaker, the preacher has to engage his hearers, he has to catch their attention. That takes sincerity and skill. Sincerity, because the preacher must believe what he says in order to convince his hearers. Skill, because his hearers must understand what he is talking about. He must use words and expressions which are familiar to his audience. He must speak their language and present his material in such a way that his audience can follow him. But at the other end of the sermon, the listener, too, has to make an effort to bring about communication. The listener must pay attention, he must make the effort to understand the speaker and make connection with the sermon.
The question that I would like to address is this – can hearers do anything to make themselves more effective listeners? Can they do anything to improve the two-way activity called preaching? I believe they can. And to show you what I mean, let me first remind you of what we are actually on about when we talk about sermons and preaching. A sermon is the bringing and receiving of the Word of God. It is part of the worship service; part of that communion with God in which we admire and praise God and place ourselves under His Word and direction. Now it is important that everyone who is involved in that service of worship should make proper preparation for it, not only the minister and the musician(s), but also the listeners. One way of preparing for worship is by prayer.
I suggest that to improve the effectiveness of the preaching in your church you pray for the preacher. I am convinced that the effectiveness of preachers is to a large extent dependent on the prayers of intercessors, of people inside and outside their congregation who pray for them. The preacher depends on the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit to receive and to pass on the Word of God; to understand it and to apply it.
I also suggest that you pray for yourself as a listener. Ask the Lord to give you an open and receptive heart for His Word. Ask the Lord to speak to you and to help you to hear and understand what He is saying through the preacher. And pay attention. Listening can be hard work, just like reading can. We all know how easily we are distracted. Our thoughts just wander off to another subject altogether. Our attention is drawn away by some unexpected movement or sound. It may be the talking of a child, or the clothes that someone is wearing. We can allow ourselves to be turned off or to become so upset that we no longer hear what the minister is saying. Pray that the Lord will help you to ignore minor irritations so that you will be able to concentrate on what He is saying to you.
Listening can also be hard work because you are likely to be hearing new words and new concepts; new truths, new ideas. Some people use this as an excuse for shutting off. They cannot be bothered with thinking and learning. I sometimes hear such people say, "Use plain English!" Now I am all for simple words. And if you have difficulty following your minister, I advise you to tell him so, nicely. It is no use having to listen to sermons that always go over your head. I remember being told on a visit many years ago, "I don't understand a thing of what you say on Sundays." My first thoughts on hearing this remark were not very flattering to the man who made it. Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut. And as I thought about it later that day, I realised that maybe this man was not the only one who was having genuine difficulty with my preaching. So I was challenged to make a greater effort at using language and concepts that young and old would understand. But if members are to grow in knowledge and Christian maturity they will have to be presented new information requiring new words. This is true for any new subject you learn. Think of the special words that are used in any trade or profession. Think of the new words you have to learn when buying and using a computer. So to those who balk at new words, invest in a dictionary. To me that is the most important book next to the Bible. Discover the richness of the English language and the joy of expanding your horizons.
Only the Scriptures are Infallible
When you listen, try to do so with discernment. Ministers are not infallible however much they may sometimes come across as if they are. Only the Scriptures are infallible. So feel free to disagree with a minister if you think he got it wrong. But make sure of your facts. Ask him to clarify what you think he said. And please don't go up to him immediately after the service and tell him that you have caught him out. A quiet discussion at some mutually agreeable time could prove very beneficial for all parties. As I said, check it out in the Word first. Compare Scripture with Scripture. Do some homework. Look up a concordance, a Bible Dictionary or a commentary. Do some mining in the shafts of grace and truth. Learn to divide the truth wisely. The truth has many facets, many aspects and sides. What is false in one context may be true in another. Don't fall over words or get stuck on particular expressions. Keep your eye on the big picture which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who came to this earth to find and save those who by nature are the enemies of God. But you are not finished with the sermon yet. It is not enough to just listen and appraise it. There is a need to think about it and apply it to your mind and life. It will help if you ask yourself some questions as you listen and as you meditate on the sermon later. What did it say about God and about the Lord Jesus? What did it teach me about God's works, his almighty power, wisdom, kindness, justice, mercy and truth?
And what did it tell me about my responsibilities as a child of God, in the church and in the world? Is there anything I was told to do, anything to obey, anything to repent of and to give up? We must not be hearers only. Our Lord clearly said that if we do not put His words into practice we are like foolish people who build their life on unstable sand. What a dreadful thing it would be to be told on the day of judgement, "You heard My word but did not do it."
God has chosen to work through the apparent foolishness of preaching to accomplish his purposes. A sermon is meant to be delivered and received as the Word of the living Lord. That Word will not return to God without accomplishing what God had in mind. So listen, allow yourselves to be told. We are not only to believe the Word but also to obey it. To obey it every day of our life and in every situation in which we find ourselves.
Be careful that you don't become just a sermon critic. Be careful that you don't just listen for others. By His Word, God the Spirit intends to make His people new. And isn't that what it is all about; that we should be new people? People who rejoice in the forgiveness of our sins and the hope of glory. People who declare the praises of Him who has brought them out of darkness into His wonderful light. Let us reflect that light so that others also may see the truth which God has made known in Jesus. God's Word is the greatest possible treasure we can ever possess. Listening to it, thinking about it, acting on it, is the best way to enjoy its worth.