Since October 2002 there have been approximately 450 sermons preached in Evening Church at CCB. If we assume that most of them were 30 minutes long [ahem], that amounts to 225 hours or 9 days listening to God’s word. But in all that time, not once have we talked about how to listen to a sermon.
We may think that it’s obvious. But it’s not. At least Jesus didn’t think so. In Luke 8:18 he instructed his followers to consider carefully how they listened to his word. That’s unexpected, isn’t it? And in Mark 4 Jesus says things like ‘he who has ears to hear, let him hear’ and ‘consider carefully what you hear’. He warns that it’s possible to be ‘ever hearing but never understanding’. And in Mark 8:18 Jesus warns that it’s possible to have ears but fail to hear. So there’s wrong kind of listening then.
In all honesty, have you ever really given a moment’s thought to how you listen to a sermon? Me neither.
I was first alerted to this issue by Christopher Ash’s leaflet entitled ‘Listen Up’. In it he claims that there’s been nothing written on the issue in the last 200 years. What I’ve written here has been stimulated by that terrific little booklet. I’d encourage you to get hold of that rather than read my little post. But in case you don’t get round to it here are my six ways that I want to encourage us to listen to sermons. [He has seven and the content is a little different].
None of these should be taken as an excuse for preaching rubbish sermons. I don’t want to let those of us who preach off the hook. We have a responsibility to do what we can to help people engage with God’s word. But that’s for another post. This is about what those of us who sit under teaching, who listen to sermons, can do to get the most out of them.
So, six ways to listen to sermons
We need to cultivate the conviction and then the expectation that as the preacher says his first word, God is about to speak. The words of the preacher, insofar as he teaches what is faithful to the scriptures, are exactly what God wants to say to you. That’s astonishing, isn’t it? The living God who created the world from nothing, who superintends everything that happens in his world is about to address you personally. It may not feel like that. But that’s what’s going on. Divine communication is taking place. That’s a mind blowing concept. Just stop fopr a moment and contemplate that… Done? And so let’s be wary about being flippant or casual about what’s going on when we listen to a sermon. Before we come to church we could make sure that we’ve prayed and prepared ourselves to hear what God has to say to us. Let’s come to the sermon expecting God to speak to us.
God addresses us through preaching and so we need to listen attentively. We mustn’t let our minds wander. I’m a shocker at this. If I listen to sermons online I get distracted by all sorts of books on the bookshelf, e-mails in the inbox, my nails, a pile of papers and you name it! When I hear live sermons in church I’m often working out what I’ll say to the guys afterwards to encourage them so that they can grow in their preaching ministries. I’m sure that you’re not as bad as me. But even if the preacher is hard to follow and every fibre of our being is crying out to be distracted, we really need to pay attention, don’t we? God is speaking to us. If He was here ‘in person’, by which I mean actually present in all His magnificent majestic glory we would hang on His every word! God is actually present in preaching as He addresses us with His words. And so let’s avoid mental drift; or daydreaming as it’s better known. I’ve found taking notes to be a really helpful way of keeping my mind on the matters in hand. I’m not a great doodler and so I don’t face that temptation. But, for me, there’s something about recording what’s being said on a piece of paper that holds my attention. The reason we have a large blank space on our service sheets and provide pens on the seats is so that people can take notes. Let’s come to the sermon resolved to be attentive.
It may well be that not everything the preacher says can be established from God’s word. We don’t need to believe those bits. But unless we’re actively listening to what’s said we may passively take everything onboard as though it’s gospel! And so we need to listen with care and not let the sermon just wash over us, brainwashing us as it does. We mustn’t be gullible. We need to be discerning and carefully filter out what’s true from what’s not. And so let’s check what the preacher says against the passage that he claims it comes from. It’s always worth thinking where did he get that from? And on occasions it’ll be worth asking him directly. That’s why we provide a time after the sermon for people to ask questions from the floor. We’re not required to believe or obey anything that can’t be established from the scriptures so let’s listen carefully.
Before we start listening to a sermon, it’s worth preparing ourselves to hear that we may not have got things right. As our loving heavenly Father there are things that God may want to address that He’s not best pleased with. None of us enjoys being rebuked or corrected. And yet, that’s what God’s word can do if He thinks we need it. And so the Lord may want to challenge the direction of our lives. What we currently love may be wrong. What we currently think may be wrong. And what we currently do may be wrong. And so it’s worth asking how we’re going to respond when God critiques us? Are we going to respond with repentance and faith? Or are we going to respond with disobedience and distrust? Let’s not run away from preaching if we keep being challenged by God’s word. The odds are that it’s not the preacher’s fault that he keeps identifying something amiss in your life; it’s yours! All of us come under God’s word as messed up people in need of forgiveness. And so we can expect God to put his finger on what needs changing with some regularity. Only Jesus could listen to his Father’s word knowing that he’d obeyed it perfectly. That’s not a luxury that we can expect this side of eternity! So let’s prepare our hearts to be humbly accepting of God’s loving correction.
Frequently is not the same as regularly. You can be regular and still only listen to a sermon once a year! We need to be frequently listening to live sermons at our local church. It simply won’t do to go away for lots of weekends and listen to MP3s and think that’s a suitable substitute. I’ve blogged on this issue before here and here. Hearing live sermons is like cultivating a healthy diet. It’s not like going to the Doctor to receive the right medicine. Of course, every now and again we may hear a sermon that scratches where we itch. And when that happens it’s remarkable. But it’s not usually like that. Usually God just feeds us with what we need to keep spiritually healthy until the next meal. That’s one of the reasons why I’m a big fan of expository sermons and the sequential exposition of passages from Bible books. Left to my own choice I might only choose the warnings because they’re easy to preach effectively, or I might only choose the encouraging passages because I’ll get lots of plaudits from the congregation. But the discipline of having to work through the next passage means that I can’t skip what’s there and ‘cherry pick’. It’s like that with hearing sermons. For example, if I only ever download Piper on the glory of God then I won’t hear him on everything else that he’s covered in his years of preaching. Online we can pick and choose what we listen to. We don’t have to but we can. Live sermons in a church that preaches sequentially means we don’t get to pick and mix what we hear. So let’s hear sermons frequently.
When God speaks he expects a response. He wants to move us emotionally, instruct us intellectually and change us practically. He wants to do everything you’d expect a passionately loving Father with a bunch of messed up kids would do. And so He warns us, comforts us, reassures us, challenges us, instructs us, rebukes us, equips us and so on. He wants tochange us from one degree of glory into another. And so the response that He typically looks for is repentance and faith. When encouraging the young church minister Timothy, the Apostle Paul explained that God’s word was given for correction, rebuke, training and encouragement (2 Tim 3:16). God’s word will have both a positive; training and encouragement and a negative; correction and rebuke effect on us. Of course, we therefore need to remember that the measure of Christian maturity is not so much knowing a lot but changing a lot. When we stand before our Lord in glory He will not ask us what we know but what we did with what we know. Those are two very different things. So let’s hear what our Father says to us and respond in the way that he wants us to.
For further consideration of how you listen to sermons, I recommend Christopher Ash’s booklet ‘Listen Up!’