In Mark 4:14 Jesus warned that some of us are like seed sown along a hard path. As soon as we hear the word, Satan comes and snatches it away because we’ve not been careful about how we listen. So, with that in mind what can we do to make sure that we profit even from rubbish sermons. What is there that we can we do to take his word in?
All sermons are on a trajectory from imperfect (at one end of the spectrum) to perfect (at the other). Just plain wrong is nowhere on the spectrum; heretical is off the scale. So if a sermon is somewhere on the spectrum between imperfect and perfect, then it’s got to be possible to benefit from it in some way, hasn’t it?!
So how might we do it?
1. Do your own leg work!
We produce term cards at CCB with details of the preaching programme. Not everyone uses them, or even knows of their existence! The point of having them is not so that people can know who’s up and therefore skip church. But so that people would know what’s being preached so that we can think about it beforehand. Last Sunday I tried to teach three chapters of Judges. That’s a lot of material to cover. I had to work with the assumption it would be unfamiliar. And even after the reading I assumed that I’d have to spend time in the sermon rubbing our noses in the text once again. That takes time. As it turned out the sermon came in at 40 minutes. But a fraction of that time was spent on specific application to our own situation. Far too much time was spent on explanation. And so it drifted towards the imperfect end of the sermon spectrum. But if I’m going to make suggestions about life changing applications, then I want people to know where I’m getting that from. As congregational members, we could put in some hard yards of preparation ourselves. We could read the passage ahead of church. That way you’re immersed in it and engaged with the issues that it raises. That way you’re not hearing the passage for the first time as well as the sermon for the first time. You’re hearing the text for the second time, at least. And so you can engage with the sermon and think hard about what’s being said. And you can benefit even if the sermon is application light, or explanation inadequate or engagingly insufficient! We could prepare for the sermon and do some leg work ourselves. So why not give it a go? See whether you’re experience of hearing God speak is enriched by being engaged with his word in the first place.
2. Pray for the preaching!
Pray for your preachers. Pray for the sermon. Pray for the event at which God’s word is explained. Pray for your own interaction with His word. Ask God that you’ll profit from a less than perfect explanation of the scriptures; because that’s what you’re going to get every time you go to church! I reckon that’s one prayer the Lord is pleased to answer. No preacher wants to be rubbish. They don’t mean to be. Sometimes it just happens. But it might not if his congregation is praying for him! There are lots of reasons why we preach rubbish sermons but I won’t go into them here. I’ll blog on that later. But pray for those whom God has given you to teach you the scriptures.
3. Fight the frustration!
When the sermon is failing you have a choice. You could let the growing aggravation within you come to the boil. I’ve doen it. And I’ve caused it. I can see it in their body language. The frustration simmers away as the preacher takes the sermon in a direction that you’re unhappy with. The preaching of yet another inadequate sermon could be used as justification for switching off. You could simply check out and think about something else. But let’s just remember what we’re doing when we do that. We’re muting God. And that’s not something that I want to do. Alternatively we could work hard to engage and not let the poor quality of the sermon quash our desire to hear what God has to say to us. We shouldn’t let the whole sermon be derailed by a less than perfect preacher. So try to find one thing to latch onto and think about that.
4. Don’t beat yourself up!
Though we’re responsible for how we listen to sermons, the preacher retains the responsibility for how that’s presented. If there are things that you didn’t get, or things that you didn’t follow then don’t blame yourself. There’s every possibility that he could have been monumentally unclear or whatever. Don’t think that you’re stupid because you didn’t get it. He may have cunningly obscured the obvious in amongst lots of other stuff in his sermon! So ask questions. At CCB we have a time for questions after the sermon. It benefits both the preacher and the congregation. He gets another swing at it and is often clearer second time round. And they get to clarify the issues or implications that they weren’t sure about. It takes a few minutes but it’s nearly always worth the effort. Of course, not all of us are comfortable speaking out loud in a crowd. We could submit written questions and we’ve done that before. But it takes time. So why not have a word with someone you trust or the preacher himself to chase up your issues. As a preacher, I’m often delighted when people come up to me afterwards and want to engage with what’s been said. It’s strangely comforting to know that what’s been said hasn’t fallen on deaf ears, even if what fell on awake ears didn’t make much sense!
5. Have another swing at it!
Talk about the sermon with friends. As you sit in the pew/chair at the end of the meeting why not make your conversation starter about the sermon. In the pub afterwards or over lunch why not take the issues and run with them. We build one another up as we encourage one another to respond to God’s word in repentance and faith. We’d be more mature in our faith if we did this more often. Resist the temptation to talk about the preacher and how well he presented it. Talk about the content and what God wants us to learn from that part of His word. That’s far more important. Don’t let the sermon be merely a 30 minute exercise in listening to something more akin to verbal wreckage than lofty rhetoric. Even if the content has been less than ideal and the presentation has been poor, don’t let that stand in the way of profiting from hearing God’s word. So have another swing at it and leave the sermon pondering what God has said.
Of course, none of these ought to be used by those of us who preach as an excuse to preach rubbish sermons. I spend hours each week trying not to be. But sometimes, despite my best prayerful preparation, I just can’t help it. Wonderfully hearing God’s word is a co-operative work. Whether God grows someone in maturity isn’t simply down to the quality of my sermons. And every listeneer can profit even when I’m at preaching at the wrong end of the spectrum!
This series of posts has been inspired by Christopher Ash’s little leaflet ‘Listen Up’ available from here. You’d be well advised to grab yourself a copy.