During my lifetime I’ve heard about three and a half thousand sermons. Often I’ve been challenged, uplifted, provoked, transformed. Sadly, during others, I’ve been bored.
I believe preaching is one of the most important things that the church can do. 1 Corinthians 1:21 says, “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe”. But in Romans 10:17 Paul also says “…faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (emphasis added).
And the writer to the Hebrews makes things even more explicit. Hebrews 4:2 says, “For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.”
So is the way a sermon is heard any less important than the way it is preached?
How to prepare for a sermon
I’m not known for my skills at DIY, but I did once have a go at repainting a room. I spent hours and hours with my roller – making sure I didn’t drip paint on the skirting boards, making sure I hadn’t missed anything. And I have to say, when I had finished, it looked very good! Once it had dried I showed off my handiwork to a friend. They ran their hands appreciatively over the paint, then suddenly a large chunk of paint suddenly flaked off! The paint, even though it was fresh, was just peeling off the wall! What had gone wrong? Simply that I’d tried to take a shortcut, and I hadn’t prepared the walls properly. It seemed too much like hard work to sand down the old paint, too much effort to use some primer. The result? Everything that I spent so much time doing simply didn’t stick.
I wonder whether that is true for us in church? We spend so much time listening to sermons, but it never seems to stick. Perhaps it’s because we haven’t prepared ourselves properly.
It would be odd if your pastor turned up one Sunday with no notes, and simply asked, “Has anyone got any ideas what I should preach on this morning?”. But is that our attitude when we come to hear a sermon?
The most important preparation you can make is to prepare prayerfully. In Ephesians 6:19, Paul asked the church to “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me…”. In Colossians 4:2 he asks the same, “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message… Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” We too should pray for clear, biblical and applied preaching.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know that each Sunday five people were praying that God would speak to you? So why don’t you pray for the five people sitting nearest to you? If everyone in church did that each Sunday, then everyone would be lifted to God in prayer.
But you must also pray for yourself. Many people pray when they come into church, and that’s a very good habit to get into. But our prayerful preparation shouldn’t begin when we sit in our pew.
If preaching is important, then we must invest time preparing for it, and we should pray before we leave our homes. How many of us miss our quiet times on a Sunday morning, then tell ourselves it doesn’t matter because we’d be praying and reading God’s Word in church anyway? That is not the sign of prayerful preparation.
A man went to see his doctor for advice about being cured of snoring. The doctor asked, “Does your snoring disturb your wife?” “My wife?! Why, it disturbs the whole congregation!”.
So the first thing I would suggest to help you prepare thoroughly, is to get to bed early on Saturday night! Sometimes you can’t avoid a late night, but if you are continually sleepy when you listen to preaching, then there is something wrong spiritually. You need to spend more time in God’s Word on your own, and less time doing other things that wear you out.
Preparing thoroughly can also mean thinking about the message before you hear it. If you have regular expository preaching in your church, then you probably know what passage next Sunday’s sermon will be based on. Why not read it before you come to church? Discuss it with someone, perhaps even see if you can guess what the preacher’s points are going to be! By doing so, you’ll be thinking over God’s Word, and you’ll be ready and open for the Sunday preaching.
We should look forward to the Sunday sermon. It is not presumptuous to expect God to bless us when His Word makes it clear that preaching is a blessing!
I know that sometimes the preaching in your church is not all you want it to be. You know what? Often it’s not all your pastor wants it to be either! But there’s one thing that will make a difference for both of you: Prayer. Prayer can fix bad sermons.
Every preacher is a sinner saved by grace. Preachers wrestle with their sinful nature just like you do, and they fail just like you do. But you can fix bad preachers – by praying for them.
And if you’re not the listener you want to be, prayer can fix that, too. Pray to become an eager and obedient listener to preaching.
How to listen to a sermon
A sermon is served like a Sunday dinner, not like an intravenous drip. It has to be chewed, digested and swallowed. We cannot simply sit back and expect to be fed, if we are not prepared to play our part.
Preparing well is the first step, but we must also listen well. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about how we should listen to sermons.
Too often we equate worship with singing. Certainly our singing ought to be worshipful, but the whole service is a worship service. Everything that we do during a Sunday service ought to be worshipful, and that includes listening to the sermon.
So what does it mean to listen worshipfully? Simply that we should respond to the preaching in a way that brings glory to God. So while we’re listening, we should pray short, silent prayers of praise, or ask God to help us to take the message on board.
Different people’s memories work in different ways, but I’ve found taking notes is a great benefit to listening attentively. Jotting down the main thoughts of a sermon helps keep your mind focused. Not every sermon is fitted for a point-by-point outline, but you can almost always identify the big ideas and bible references. If taking notes doesn’t work for you, then think of other ways to help you listen attentively.
In Acts 17:11 Luke writes, “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
It’s important that you trust your pastor and others who preach in your church. You need to be willing to submit to the authority of your church leaders. But you must not make the mistake of thinking they are infallible. We should never ask, ‘What did the preacher say this morning?’. What we should be asking is ‘what did the Bible say this morning?’
Having said that, we’re not above God’s Word. If God says it, we should do it! There can’t be any exceptions to that rule. The worst thing that can happen to us in a sermon (and I really mean this), is that when we’re challenged by God’s Word, we harden our hearts and refuse to respond. We must submit ourselves to God’s Word.
How to respond to a sermon
It’s not good preparing well, and listening well, if the sermon doesn’t actually make any difference to us! We need to respond well, too.
One way of responding thoughtfully is to discuss the message with other people (for example, over Sunday lunch). You’ve heard the old joke, I’m sure. Q: “What did you have for lunch today?” A: ‘Roast preacher’. Don’t roast the preacher, but do discuss God’s Word. Surely the Word of God is more enlightening than politics, the weather or sport? See who can remember the outline of the message; see if anyone caught the main application, or if anyone can repeat the major verse or reference.
And why not take it a step further? Each week, see how the Word of God can be put into action in your life. Write down the date, the title of the message, the main idea and an outline in a notebook. Then, ask questions like these:
What has God commanded? How does He want me to change? What habits do I need to get rid of? What do I need to think about and pray over?
Next Sunday, you can see how you have done at putting the Bible into practice. Did you generally have victory, or were there a lot of failures? What prayer requests has God answered? Keeping a journal to remind us of God’s Word can be a great spiritual benefit.
Do you remember we said earlier that a sermon is like a Sunday lunch? Well, don’t leave the sprouts! Sometimes God’s Word has things to say that we may not like to hear, but which we desperately need. We mustn’t throw away the biblical truths that will challenge and change us.
Imagine you hear a sermon about the importance of resting on a Sunday. It’s easy to digest this to mean, ‘put your feet up and let mum do the cooking’. But if we don’t also think ‘What can I do to help mum rest on Sundays’, then we’ve not responded fully.
So what’s the best way to tell if we really are listening to sermons? It’s by looking at the way we live. Our lives should repeat the sermons that we have heard.
So how do we stop sermons being boring? With a soul that is prepared, a mind that is alert, a Bible that is open, a heart that is receptive, and a life that is ready to spring into action.1
- This last sentence has been borrowed from Philip Ryken’s How to Listen to a Sermon.