The preaching of the Word of God is the central aspect of the church’s weekly worship gathering. During the sermon, the church gathers to hear the Word of God preached and taught for the building up and sending out of the body of Christ. We hear sermons week after week, year after year. If a Christian faithfully attends church every week for 10 years, hearing on average a 30-minute sermon every week, he or she will have heard 15,600 minutes of preaching. The real question, however, is not about how many sermons we hear; it is about how we listen when we hear those sermons.
In the parable of the sower in Luke 8, Jesus describes different kinds of people who encounter the Word of God and how they respond to what they hear. Jesus concludes the parable, saying, “So, be careful how you listen” (Luke 8:18). If we’re honest, we do not pay much attention to how we listen to sermons. Perhaps we are thinking about what transpired in the parking lot with our families, or we are concerned about tasks in the week ahead. Maybe we are simply allowing our minds to wander and wonder about what is for lunch. In any case, we struggle to listen well—but this should not surprise us.
Why We Don’t Listen: Roadblocks to Listening to God
God’s people have a history of terrible listening skills. God has graciously spoken to us through his Word in the Bible, but we struggle to listen to him well. The first failure of listening happened in the Garden of Eden with the first couple, Adam and Eve. Rather than listening and heeding the gracious words of God, Adam and Eve believed the lies of the serpent, Satan. Just like Adam and Eve, we struggle to listen and believe the words of God.
- We Struggle with Authority
We simply do not like to be told what to do. We are a lot like children in that way. Our human nature wants to be its own god, wants to set its own rules, and wants to live its own way. Yet, as people whom Jesus has saved, we belong to God and not ourselves. Each week we come to hear the Word of God preached. As those who follow Christ, we sit under his Word as those who submit to its authority. When the Holy Spirit convicts us during the sermon, our immediate reaction might be to recoil from the authority of the Word and dismiss the conviction. Instead, we need to adopt a posture of humility as we listen to the Word week in and week out.
- We are Careless
It’s easy to get into a routine. Sometimes routines are good, and sometimes routines can get us into a rut. It is easy to come to church week after week, sit in the same seat, and listen to the sermon. Many believers do this week after week and failed to be changed by God’s Word. Why? Often it is because we listen carelessly. Careless listening is something we have to continually combat because we are surrounded by technology and stimulus that engage with us with little input from us. As a result, we only have to listen and engage passively. We watch T.V., listen to music, scroll on Instagram and Facebook, and Snapchat. This has conditioned us toward passivity and less engagement. When we come to the worship gathering, the consequence is that the truth of the sermon finds no real resting place in our heart or mind but goes in one ear and out of the other because we listen carelessly and fail to engage.
- We are Critical
“I didn’t like how the pastor said that.” “He should have talked about it this way.” “I didn’t like that song just before the sermon.” Our preferences can kill a sermon quickly. Our strongly held opinions can be a speed bump to listening well to what God is trying to say to us through the sermon. We must remain open to God speaking to us through the sermon, even if some of our preferences or expectations are challenged. If we walk away from every sermon with something critical to say, but we cannot share how God spoke to us through the sermon, there is a problem.
In order to hear God speak to us through the preaching of his Word, we need to prepare ourselves. If we want our hearts to be like the good soil, receptive to the word, and primed for growth, then we must take care to pay attention to the condition of our hearts as we listen to preaching.
How to Listen to Sermons
Now that we have acknowledged the roadblocks that can keep us from hearing from God during the preaching of the Word, we can speak about how we can listen to sermons well. Rather than attending the worship gathering and just hoping something from the sermon sticks, we can take steps toward gleaning more from the sermon for our own growth and for helping others grow in their walk with Jesus. Here is how to “H.E.A.R.” a sermon.
- Listen Humbly
In order to prepare ourselves to hear what God wants to say, we need to humble ourselves. Before humility becomes the disposition of our heart, it is something we must actively do. Pray before the sermon and confess any known sin. Remind yourself of the gospel of Jesus. Remember who you are as a child of God the Father and put yourself under his Word.
- Listen Expectantly
When you come to the worship gathering, are you expecting God to speak to you? Every Sunday we open the Word of God and declare the gospel from its pages. Every week we hold Jesus high as the only savior and king of the world. The Bible says that the gospel is the “power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). The Bible is “sharper than a two-edged sword,” and that it can discern the “thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). If this is true, we should come to the worship gathering expecting to hear God speak and expecting for God to address us personally and corporately. If the goal of a relationship with God through Jesus is communion with him, and it is, then we should expect him to speak!
- Listen Actively
It is very easy to listen to a sermon passively. The preacher speaks, and you listen—but your listening is not active. As a result, you do not remember much of what was said and it has little impact. In order to listen well, we need to take initiative and listen actively. Pay attention. Take notes. Repeat the main sermon points in your head as you hear them. Write down questions. You will be far more likely to glean from the sermon if you listen actively.
- Listen Regularly
Like anything, a practice almost guarantees progress. If we only attend the worship gathering in person when we feel like it, we should expect to have a difficult time listening to the sermon. But through regular, committed listening, we can expect to grow in our ability to listen to sermons. We will grow in our ability to follow the preacher as he walks through a text of Scripture. We will grow in our ability to recognize Scripture references and hear the voice of God. Regular listening is vital.
Make Disciples by Teaching it to Someone Else
We exist to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the glory of God. If we do not listen with the Great Commission in mind, sermons will not have the impact on us that we often hope. Truth is meant to be shared. Theology happens in community. Growth happens both in us and in others when we take what we learn and teach it to someone else. And you can use the sermon to help you do that! Here are some ways you can engage with the sermon from the weekly worship gathering and use it as a way to disciple someone else.
- Take Notes and Review
Experts have said that we retain much more of what we hear when we take notes. Consider bringing a sermon notebook with you to church to write down Scripture references, and the points of the sermon, and then review them throughout the week. Given our approach to sermon reinforcement curriculum in LifeGroups, taking notes during the sermon will increase engagement and application of the text when the group meets to discuss.
- Pray for the Spirit’s Help
As with anything else in the Christian life, we cannot listen well and apply Scripture well apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us in John 14 and 16 that he sent the Holy Spirit to be our teacher and helper. The Spirit reminds us of all that Jesus taught. The Spirit fixes our eyes on Jesus. The Spirit gives us the boldness to share Jesus with others. If we are going to grow personally and make disciples of Jesus with what we learn, we are going to need the help of the Spirit. Pray for wisdom. Pray for clarity of thought. Pray that the Spirit would identify areas of sin you need to confess. Pray that the Spirit would grant you confidence in the gospel as you share it. Pray that the Spirit would give you the right words when discipling another believer. Pray!
- Apply the Sermon to Yourself
A sermon left unapplied will do little work in the heart. When you leave the worship gathering, sermon notes in hand, you should be to think about how the truth of the text applies to your life and your circumstances. After you answer the questions below, you can then take steps to live it out! Here are some questions you can ask:
- How does this point me to Jesus?
- What must I do now?
- How does this challenge my thoughts/actions?
- How does this challenge my emotions?
- How does this offer comfort?
- How does this demand I serve others?
- What must I confess to God after hearing this?
- Engage with the Scriptures
Revisit the text the pastor preached on the previous Sunday. Read it again and again. Meditate on it. Make notes of the various Scripture references that the pastor used. Pick a verse from the passage and memorize it. Pray through the Scriptures. The Spirit uses the Word to shape and mold us, convict us, and encourage us. The more you can engage with the Bible passage that was preached or taught, the better.
- Discuss it with Someone Else
We learn best and we love others best when we share the truth of the Bible and the gospel with others. The things you know best are the things you talk about with others. If you will be intentional with your conversations in LifeGroup, D-Group, or if you’re just in a conversation with your neighbor, inject what you’re learning as you’re studying and applying the Bible. Be truthful about your struggles. Be confident in the grace of God toward you and be confident in God’s desire to be gracious to all who come to him. Discipleship and discussion go hand in hand! Take what you’re learning and share it.
Undoubtedly, the Spirit of God will work through the Word of God to transform the people of God so that they look more like Jesus, the Son of God. The Spirit can work even during the times we struggle to listen. However, imagine what could happen if we actively engaged in listening to the preaching of the Word humbly, expectantly, actively, and regularly. And then imagine what could happen in others if we made it a point to disciple others with what we learn as we submit to the Word. Let’s listen well!