Most would agree that churches should have skilled preachers who prepare and deliver sermons with excellence. But far too few of us give much thought to training skilled listeners. Last week, I appealed that two main things help us become excellent sermon listeners. We need to change our expectations for the sermon time, and we need to engage our minds to understand, discern, and apply what we hear.
What are your expectations for the sermons you hear? How do you judge a sermon to be good or bad? What things do you value? Someone once told me that a good sermon is a short sermon. That person obviously valued sermons that didn't take up a lot of their time. Others value any sermon that doesn't bore them. As long as it is sufficiently entertaining or interesting, it's a good sermon. Some people value their own preference of preaching style: the preacher's voice, cadence, movements - even the visuals or media used (or lack thereof) are all indicators of whether the sermon was good or bad.
These expectations or values aren't without merit. It is good for sermons to be concise. And, good preachers develop skills for sermon preparation and delivery that help to make the sermon interesting. Stylistic elements like volume, cadence, and physical movement are important considerations. But they aren't the main consideration. Believers should have higher expectations than whether their stylistic preferences are met - or whether the sermon ends early enough for them to be first in line at their favorite lunch spot.
Think again of the instruction that Timothy received from Paul about preaching: "Preach the Word." Don't expect to be entertained or amused. Expect to hear God speak through the timeless truth of His Word. "Reprove, rebuke, exhort..." Don't expect only positive messages or things that are easy to hear. Expect to be corrected when your understanding is lacking, rebuked when your thinking or actions are contrary to the Word, and encouraged when you have been faithful. "For... they will not endure sound doctrine." Expect to have the rock-solid, objective doctrines of God held out for you. You have all these ideas about who God is and what He is like and what He does... but how do you know any of it is right? And how high is the price for error? Expect to have your subjective ideas reined in by the objective truth of the Bible. In short, expect to hear from God Himself!
In addition to setting your expectations, you need to put your mind into overdrive... there's a lot of work to be done while you listen!
For too many believers, the sermon is the time they spend least engaged in the worship service. That shouldn't be so! Imagine what our worship services would be like if we sat passively through the greeting, singing, praying, and giving segments! What would you think if you visited a church where the worship service looked like that? Very likely, you would think something was wrong with the way people were responding (or not responding) to what was going on around them. Why should we treat the sermon any differently than those other parts of the worship service? Many Christians wrongly assume that because the preacher has to do the actual talking, our role as listeners is passive. It isn't! When we listen to a sermon, our hearts and minds should be all abuzz with the activity of comprehending, discerning, and applying what is being said.
Taking steps to ensure you understand could include several things: If the reference has been made available, you could read and study the scripture that is going to be exposited beforehand. Take good notes or obtain a copy of the sermon audio so you can study the material afterward. Consult trusted resources, and use bible study tools if needed. If you heard the sermon in your own church, discuss it with mature believers who will also benefit from thinking over the sermon. If you still have questions, you may even be able to consult with your pastor about the message.
Discernment means being able to perceive or recognize distinctions. A skilled sermon listener is able to recognize the difference between the accurate use of God's Word and (intentional or unintentional) misuse. One of the greatest ways to grow in discernment is to grow in experience with the Scripture! Believers should be hearing, reading, studying, and memorizing the Bible on a regular basis. There's no better way to recognize falsehood than to be intimately familiar with the truth. Another way to practice discernment is to ask good questions. Desiring God has an excellent post on three questions to ask before hearing any sermon, here.
Finally, remember that no one is more able to apply the truth to your life than you! Resist the temptation to hear and apply sermons on behalf of others. It's good that we want everyone to hear good teaching and instruction, but if our first thought during the sermon is wishing someone else were there to hear it... then we've missed what God is trying to say to us in this moment. Think of how the sermon applies to your own life first, and respond in faith.
I hope you've been encouraged to take a fresh look at both the preaching and listening perspectives of preaching. Both preacher and listener have important work to do. May we do that work faithfully, for God's glory and our good.