Old things in a new way
I went to University as something of a culinary Neanderthal, the secrets of quality (or indeed passably edible) cuisine having bypassed me in preparation for the move away from home.
But one thing I knew: students eat pasta – every good student guide of the day told me as much! Simple, right? Sadly, in my case not exactly. Not being enlightened to the concept of pasta sauce, I settled on a more humble alternative: tomato ketchup. Not brilliant I grant you, but infinitely better than the times I tried to be fancy with green pesto but paid no attention to the jar and tipped the whole lot in at once. It was a brave person indeed that accepted an invitation to my home cooking!
I needed someone to have mercy on me and explain the wonders of vegetables and proper sauces to help me cook pasta.
If we were to stop and think about it, there are probably lots of things in life that we do regularly, but with a little help and training we could do much better.
Which brings me to sermon listening.
Sermons: A Passive or Active Experience?
If you have been around church for any length of time, you have come to expect a sermon, a monologue delivered by the preacher for anywhere between 20-60 minutes depending on one’s tradition.
For many of us, our natural instinct is to think of the sermon as a very passive activity (unless we are preaching of course!), it’s the point where the minister gets busy and the rest of us sit back and…
But not according to Jesus! In the concluding parable of the sermon on the mount, the story of the wise and foolish builders, Jesus prefaces it by saying, “everyone who hears these words of mine and put them into practice…” (Matthew 7:24-27). Hearing is active and responsive. When someone is speaking from God’s word and with the authority of God, gospel transformation can take place even as we listen as we hear God’s call and respond in faith and obedience.
Again, in Luke 8:18 Jesus considers the importance of active listening, “Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him.” Listening to the word of God preached is a life-and-death thing, a receiving-or-removing thing, depending how we listen.
Sermon Listening: Three phases
Holiday season is coming. So for anyone heading off on holiday, or anyone planning a one-off event, there will no doubt be three phases to that experience for most of us. Phase 1 is the planning and preparing, making sure everything is ready, tickets are located etc etc. Phase 2 is enjoying the holiday or event that you have been planning for. Phase 3 is the post-event reflections, whether that be sharing photos, story swapping, or something along those lines.
I would argue that listening to sermons well involves each of these three phases of preparing, experiencing and reflecting. Here are some practical tips for each phase:
Prepare (Phase 1)
Get to bed early! Pretty tricky to listen when your eyes require matchsticks to keep them open. That bit of self-discipline on a Saturday night to come to church fresh is worth it.
Keep your personal ‘quiet time’. If we have already heard from God in his word and meditated on its truth, we will be in a good frame of mind to hear God’s gospel truth together.
Pray with expectation. God promises to meet with us together, to speak to us through his word read and preached. So pray in that light. Ask God to shape you sermon by sermon, and pray for everyone who gathers that God would work powerfully through the sermon.
Experience (Phase 2)
Keep your Bible open. A preacher’s authority rests in the fact that he speaks from the Word of God. Follow through as a text is explained and applied. And remember too: the rustling of pages to find a different passage the preacher refers to is music to many preacher’s ears!
Take notes. In a notepad, on the news-sheet, on your phone, on the arm of the person sitting next to you (actually, best scratch that last one), wherever. Studies show that writing helps many people to retain and follow arguments better, plus it deals with the drowsiness of one too many slices of chocolate cake after lunch!
Be humble. It is easy to be a sermon critic, or to experience a sermon as some kind of performance art so that it never engages our heart. Allow God’s word to speak to us, even if that hurts, unsettles or disrupts our preconceptions.
Be generous. Most of the time in a church where biblical truth is valued, a preacher has slogged it out for many hours to try and communicate what is faithful to God’s word. But sometimes – and I can say this as a preacher – a sermon falls flat somehow or other. But even in that scenario, try not to write-off the sermon in its entirety, look for the nugget of gospel gold, even when that involves a lot of digging! Endeavour to be the person who will put up with bad sermons so long as they point to the glory of Jesus.
Be there! Turn up week after week so you know where the preacher has been and where he is going. Don’t content yourself with listening online, sermons are to be experienced live! By all means listen again to refresh yourself, and absolutely take advantage of world-class Bible teaching available to us online. But don’t neglect the teaching of your local church. Remember the exhortation of Hebrews 10:25 ‘Let us not give up the habit of meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’
Reflect (Phase 3)
This is where things can get tricky for many of us. Church coffee time, Sunday lunch preparation and hospitality, Sunday ‘crazy-kid syndrome’, pressures of life are all factors behind why sometimes a sermon never gets beyond the head to the heart.
So what can we do about that?
Talk with others. Share what was particularly striking. Ask questions together. Process and apply the truth over coffee, over lunch, while out walking etc. Reciting aids retention. Sharing together produces encouragement and a culture where spiritual growth takes place.
Talk to the preacher. Ask questions. Share your thoughts. Be specific on anything that was helpful or encouraging. Trust me, it will make their day.
Use the text devotionally. Sermons can be thought of as a one-off moment. But better yet is to go back to the passage and pray over it through the week, allowing its truth to get down deep and bring real change.
Put it into practice. As James puts it: ‘Don’t just listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.’ (James 1:22)
I hope thinking in terms of these phases will be helpful as you prepare to hear God’s word week by week.