How to Survive Your Pastor's Sermons:
Six Ways to Make Pulpit Messages More Profitable to Your Soul
By Robert G. Spinney
Grace Baptist Church, Hartsville, Tennessee
"I havenít benefited from your messages from the pulpit for years," my friend reported. "I get nothing out of the Bible lessons that I hear on Sunday morning."
These words tumbled from the mouth of a delightful Christian. This dedicated church member was guilty of neither scandalous public sin, obvious backsliding, nor unfaithfulness to church meetings. This was not a new believer who was overwhelmed by basic Christian doctrine; instead, this was a relatively mature believer who was active in church ministries.
My first thought was that I had failed as a Bible teacher. There is such a thing as bad Bible teaching, boring Bible teaching, irrelevant Bible teaching, and torturously lengthy Bible teaching. I assumed I was guilty on some or all of these counts. After all, the church member who reported that the pulpit messages were frightfully poor was exactly the kind of average church member whom I was trying to reach. If this faithful saint canít profit from my sermons, I thought, then no one can!
Having persuaded myself that our churchís pulpit ministry was a disaster, I reluctantly began to speak with other church members. Did they share this bleak assessment as well? To my surprise, others with whom I spoke gave a different report. They said the churchís Bible teaching was (overall) both faithful to the Bible and understandable. I specifically asked some parents if their children were able to benefit from the regular Sunday sermons. They assured me their teenagers and their pre-teens could comprehend the messages.
It is difficult for a Bible teacher to assess the effectiveness of his own messages. A speaker simply does not know how his sermon sounds to people in the pew. But as I spoke with members of our church, I concluded that our churchís teaching ministry was satisfactory. I (and the other elders who speak regularly) apparently hit the sermonic equivalent of a home run only occasionally, but we hit triples from time to time and rip many doubles. Our weakest pulpit efforts probably qualify as singles. But the good news (according to our members) was that we rarely struck out. It was rare that we spoke from the pulpit and delivered a message of no value. Almost every message was faithful to Godís Word, displayed a decent level of organization and coherence, could be understood by attentive adolescents, and included at least some practical application.
I concluded that a Christian could grow and prosper on a steady diet of our sermons. You win a lot of baseball games if your team is consistently hitting singles and rarely strikes out!
What was going on with our church member who said he had not profited from a pulpit message in years? Why did one person think the Lordís Day sermons were a long string of consecutive strikeouts?
WHATíS THE PROBLEM?
I am persuaded that we Christians need to think carefullyĖand think afreshĖabout how we listen to Bible messages. This is especially true for the pulpit sermons we hear in our churches on Sunday mornings.
Today, we Americans live in a sound-bite-and-entertainment culture. To a large extent, our listening habits are formed as we sit in front of televisions, VCRs, and DVD players. Movies and television shows cater to (and help reinforce) short attention spans. The rule-of-thumb among producers is to make every eight-minute-long section of a movie (or television show) a self-contained unit with its own mini-introduction and mini-conclusion. In this manner, the viewer is not required to concentrate too long on one theme or think too hard about an unraveling plot. In addition, todayís entertainment is a full sensory event: it bombards the audience with special effects, violence, sensuality, danger, extreme sports, strong music, and morbidly gross scenes. Our entertainment accustoms us to being over-stimulated when we are receiving information.
Even once-serious television news programs now cater to our diminished ability to engage in a sustained processing of information. The average length of a story on the nightly news broadcasts is only forty-five seconds. One insider in the television news industry reports that the goal of news broadcasts "is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. You are required . . . to pay attention to no concept, no situation, no scene, no character, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time." He reports that the two assumptions that guide television news shows are [a] bite-sized is best and [b] complexity must be avoided.
In todayís culture, almost no one sits down to hear one person talk non-stop for forty-five minutes about anything.
Do you attend a conservative Bible-believing church that is committed to pulpit preaching? If so, it is one of the last places where listeners are expected to really listen intently for a sustained period of time. (Previous generations had far more experience at listening to sustained oral presentations, presentations that required the careful processing of rational arguments. Indeed, hearing public lectures was one of the chief forms of recreation in nineteenth century America!) Todayís church asks listeners to do something that they likely donít do anywhere else: absorb and respond to a lengthy oral presentation. We should not be surprised that sincere church members have difficulty listening to sermons.
How can we listen profitably to Bible messages? In particular, what can we doĖas listenersĖto make Lordís Day pulpit sermons more beneficial to our souls?
WHATíS THE SOLUTION?
Six remedies follow:
- Listen to the weekly Sunday sermon as if your life depended on it.
- Look for Godís remedies for your sin and Godís instructions for living in a sinful world.
- Expect to be taught by the Holy Spirit.
- Be determined to listen . . . regardless of the speakerís oratory skills.
- A profitable Bible message is one that delivers one life-transforming truth.
- Pre-commit to apply and obey Godís Word as it is set forth in the sermon.
Weíll consider each of these suggestions, but first I must make a two-fold disclaimer. First, this booklet assumes you are listening to a legitimate Bible teacher who is presenting sermons that are faithful to the Word of God. Unfortunately, there are tricksters and frauds who occupy American pulpits and claim to preach Godís Word. The Holy Spirit will frequently refuse to validate a Bible message that is delivered by an ungodly man. Second, some pulpit sermons do not attempt to explain and illuminate the Word of God. The Holy Spirit will rarely make a sermon come alive when it is unfaithful to the Bible. My disclaimer here is that in some cases, a pulpit message is lifeless, empty, and unhelpful because there is something fatally wrong with the speaker, the content of the message, or both. This booklet assumes that we are discussing faithful men who are delivering Bible-based sermons.
1. Listen to the weekly Sunday sermon as if your life depended on it.
Imagine that you are a passenger on an airplane. You are cruising along at 30,000 feet when you hear explosions. You look out the window and see three of your airplaneís four engines in flames. The plane noses downward and begins a dive toward the earth. The planeís captain comes across the intercom: "Ladies and gentlemen, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that we have lost our engines. We cannot land safely. This plane will crash into the earth in fifteen minutes. The good news is that there are parachutes located over your seats in the storage compartments. We all have time to parachute to safety. Listen carefully and I will explain how to use the parachute."
Iím guessing that the pilot would have your complete attention! You would be listening intently to his words. You would be focusing on his instructions as though your life depended on it . . . because your life would depend on it! Nothing would distract you from hearing and understanding the captainís words. And you would be listening to acquire more than just a theoretical knowledge of parachutes; you would be listening with every intention of putting his words into practice.
If someoneís words are really important, you will find a way to listen to them, understand them, and apply them.
Even if the airplane pilot is a tad boring, excessively serious, somewhat disorganized, or not a gifted speaker, you will find a way to comprehend his instructionsĖ if indeed you regard his words as vitally important.
How important is it to you that you understand and apply Godís Word? Do you really believe that you need Godís Word in order to live successfully? Is understanding what God says a matter of life or death for you? Is hearing God speak in His Word on the Lordís Day the highlight of your week?
The Lord Jesus Christ said that man does not live on bread alone, but rather on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (Matthew 4:4) In other words, Godís divinely revealed truths are as critical to life as food. We need the Bible as much as we need bread.
If Godís words are really important to us, then we will find a way to listen to them, understand them, and apply them.
Even if the Bible teacher is a tad boring, excessively serious, somewhat disorganized, and/or not a gifted speaker, we will find a way to comprehend his messagesĖ if indeed we regard his words as vitally important.
The first key to listening effectively to a pulpit sermon is to regard the Bible message as extremely important. If I am persuaded that hearing Godís instructions is necessary to living successfully, then I will listen carefully to a pulpit message and put forth the effort needed to understand (and apply) it. If I really believe that Godís words are as important to my well being as physical food, then I wonít simply sit through Sunday sermons and endure them. Instead, I will listen attentively and eagerly as the Word of God is explained. I will combat distractions. I will apply the message to myself. I will expect to hear God addressing my soul via His Word. I will even prepare for the Lordís Day Bible message on Saturday night: Iíll consciously anticipate meeting God in His Word, I wonít fill my schedule with late-night activities, and Iíll get plenty of sleep. Leaving a Sunday morning sermon and not understanding what was explained will be a devastating loss to me, something that Iíll try my very best to avoid.
The famous preacher George Whitefield encouraged listeners to hear carefully with this illustration: "If an earthly king were to issue a royal proclamation, and the life or death of his subjects entirely depended on performing or not performing its conditions, how eager would they be to hear what those conditions were! And shall we not pay the same respect to the King of kings, and Lord of lords, and lend an attentive ear to His ministers, when they are declaring, in His name, how our pardon, peace, and happiness may be secured?"
It is true that many Christians read and think about Godís Word in their private devotional times. In addition, we can hear God speak through His Bible by means of prominent Bible teachersí taped messages and small-group Bible studies. But there is a special importance to the Sunday morning sermon that is delivered by your churchís pastor. One way that God makes His Bible relevant to your daily life is by having your own pastor present sermons to you. Your pastor knows your church, your culture, your community, and (probably) you. He is aware of the pressing needs in your church family. When he prepares his Bible messages, the practical needs in your church influence and direct his studies. When he delivers his Lordís Day sermons, God is refracting His Word through a human speakerĖ one who is in touch with you and immersed in your situation. This makes it much more likely that the Word of God will be expressed in terms that you understand and in a way that applies the Bible to your needs.
What God says in Ephesians 4:1-16 bears upon this subject. In this passage, God says that He gives specially gifted menĖamong them pastors and teachersĖto the church (v. 11). God does this so that they might serve as His tools for equipping Christians (v. 12). This strongly implies that pastors and teachers are not optional players in our spiritual lives, men whom we can sometimes listen to and sometimes ignore. On the contrary, God has chosen to mature us through them. Pastors and teachers will engage in different activities to prepare us to serve God; one of their chief means for equipping us is the weekly sermon that they deliver from pulpits. For our sake and for the sake of the kingdom of God, we must regard this weekly teaching time as extremely important.
2. Look for Godís remedies for your sin and Godís instructions for living in a sinful world.
"All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16-17) This famous passage declares that the Bible is literally a God-breathed book. The Bible is both without error and is fully sufficient for all our spiritual needs.
This passage implies more: we humans have sin-related needs, and the Word of God is designed to meet those needs. We are fallen creatures in whom sin has wreaked mass destruction. Our souls are corrupted, dirtied, twisted, and perverted because of sin. Only the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ can truly remedy our sin problem. But in an ongoing wayĖaccording to 2 Timothy 3:16-17Ėthe Word of God teaches us, reproves us, corrects us, and trains us in righteousness. Throughout our Christian lives, God uses the Bible as His tool for fixing the devastating effects of sin in us. The Greek word that our Bibles translate as correction in 2 Timothy 3:16 is a word that literally means restore to an upright condition. Because of sin, we humans are fallen; through the sanctifying work of Godís Word, we humans are (increasingly) restored to an upright condition. The word adequate in 2 Timothy 3:17 conveys the idea of completeness: Godís Word is Godís tool to remedy our inadequacy and lack of wholeness.
Some call this the Bibleís fallen condition focus. Everything in the Bible is somehow focused upon our fallen condition and/or our needs as creatures living in a fallen world. Bryan Chapell provides this explanation: "The corrupted state of our world and our being cry for Godís aid. He responds with His Word, focusing on some aspect of our need in every portion. Our hope resides in the assurance that all Scripture has a Fallen Condition Focus (FCF). God refuses to leave His frail and sinful children without guide or defense in a world antagonistic to their spiritual well-being. No text was written merely for those long ago . . . The FCF is the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or for whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage" (Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Baker 1994), pp. 41-42).
This means that every passage of Scripture is relevant to me. Whatever cultural, vocational, or educational differences may exist between (for example) Noah and myself, there are at least two things that we have in common: we are both sinners and we both live in a sinful world. When the Bible is addressing Noahís generation (or the generations of Joshua, Ezra, or Timothy), it is addressing either fallen man, men living in a fallen world, or both. Thus the full range of the Bibleís contentĖwhether it be exhorting us to trust in Godís goodness, commanding us to flee sexual immorality, encouraging us to be good parents, exposing the deceitfulness of covetousness, comforting us with the promise of Christís return, or warning us that God is a consuming fireĖis aimed (in some fashion) at my needs today . . . as a sinner living in a sin-corrupted world.
This truthĖthat all Scripture has a fallen condition focusĖhas a practical application for me as I listen to a Bible message.
As I hear a Bible teacher explain the Word of God, I should be asking myself, "What aspect of my fallen condition is being corrected here? What aspect of this broken world is Godís Word addressing? What portion of my sin-related problem is this part of the Bible designed to fix? What facet of this sin-corrupted world (and my life in it) is Godís Word addressing?"
Good speakers will make this easier for listeners. They will explicitly identify the sin-related problems that they are addressing. Good listeners are alert for these cues. But even if a Bible teacher does not identify the sin-related issues that his message is designed to remedy, you can (and should) do this as a listener. You can identify the parts of your fallen condition or the worldís fallen condition that the ministerís sermon is designed to correct.
For example, early in a Bible message I read the relevant Bible texts and see the direction in which the pastor is going with his sermon. I may say to myself, "OkayĖ this message is correcting my lack of trust in God." Or I might think, "This sermon is exhorting me to consider the eternal joy that I will experience in Heaven. It is correcting my tendency to be earthly-minded." Or I might say, "This message is setting forth Godís standards for successful parenting. It is correcting how the world tells me to rear children."
Listening like this will revolutionize how you hear a Bible message.
When I listen like this, I immediately make the sermon relevant. One of the chief complaints from church members regarding pulpit sermons is that they are not relevant or are not sufficiently practical. This much is surely true: an irrelevant or impractical Bible message is usually an unprofitable one. But when I identify the sin in me (or sinís effects in the world) that the Word of God (in the sermon) is addressing, the sermon immediately becomes relevant. I am applying the message to my spiritual needs. When I think like this as I listen to a sermon, it is impossible for me to come away from the message with none of my spiritual needs being addressed.
Thereís another benefit to identifying the fallen condition focus as we listen to a sermon. Now all the preacher must do to deliver a useful and beneficial sermon is faithfully set forth the Word of God. He may have no funny stories and no gripping illustrations. He may not do a good job of explaining the deeper meanings of a Bible verse. He may not be a rousing and enthusiastic speaker. But if the Bible teacher succeeds in setting forth the most basic meaning of the Word of GodĖif he succeeds in telling me the most elementary and obvious truth in a Bible passageĖthen I have a Word from God that will correct me and make me more complete. And the Word of God is living and active, even sharper than any two-edged sword! (Hebrews 4:12) Without any human assistance, it is sufficiently powerful to train me in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16)
To return to our baseball analogy: If you identify the fallen condition focus of a Bible message, and the Bible teacher at least delivers a clear proclamation of what Godís Word says, there is no strikeout. Godís Word is unleashed to transform your soul. The sermon is relevant and practical.
Please notice something critical here: good listening is not passive. This is true if you are listening to a sermon, a college lecture, your friend, or the presidentís televised speech. In order for any listening to be profitable, you must actively try to hear what is being said. This is especially true when we talk about sermons. Christians are in the midst of a spiritual war. The remnants of sin still hinder us, and the Word of God cuts against the grain of much of what our culture tells us. A passive listener often mistakenly regards a sermon as all "throwing" and no "catching": he expects the speaker to do all the work of "throwing" Godís Word at him, while he does the passive job of "catching" what is being thrown. Thatís not true. Good listeners must intentionally try to hear what is being said and intentionally apply what is said to their soul. Good listening is work. Identifying the fallen condition focus in a sermon is a strategy for being active and intentional as a listener.
3. Expect to be taught by the Holy Spirit.
"And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him." (Hebrews 11:6)
How would you respond if I told you that I consulted with my medical doctor, I trusted in his advice, I was taking medicine that he prescribed, and I believed that this was the correct medicine for my ailment . . . but I had no expectation that the medicine would help me?
Wouldnít you say that I donít really believe? That I donít really trust either my doctor or his treatment?
Doesnít real faith necessarily create at least a measure of expectation and anticipation? If I truly believe that God is a rewarder of those who seek Him, shouldnít I expect and anticipate that God will respond to me when I seek Him?
When we listen to a Bible message, we should expect the Holy Spirit to impress Godís truth on our minds. We should anticipate the Holy Spirit convicting us of sin and disclosing some aspect of Godís truth to us. This is what it means (in practice) to seek God as He speaks through His Word. Every time we listen to a sermon, we should prepare ourselves to hear the very words of God . . . as they are expressed through the Bible and through ministers who explain the Bible.
God is able to speak through human beings. By giving His church specially gifted Bible teachers, God demonstrates that He desires to speak through human beings. To be sure, the preacher carries the responsibility of being a faithful spokesman for God. But we listeners have a responsibility to hear Godís voice as it is expressed through His Word and through His servants. When God is speaking, we must listen.
This, too, is part of "active listening" and is a renunciation of "passive listening." I hear the Bible explained with at least some measure of excitement. I believe that God will speak through His Word not because the speaker is eloquent, but rather because God is a rewarder of those who seek Him. Isnít this what the Bereans did? Wasnít their listening marked by anticipation? "Now these [i.e., the Bereans] were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so." (Acts 17:11)
Letís be blunt. If while listening to a sermon I donít expect the Holy Spirit to work and donít anticipate the Holy Spirit to communicate Godís truth to my soul, then I probably wonít get much out of the message. Iíll likely be bored. Sometimes GodĖbecause He is so graciousĖbreaks in and grips our soul with a sermon even though we are faithless and unbelieving. But normally God rewards those who seek Him with a diligent and energetic faith.
And normally, God uses Bible teaching to work His grace in the hearts of sinners (Romans 10:14-17). Of course, God can (and does) use other means to communicate grace to His people. However, His common (or ordinary) method of unleashing His transforming power in our lives is through what our spiritual forefathers called "the preached Word." For this reason, Christians have long called Bible exposition a means of grace. God uses Bible teaching as an instrument that works both saving grace and sanctifying grace in the souls of His people. Unfortunately, this simple truth is being lost today. Christians seem to be looking for grace in all kinds of strange places. Indeed, there is no end to the theological innovations in todayís churches as people desperately look for new strategies that will trigger an outpouring of Godís grace. Yet one of the "official" and God-instituted means of graceĖa means that God Himself has promised to blessĖis the proclamation of His Word. We can expect Godís grace when we look for it in the preached Word.
Why donít we expect God to grip our souls during sermons? Why donít we look for Godís grace first of all in Bible teaching?
Perhaps part of the problem is that some Christians donít regard listening to pulpit sermons as a spiritual exercise. They regard singing hymns and praise choruses as a spiritual act of worship, and they regard prayer as a spiritual activity. But hearing a Bible message is sometimes regarded as a strictly mental activityĖ a non-spiritual activity that is much like sitting in a high school classroom. Some Christians regard listening to pulpit messages as nothing more than an unspiritual information distribution time. We sometimes reflect this kind of thinking in our language: we will call the singing part of our Sunday church meetings "the praise and worship time" and the sermon part "the teaching time." Such language (perhaps unintentionally) implies that proclaiming (and actively listening to) Godís Word is not an act of spiritual worship.
Better for us to regard the Lordís Day worship service as a time when God speaks to us (and we speak to Him) in several different ways. God speaks to us when we sing Bible-based hymns. God speaks to us when we read His Word. And God speaks to us when we hear the Bible explained.
If the Bible teacher is a faithful servant of God, and if he accurately proclaims what the Bible says, then his listeners are hearing more than just a man imparting information. They are listening to Godís instrumentĖempowered by the Holy SpiritĖsetting forth the very words of God. This makes the church auditorium (or wherever the Bible message is delivered) much more than just a classroom: it is a place where God (through His Holy Spirit) "speaks" to men through the Bible. Thus hearing a sermon is (in one sense) listening to God. It is not a strictly mental activity and is not like sitting in a high school classroom. Rather, it is an act of worship and an intensely spiritual activity.
I know that I am a much better listener (and I find sermons more rewarding) when I regard a Bible message as God speaking to me through His Word and through His human servant. I expect the Holy Spirit to communicate Godís truths to me, and He does.
4. Be determined to listen . . . regardless of the speakerís oratory skills.
Silver-tongued preachers like Charles Haddon Spurgeon and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones are famous precisely because they are so rare. Countless gospel ministers faithfully proclaim Godís truth every Lordís Day and yet know quite well that they are not spellbinding orators. They deliver weekly pulpit sermons that are designed to reach both thirteen-year-old adolescents and seventy-five-year-old saints. When it comes to style-and-delivery issuesĖthings like oratorical skill, a resonant voice, skillful use of undistracting humor, and a deft weaving of illustration and proclamationĖmost Bible teachers are just average speakers. With regard to retaining an audienceís attention, most ministers cannot compete with actors, Hollywood, special effects, and news anchormen. Ministers are not professionals. Nor are pastors attempting to entertain. On top of that, they are sometimes communicating complicated ideas, ideas that are (by their very nature) foreign to this world. And when men of God do their job faithfully, they confront an obstacle that entertainers donít: they must say things that are unpopular and uncomfortable.
Are you disappointed that your pastor is not an electrifying speaker like Jonathan Edwards? Rest assured that your pastor is disappointed as well! But is it realistic to hold your Bible teacher to such high standards?
Here are some reasonable expectations that you should have regarding your pastor, preacher, or Bible teacher:
- He should present the contents of the Bible faithfully and accurately.
- He should routinely proclaim the Gospel and especially the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
- He should be sincere and serious about his duty to teach the Word of God.
- He should display at least a measure of passion (or earnestness) as he presents Bible truths.
- His messages should be sufficiently clear and organized so a listener who is trying to understand is able to understand.
- He should consistently explain how Bible truths apply to real-life situations.
- He should exhibit at least some courage when it comes to handling unpopular issues.
- He should practice what he preaches. His personal life should harmonize with the Bible that he proclaims.
If your Bible teacher does these things routinely, then he is an adequate minister of the Word. At least as far as the act of preaching is concerned, he is sufficient. He may not be a Rolls Royce, but he is at least a reliable Chevrolet. He will get you where you need to go. To switch metaphors: He may not be a home run king or even a batting champ, but he will hit lots of singles.
I suspect that in some cases, church members expect too much of their Bible teachers. They grow frustrated when their minister is not a Rolls Royce. They compare their Bible teacher to the electrifying television preachers or the polished network news anchors and find their Bible teacher lacking. They lament that their speaker isnít as good as the nationally-known speaker whose audio tapes they receive every month or whose video series they recently viewed. Then graduallyĖeven unconsciouslyĖtheir discontentment suffocates their faith. They no longer expect the Word of God to be delivered by their minister. They no longer anticipate the Holy Spiritís work during the sermon. Their low expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy: they expect little so their faith apprehends little. They blame the minister himself for this problem: "He is incompetent. He is a lousy speaker. He is so boring. I just canít listen to such a bad teacher."
George Whitefield gave this counsel when he instructed listeners in how to hear a sermon: "Do not entertain even the least prejudice against the minister. That was the reason Jesus Christ Himself could not do many mighty works, nor preach to any great effect among those of His own country; for they were offended at Him. Take heed therefore, and beware of entertaining any dislike against those whom the Holy Ghost has made overseers over you. Consider that the clergy are men of like passions with yourselves. And though we should even hear a person teaching others to do what he has not learned himself, yet that is no reason for rejecting his doctrine. For ministers speak not in their own, but in Christís name."
Have realistic expectations of your pastor. Pray for him. If he possesses weak speaking gifts, then pray that God will beef up his gifts! Pastor Philip Ryken writes, "Most churchgoers assume that the sermon starts when the pastor opens his mouth on Sunday. However, listening to a sermon actually starts the week before. It starts when we pray for the minister, asking God to bless the time he spends studying the Bible as he prepares to preach. In addition to helping the preacher, our prayers help create in us a sense of expectancy for the ministry of Godís Word. This is one of the reasons that when it comes to preaching, congregations generally get what they pray for."
5. A profitable Bible message is one that delivers ONE life-transforming truth.
When I deliver a Lordís Day sermon, it is typically forty-five to fifty minutes in length. I normally divide my sermon into four or five logical sections. During the course of a sermon, I will read multiple and sometimes lengthy Bible passages.
How much of my sermon do I expect my listeners to remember? How many items from my message do I expect my listeners to "get"?
I am thrilled if a listener tells me that the Holy Spirit impressed one significant issue on his heart during (or because of) my sermon.
Of course, it would be great if a listener could remember my entire message, or even if he could recount three-fourths of my message. But I think that is an unrealistically high expectation. Nor is it that necessary. Surely our souls will prosper if every Sunday, we come away from the pastorís message with one (and only one) significant scriptural truth burned into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
When I listen to a pulpit message, I donít try to remember everything. To be sure, I listen attentively to everything. But I count it a profitable sermon if I leave the church building with one life-changing truth gleaned from the message. Over the course of a year, one major truth per week would add up to over fifty fresh words from God. That would be a great year! And in truth, I often come away from a sermon with two, three, or more significant life-changing truths.
Does everything said in every sermon deserve an amen? No. Bible teachers are instruments that God uses, but they are flawed human instruments. The best preachers use wrong words, emphasize the wrong things, and use imperfect illustrations. An old Puritan once said that we humans are so sinful that even our repentances contain things that should be repented of; likewise, even good sermons often contain things that should have been presented differently. But usually even a flawed Bible message will express some truth about God, shed some light on the Lord Jesus Christ, or indicate some useful application regarding Godís will for His people. Usually you can find one soul-transforming truth in a sermon (provided, of course, that you are listening to a faithful minister who is presenting Bible-based messages).
We will be better listeners if we are more realistic regarding what we hope to receive from a sermon. If we listen to a pulpit message with the goal of latching onto one life-changing word from God, we will almost always fulfill our goal. A Christian can thrive if his "spiritual diet" includes one profitable and challenging item from every Sunday message.
6. Pre-commit to apply and obey Godís Word as it is set forth in the sermon.
In the Book of Hebrews, the writer warns us to not repeat the mistake made by many in ancient Israel. The nation of Israel heard Godís Word but many rejected it: "For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard." (Hebrews 4:2) Many in Israel were exposed to Godís words, but many did not profit from those words. Why not? Because their hearing was not mixed with faith. They heard without faith.
This suggests that successfully hearing Godís Word is more than just an intellectual activity. Something elseĖfaithĖmust be added to the mental act of hearing (and processing) words. If faith is united to our hearing, the hearing is profitable. In the case of many in Israel, faith was not mixed with their hearing, and the word was not profitable.
Listening to a sermon requires more than just our minds and our ears. It requires our hearts as well. It requires a faithful application of Godís Word to ourselves. It requires a determination to act upon what we hear. It requires submission to the Holy Spirit, Who will routinely use the sermon to convict us, comfort us, guide us, and encourage us. When we listen to Bible messages with a Godward and teachable attitude, we usually find those Bible messages to be astonishingly profitable.
The Lord Jesus Christ said, "If anyone is willing to do His will (i.e., God the Fatherís will), he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself." (John 7:17) These words indicate that comprehending Godís message requires willing submission to Godís message. It is when weĖin faithĖsay, "Yes, I will do what God says" that we understand what God says.
When you listen to a sermon, have one goal in mind: hearing the Word of God so that you can believe, trust, apply, and obey the Word of God. Listen to the sermon with your mind already made up: "Iím here to believe something, implement something, apply something, and obey something." This is what it means to unite faith to your hearing.
The sermon is not primarily something that we evaluate or judge. Of course, listeners should measure a Bible message against the Bible itself; we should not believe everything we hear! But when we listen to a Bible message, we are not primarily like judges at an Olympic ice skating event. We are not there to "score" the speaker and "grade" his sermon. We are not there to determine how much (or how little) the speaker agrees with us. Our primary purpose in hearing a sermon is not to give or withhold approval. Rather, our primary task is to hear Godís living, active, and sharp Word, to make sure that it pierces into our very souls, and to submit in faith as it judges the thoughts and intentions of our heart (Hebrews 4:12). Our focus must be upon listening to the God who stands behind the Word of God. When we hear a Bible message, we permit the Bible to do all the judging . . . inside us.
Donít permit your judging of the sermon to quench the Holy Spiritís judging of you.
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In addition to serving as a pastor, I also labor as a college history professor. That job requires me to give many classroom lectures to nineteen-year-old college students. Frequent tests allow me to evaluate how much my students learn from my lectures.
Without fail, I always have some students who tell me my lectures are excellent. These students usually fare well on my exams and rarely say my classes are boring. But in the very same class, I always have some students who are obviously unimpressed by my lectures. They fall asleep, stare out the window, and play with their cell phones during my lectures. They are clearly bored. Guess what? These students often do less well on my exams, proving that they didnít learn as much from my lectures as the first group of students.
Both groups of students heard the same lectures. Why did one group benefit more than the other?
I donít think the chief explanation is the innate intelligence (or lack thereof) of the students. Rather, the chief difference is that the first group made more of an effort. They tried harder. They invested more energy in listening. They were more highly motivated listeners, whether out of love of the subject material, fear of failing the test, or a little of both.
Sunday sermons are not the same as history lectures. However, there is a truth here that I trust is obvious. It is a truth that applies to any learning environment where a speaker attempts to communicate: the listener plays a significant role in whether or not he benefits from the lesson. "So take care how you listen." (Luke 8:18)