The Bible puts a great deal of emphasis on our hearing and listening to the word of God. We receive faith by hearing the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). Our faith will grow in direct proportion to our ability to properly take in the message of Jesus from Scripture. Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry he would tell his audience to give special attention to how they heard his message. One of his favorite phrases was: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15; 13:9; 13:43).
The gospel writers make frequent references to Jesus’ sermons and comment on how the listeners received his words. They were astonished by his teaching (Matt. 7:28-29), hung onto his every word (Luke 19:48), were amazed at his presentation even though he had not been formally trained (John 7:15), and acknowledged that no one ever taught like him (John 7:46). Some of his teachings were viewed as too difficult to follow (John 6:60), but the apostles acknowledged that he spoke the words of eternal life (John 6:68).
It is easy to see how people could fall in love with the preaching and teaching of Jesus. We can imagine ourselves in the crowds in Palestine sitting front and center and hanging on his every word. However, when we think about the sermons that we hear on a weekly basis we probably have not been giving a lot of attention to how we listen to preaching. After all, there are schools of preaching and universities to train men to preach, but no one trains Christians on how to listen to sermons. This is more of a challenge than we may be willing to admit.
We live in a day in which we listen to a lot of things on our phones and have the luxury of speeding things up and slowing them down as we see fit. There is constant discussion about the decreased attention span of society at large. Not to mention, most learning does not take place in a live format anymore. Colleges have recorded lectures students can go back and listen to later. We even stream tv shows and can fast forward through commercials and cut out all the things we do not like or do not want to see, skipping right to our favorite part.
All these factors make listening to a sermon each week a challenge. It is probably the one time all week that we must sit still for thirty to forty minutes uninterrupted and listen to someone at one speed, without skipping ahead, and trying to stay tuned in the entire time. Not to mention, the message being proclaimed is the most important message in the world (1 Cor. 1:18-25). So how should Christians listen to a sermon? Here is a list of dos and don’ts that I hope will be helpful.
Listen for Yourself
It’s tempting to listen to a sermon and think of all the other people the lesson applies to. We might be listening to a lesson and assuming that we do not struggle with the sin being discussed, or that we have no need to improve in the spiritual discipline being emphasized. When the word of God is being preached, we should acknowledge it can reveal things to us about ourselves that we did not previously know or recognize (Heb. 4:12).
We should not listen to a sermon and think of how it applies to the person on the pew behind us or in front of us. We should be asking the word to search our hearts and reveal our shortcomings so we can improve our own lives (Ps. 139:23-24). When listening to a sermon, we should examine ourselves first and then see how we can take what we have learned and help others.
Get Your Heart Ready
James says we should be quick to hear the word and more eager to listen than to speak (Jas. 1:19). One way to be ready to hear the word is to remove the sin that wants to push the word out from our lives. James says, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (Jas. 1:21).
Sometimes we feel like the sermon was boring or did not connect. We can find ourselves daydreaming or “checking out” and it may be because our hearts are not ready to hear the word. Our hearts may be unprepared to hear the sermon because we have sin and wickedness in them preventing us from receiving the soul-saving message being proclaimed. We should listen to sermons with a ready heart, meaning we should repent of any known sin in our lives and avoid letting wickedness and the cares of the world choke the word out (Mk. 4:18-19).
Follow Along in Your Own Bible
The Bereans have been praised for their studious effort, but we should keep in mind that they were studying the scriptures collectively as Paul and his companions preached in the synagogue (Acts 17:11-12). When you are listening to a sermon, be sure to follow along in your own Bible (preferably a paper copy so that you are not tempted to go off and search for other things and check emails on a phone or tablet in the middle of the sermon). The preacher may put verses on a screen, or it may be printed in a bulletin, but you will benefit greatly and improve your comprehension if you follow along in your own copy of the Bible.
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Your copy of the word of God makes it personal. As you read, underline, and highlight passages so you are taking ownership of your study of the sermon, it will help the material to stick in your mind (Ps. 37:31). Read along as the passage is explained and maybe write things down that you hope to go back and study in more detail later. Do not approach the sermon as a spectator, approach it as a participant. Bring your Bible and engage during the sermon.
Don’t Be Afraid to Think
While listening to a sermon involves a passive posture, we must not take that too far. As you are listening to a sermon, be sure to think about what’s being said. Compare what you are hearing to what the Bible says in its totality on the subject. While the local preacher must not be held in suspicion from week to week, be sure that the things being taught harmonize with scripture (1 Thess. 5:21; 1 John 4:1). Think through the sermon and its implication and wrestle internally with what it means for you.
Do not listen to a sermon and view it as a good factual talk that changes nothing about your life. Ask yourself how your life will be changed if you adopted one of the biblical principles taught during the lesson. Ask yourself what promises of God you have rejected that you need to embrace more fully. Ask yourself how you can develop more Christlikeness because of what you have heard.
We are all guilty of listening to sermons and thinking the wrong things. Our thoughts go off into other areas. Or we think of hypercritical things that the preacher should have done better or focus in on a grammatical mistake he made. We should think more fruitfully while we listen to sermons. Listen to sermons and meditate on good things (Phil. 4:8).
Don’t Forget That It’s God’s Word
Christians profess a belief that the Bible is the word of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This means that when the Bible is faithfully taught and preached, God is communicating with us through his word. Does the way we listen to sermons reflect this reality? If someone recorded us during sermons or could listen in on our thoughts, would they get the impression that we believe God is speaking to us through his word?
When we listen to sermons, we should remember that, ultimately, how we treat the message of God’s word is how we treat him. Psalm 119 is a rich passage where the psalmist praises and extols God’s word and we need to do the same. As we prepare to hear a preacher proclaim the gospel, we should think less about him and more about the God behind the message (2 Cor. 4:5). Remember as you listen to sermons that God is speaking to you.
There are more things we could mention that might help us, like sitting closer to the front, arriving earlier at services, getting a good night’s rest beforehand, praying about having a clear and focused mind, taking notes, and studying your Bible on your own throughout the week. Hopefully, a few of these thoughts will help us to listen better to sermons and walk away with more from the sermon. Above all, let’s keep in mind that the goal is not just to hear but to do:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-25)