How to Hear a Sermon Well
No preacher, upon looking up from his pulpit, hopes to see what I saw mid-sermon one Sunday morning: a man in the last row, head tilted against the back wall, sleeping like Rip Van Winkle.
A humbling moment for a young preacher, to be sure. Yet as I remember that drooping face several years later, a question comes to mind that brings a humbling of a different kind: How many church gatherings have I attended where, as far as spiritual attentiveness goes, I might as well have been sleeping?
Oh, how easily we can drift through corporate worship week by week, hearing but not really hearing. Present in body but absent in spirit. Eyes open but distracted in mind, divided in heart, drowsy in soul.
The matter calls for our attention. For Christians are, first and foremost, a hearing people (Deuteronomy 6:4; Romans 10:17). And how we hear will determine, over time, whether the word we hear is devoured by the devil, scorched by trials, choked by cares, or nourished by God into abundant fruit (Mark 4:1–9).
I do not write as one unaware of the distractions that confront many on Sundays. More often than not lately, I listen to the sermon from the church lobby, where my 1-year-old — a scorner of nurseries — tries to clang cabinet handles and pick crumbs off the floor.
“Oh, how easily we can drift through corporate worship week by week, hearing but not really hearing.”
And the distractions are not restricted to young parents. Nearly every week, whoever we are, something storms the gates of our minds, demanding that we focus anywhere but on God and his word. Babies cry. Someone three rows back sings loudly off-key. A task for tomorrow comes to mind. A glare bounces off the window. Your phone vibrates. You wonder whether you shut the garage door. In truth, life rarely offers ideal circumstances for hearing God’s word. Every Sunday is imperfect.
Yet amid all the imperfections, the living God still speaks. And barring exceptional circumstances, we have the opportunity to hear at least some of his words. So, with help from Christians past, consider how we might leverage the before, during, and after of our gatherings so as to obey Jesus’s command, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9).
Before: Till the Soil
If the word of God is seed, and our hearts are soil, then our aim before the gathering is to till. Break up the dirt. Furrow the ground. Make way for the word.
Why do many of us enter our gatherings Sunday after Sunday with parched hearts, littered with stones? Perhaps some just need practical instruction on how to prepare. But the how will mean little unless we regularly remember the why. Faithful tilling requires heart work before hand work.
Many Christians of old held Sunday as the greatest day of the week — and corporate worship as the greatest part of Sunday. The Puritans called Sunday the “market-day for the soul,” the day when Christians gather a week’s worth of spiritual goods. Not that they neglected their daily personal devotions; they just knew that God visits his people in a special way every Lord’s Day.
With this background in mind, John Owen offers a stern but needed warning,
To make a pretense of coming unto God, and not with expectation of receiving good and great things from him, is to despise God himself . . . and deprive our own souls of all benefit thereby. (Works of John Owen, 7:437)
The word we hear — not only in the sermon but in the songs, prayers, and Supper — is filled with “good and great things,” even with “all that our souls do stand in need of,” Owen goes on to write. So if you would both honor God and serve your own soul, go to the gathering as a mother might go to a weekly market: eager, prepared, and expecting to bring something good home.
Practically, how might we prepare our hearts for the gathering? To return to the image of tilling, consider both removing stones and breaking up the ground.
First, remove stones by clearing away unnecessary hindrances — especially tiredness and lateness. How many of us struggle to listen on Sunday morning because we stayed up too late on Saturday night? Or because we shuffled into the gathering partway through the second song, our heads still swirling with the events of the morning? We cannot always control our sleep and our timing, of course, but often we can.
Second, break up the ground by putting your heart in a listening posture. We might consider, for example, reading the sermon passage the morning or evening beforehand, perhaps as part of family devotions. We might also pray specifically for the gathering — or better yet, attend any pre-service prayer meeting our church offers.
How we hear shapes how we live, but the reverse is also true: how we live shapes how we hear. So, before the gathering, resolve to live in a manner that welcomes the word of God.
During: Bury the Seed
A well-tilled heart, however, is only the first step in faithful hearing. The richest soil will bear no fruit unless a seed finds its way into the furrows. During the gathering, then, we labor to bury the seed of the word deep into our hearts. Which means, at bottom, that we strive to pay attention (Hebrews 2:1).
As with our preparations beforehand, the task of listening during the sermon begins in the heart.
“How we hear shapes how we live, but the reverse is also true: how we live shapes how we hear.”
We’ve already observed that a dozen distractions and more vie for our attention during our gatherings. Like so many mental crows, intrusive thoughts land on our minds in a way that can feel out of our control. Yet even here, I have found help by applying a well-known passage about preachers to hearers. The apostle Peter writes, “Whoever speaks, [let him so do] as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). And therefore, “Whoever hears, let him do so as one who hears oracles of God.”
We do not gather as a church to hear the opinions of man. We go to hear the oracles of the only living God. In our gatherings, the same one who commands the hosts of heaven condescends to speak to us. And why? To ease our sorrows, lift our burdens, cast away our lukewarmness, awaken us to temptation, and draw us deeper into his glory.
Could anything be more urgent than to listen?
Along with a mind riveted by God, several practical steps may help us bury the word deeper. We might turn off our phones entirely, rather than allow them to vibrate. We might follow along with the sermon in a paper Bible. Some might take brief notes of the sermon’s most striking points.
The most practical step of all, however, is to embrace the habit of active listening. Just as we can read passively (scanning the lines without critical thought) or actively (underlining, responding, querying), so too can we listen. Genuine, heartfelt hearing calls for hard work. As Richard Baxter writes,
You have work to do as well as the preacher, and should all the time be as busy as he. . . . You must open your mouth, and digest it, for another cannot digest it for you . . . therefore be all the while at work, and abhor an idle heart in hearing, as well as an idle minister. (A Quest for Godliness, 254)
If we drift into the worship gathering as we might drift into a movie, we should not be surprised if we leave with as little as we brought. But if we enter ready to wage an attention war, if need be, then we may leave with pockets lined with spiritual gold.
After: Water the Ground
With the soil tilled and seed buried, the remaining task is to water the ground. Faithful hearing does not end when the sermon does. In some ways, the most decisive moments for our hearing happen in the hours afterward: when we drive home with the family or meet for lunch with friends, when we walk with our spouse in the afternoon or prepare for the week ahead.
What we do with the preached word depends on whether we see ourselves not as consumers of the word, nor even as mere hearers of the word, but as stewards of the word.
We tend to imagine preachers as the stewards of the word — and they are (1 Peter 4:10). But as Jason Meyer writes, “When the truth is preached, the responsibility of stewardship shifts from the preacher to the hearer” (Preaching, 27). If during the sermon we were observers, after the sermon we are the observed. What will we do with the treasure God has entrusted to us: hide it in the dirt, or multiply it faithfully (Matthew 25:14–30)?
And what does God require of stewards? “That they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2). Or, in the apostle James’s words, that they become “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).
Stewards make themselves known as soon as they open their mouths to discuss the sermon. Rather than only asking, “What did you think of the sermon?” — a question that allows us to speak from the safe distance of an observer — they might ask, “How did that sermon land on you?” “What word did you need to hear the most?” “How do you think we should respond?” The time may come to graciously criticize some aspect of the sermon, but a steward’s first impulse is to speak as one who will give an account for what he’s heard.
Embracing our role as stewards clarifies our after-sermon response in another way, one that might free those who feel burdened by a poor memory: our responsibility as stewards of the preached word is not primarily memorization, but transformation.
Puritan pastor George Swinnock (1627–1673) once asked readers to imagine two men gathering fruit from a tree. When they had eaten all they wanted, one man took as much fruit as he could carry. The other man, however, took the tree. Swinnock writes,
Those who hear the word and have large memories and nothing else, may carry most of the word at present, yet, he that possibly can remember little who carries away the tree, plants the word in his heart and obeys it in his life, shall have fruit when the other hath none. (The Genius of Puritanism, 59)
By all means, remember as much of the sermon as you can. But if you want the sermon to bear lasting fruit, then take as much as you remember, and plant the word in your heart, and obey it in your life. Or, to return to the broader picture, till the soil by preparing your heart to hear, bury the seed by paying rigorous attention, and water the ground by reflecting humbly and responding obediently to the word that, once planted, can become a tree of life in your soul.