As a lifelong Christian, I have heard countless sermons. Some were good, but many were not.
At some point in my time at Biola, I realized that there were several practical disciplines that I needed to cultivate to make the experience of listening to sermons fruitful. They are a profound opportunity to meet and hear from God, but sadly some of the most wasted times in our religious lives.
So, on this Sunday afternoon, here are a few practical tips that I have tried (with more or less success) to take to practice the discipline of listening to sermons.
Prepare beforehand, both spiritually and intellectually. If you know the sermon topic or passage, become acquainted with them. If you attend church on Sunday morning, spend 5 or 10 minutes on Saturday night asking the Lord to meet you during corporate worship.
Provide yourself time to get to church and get seated. I go to a relatively young church, so everyone walks in right as the service starts. But it’s hard to be at church gathered as the people of God if you’ve just walked out of Starbucks and are walking in late. Giving yourself margin to arrive and greet people will help you focus on meeting God.
Before the service starts, take five minutes to open your heart and mind to the Lord, asking Him to do whatever He would like in you.
Don’t eat beforehand. I have made it a practice to skip Sunday morning breakfast, as I find that approaching the sermon and communion (our church takes it weekly) with the mindset that we are nourished in body and soul by the Word has deepened my experience of both.
If they read the Scripture passages aloud, don’t read along the first time. Most Protestants only hear Scripture spoken aloud once a week, so maximize the opportunity by ingesting the Word through a different sense than your eyes. If the sermon is exegetical, you will have opportunity enough to set your eyes on the passage. What we want, though, is to hear God in and through Scripture. So we might as well pay attention to hearing Scripture, as they would have in the early church. (I should note that I’m really excited about this book, which looks fantastic. Also, check on John Dyer’s fantastic post on this issue.).
Pray. If you only do one thing, do this. Ask the Lord to open your heart and mind to Him and His Word, and look for Him to answer. But also open yourself the possibility that the Lord may not have something specific to say to you, but might want to speak to someone else in the room. So ask Him to do that, too. And ask the Lord that he would speak to your pastor, because he probably needs to hear from God (even while and in preaching) as well. There is nothing more important to listening to a sermon well than prayer.
Don’t take notes, unless the Lord specifically prompts something in you or convicts you of something specific. In an age of video, podcasts, etc., notes about the sermon’s content can be taken at other times. What’s more, a sermon is more than ideas–hearing the Word of God proclaimed shapes us in ways that we might not realize. Focus instead on hearing the Word, on listening to the Spirit, and on allowing your pastor’s exposition and exhortation move you into deeper fellowship with God.
None of these will guarantee a particular experience, nor should that be our goal. God is, after all, God, and in His freedom he will move and speak when and where He wills. But more often than not, when I have been faithful in doing these things prior to and during the sermon I have either felt his presence in a unique way, or have been more able to see and rejoice in the work he is doing in others.
I suspect there are other tactics that can be deployed, and I’d love hearing more about them in the comments.