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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.).
  6. 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.  
  7. 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.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

12 Comments

  1. Any suggestions about what to do when we think the homilist is wrong, either in part or in whole?

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  2. […] advice for listening to a homily, much of which can be also applied to being attentive to rest of the liturgy as […]

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  3. […] advice for listening to a homily, much of which can be also applied to being attentive to rest of the liturgy as […]

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  4. Gary,

    That’s a great question. I’m pretty convinced that doing the above actually helps in bad sermons, as well as good ones.

    I’d be curious to hear other responses to this question, and maybe I’ll write a second post next sunday: The Discipline of Listening to a Bad Sermon.

    Bad sermons are clearly an opportunity to practice charity, and there may be only one greater demonstration of charity than intercession for another. Justin Taylor once quoted someone (David Powlinson, maybe) who said something that still resonates with me: “The mature person (or wise person) is easily edified.” That line has really chastened my criticisms of sermons, even the ones with content I disagree with.

    Let me toss a question back, since I am struggling to think of anything specific beyond what I wrote: is there something unique about bad sermons that requires disciplines beyond the one’s I’ve listed above?

    matt

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  5. That’s a good question. The answer seems to be no. As I looked over the list again, I noticed that there wasn’t much (if anything) about actively thinking about what is being said. It seems to be more about waiting and being open. Is this an accurate assessment? If so, ought we to quiet our active thinking capacities when listening to sermons?

    I’m reminded of something Lewis said (or I think he said). It was easier (better?) for him to be prayerful during liturgical prayers because he knew that what was said was orthodox; he didn’t have to bother with thinking about whether the prayer was correct. However, if a public prayer was spontaneous, he always found himself thinking more “is this true” than being prayerful.

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  6. Gary,

    I think that is an accurate assessment. And yes, generally I think we approach sermons by thinking too much. There’s time enough afterword to reflect and think hard about it, but the sermon is fundamentally an opportunity to hear from God–which happens best when our minds are still, I think.

    I have had a similar experience to Lewis, which is why I think rote prayers are so important. I should write a book about this stuff. :)

    Matt

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  7. Matt – I think the point about not taking notes is esp. helpful. For years I took careful notes during the sermon because it was expected of me by many at the church, but after leaving that church I simply began forgetting to take notes during the sermon and – to my surprise – I found that the sermons were touching a chord with me they never had before. I think I’d been treating sermons like a classroom lecture so whenever I missed a point I was more concerned about copying down what I had missed than hearing what was actually said. When I stopped taking notes, suddenly that was no longer an issue.

    And maybe the anecdote suggests another point worth exploring – What type of rhetoric is a sermon anyway? What is its purpose and how is it accomplished? I think one of the unfortunate legacies of overly doctrinaire fundamentalism is that we’ve come to see the sermon as a lecture in which information (right doctrine) is passed down to the congregants in order to help them avoid other information (namely, bad doctrine). But the more I consider the question, the more I dislike this sermon-as-lecture approach. What are your thoughts?

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  8. Jake,

    Lots of thoughts about that, especially in the context of sermons doing something to us.

    Also, whether we are too focused on information is and interesting question. I mean, a central critique of a lot of evangelical churches is that they DON’T contain much doctrine, but are just trying to make people feel good. The classic “3 illustrations surrounding a verse” sermon is pretty popular, after all. But those illustrations are all non-propositional, non-doctrine related.

    Which is amusing to me, when I think about it. My parent’s generation of evangelicals were doing story-centered preaching before it was cool. : )

    But your question deserves, I think, another post. Maybe I’ll write one on Sunday.

    matt

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  9. Christopher Benson January 8, 2010 at 1:57 am

    I recently reviewed Roger Lundin’s book, BELIEVING AGAIN: FAITH AND DOUBT IN A SECULAR AGE (Eerdmans, 2009), in Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion. Professor Lundin traces how silent reading has diminished the biblical priority on the auditory apprehension of the truth. Remembering that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), I have chosen a Bible reading plan for 2010 that permits me to hear the spoken Word of God every day: http://www.esv.org/biblereadingplans. Some days I read silently. Other days I close my eyes and open my ears, which is not easy when you are veteran of silent reading. The difficulty of hearing God’s Word goes beyond my habit of reading and centers on my habit of sinning, hence Jesus rebuked his disciples: “Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?” (Mt. 8:17-18).

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    1. Christopher,

      Thanks for the reference. You’re the man at that sort of thing, I’m learning! : )

      At any rate, I think you’re exactly right about the role of hearing, even in Scripture. At the same time, I’m curious to get into work about some of the neuroscience that’s being done on vision and its impact on us. This is one point where it’s easy to slip into the sort of false dichotomy that I eschew.

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  10. I wonder if this is different for classes and lectures these days.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

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  11. […] An Exploration of Sleep as Preparation for the Sunday Service Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson @ 8:06 pm | Categories: Theology (Christian Life) | 0 Comments` A few weeks ago, I wrote a brief list of practical steps we could take to prepare for hearing the Word of God on Sunday. […]

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