How to Listen to a Sermon

“I’ve noticed that, for someone who prepares and delivers sermons regularly, I’m really bad at listening to them myself.”    

When you’ve been a Christian for ten years and faithfully attended your local church, you’ve listened to around 520 sermons. That’s just one Sunday morning service a week—evening services, classes, and podcasts can take that number and triple it. But for all the exposure we’ve had, we aren’t usually taught how to listen to a sermon for all it’s worth.

The idea might come off as a bit self-serving: it makes sense that one of the guys who preaches regularly would want people to listen! But for me, this is a personal growth issue. Because we are blessed with multiple pastors, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to sit under the preaching of my fellow elders. And I’ve noticed that, for someone who prepares and delivers sermons regularly, I’m really bad at listening to them myself.

The truth is that I’m invested in every sermon preached at Cornerstone, not just the ones I deliver. A sermon is a time when God's word is opened up, explained, and applied. The God who made me and saved me is speaking through his word, and he wants me to adore him, exult in my salvation, appreciate his love, and follow him more closely. Whether I’m behind the pulpit or in the pew, God is speaking and inviting me to know him better. But my mind wanders easily—I can manufacture a constant stream of distractions. What’s more, I have the ability to have forty five minutes worth of words flow in and out of my mind like water through a pipe, even when I’m not day dreaming. So how do we listen to a sermon for all it’s worth?

1. Remember
Yogi Berra said that “if you don't know where you are going, you might end up someplace else.” I find that it’s hard to remember why we are listening to a sermon when we are so used to hearing one every week. Like any regular activity, we can lose sight of its purpose. Soon, the sermon is “that thing I hear on Sundays that is important and stuff, which I hope isn’t too boring this week.”

The author of Hebrews says that the word of God is “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). This means that sermons are surgery. When God’s Word is opened up and preached on a Sunday morning, it’s not just a time for inspiration or to hear some general truths. God is at work in every sermon, speaking into my life and my world.

Every Sunday, we have to remember what a sermon is before we can listen well.

2. Engage
Most of the time when you sit in a row with other people, you are watching something. Television, movies, even plays and TED talks train you to relax and take in the work someone else is doing. The most enjoyable ones require the least amount of work from you: good movies don’t leave you confused about the plot and good TED talks don’t leave you asking too many unanswered questions.

But sermons are a different kind of thing: sermons aren’t meant to be passively watched. They are meant to be actively engaged. This means that listening to a sermon involves work: trying hard to follow along, looking for ways to resonate with what the pastor is saying, connecting his points with the words of the passage. Some people engage their minds by taking notes, which can be helpful. Other people talk about the sermon afterwards, and use the Application Questions. Whatever way you facilitate that engagement, being engaged is necessary to listen to a sermon for all it’s worth. It’s easy to think that it’s the preacher’s job to make a compelling message, and there’s not much you can do about it. The truth is that anytime God’s word is preached, it can be compelling—if you get active and look for ways to learn, enjoy, and grow.

We all know what good listening is like one-on-one: you are fully present, caring enough to try to understand well, and sometimes forgiving the presentation because we love the person. The same is true with a sermon: every Sunday, we have to engage with the sermon to listen well.

3. Continue
Humans have always been prone to distraction, but smartphones have brought a world of distractions into our pocket. In a city like West LA, there are enough billboards and postings that there is always something for your eyes to land on. And our lives are full enough that we can fill every waking moment with something else we should be doing.

All this makes it easy for sermons to be discrete activities that start when the preacher gets up and stop when he prays. Before and after, you have plenty of other things to do, think about, and be distracted by. But listening well to another person usually involves more than hearing what they've said—it means dwelling on it, trying to understand it, and aiming to see it affect you personally. The same is true of a sermon: we don’t listen well if we don’t continue to dwell on it after it’s done. At Cornerstone, this is one of the reasons we provide application questions in our bulletin and encourage everyone to join a community group. By providing ways to think about the sermon and a community in which to discuss it, you can listen well throughout the week.

You might think that 52 sermons (39 hours of hearing God’s word!) would add up to a lot of impact and life change, but for many of us a year’s worth of sermons doesn’t seem to do much. God longs for us to hear him in His Word—he has a vested interest in us enjoying his life-changing love. This Sunday, let's come ready to remember, engage, and continue. We will find more joy when we listen well.