How to Listen to a Sermon
Lean into what God is saying and you'll become a better listener.
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What is it like for you to listen to a sermon? What do you experience when you sit and listen to the preacher speak about the Bible? What's it like? Once you've heard a sermon, what do you do? (Yawn? "Glad that's over!" "What's for lunch?") You might not even remember what the preacher said—it was over your head, boring, too complicated, not connected to your world.
I can understand that. Some sermons aren't memorable at all. I've preached many unmemorable sermons! I'm a professional sermon listener—even more than you are as you sit and listen to sermons week after week. I teach preaching and I can tell you I've listened to thousands of sermons—student sermons. And, yes, some of these sermons weren't memorable at all. Like you, I have no idea what the preacher was talking about!
We want our preachers to be clear, don't we? We want to get at the idea of the text and see how that idea makes a difference in our lives. The concept of remembering—or not remembering—what the preacher said isn't a new idea. It's one that has been around for thousands of years. For centuries men and women have walked away from sermons, from instruction, from teaching, and didn't remember what was said. In fact, it didn't make any difference in their lives.
What do we say to the man or woman who wrestles with listening to a sermon and doesn't remember what the preacher said? My advice is this: Lean into what God is saying and you'll become a better listener.
You want to become a better listener, don't you? You want to absorb the truth of Scripture and allow it to become part of your thinking and living, right? Then, let me tell you what I mean by: Lean into what God is saying and you'll become a better listener. We can find what this means when we take a look at Psalm 78:1-8 because the beginning of this psalm calls worshipers to do just that.
Lean into what God is saying.
God wants our attention. He's talking directly to his followers (vs. 1). He cares that they hear what he has to say—"my people." This first verse sets the mood of the entire psalm.
He wants their full attention. Both lines of the first verse of the psalm say the same thing: "Listen up!" The words, "perceive by the ear" means to listen, hear. To "incline your ear" means to "put yourself in the position to hear God." Both phrases are a poetic way of saying: get ready to tune in or, listen up!
The passage also indicates that there's a posture to preaching. As listeners we take a proactive role in listening to the sermon. We are to lean into what we're hearing. This also means that listening means doing. Both phrases have the emphasis of "to be obedient to." What Israel heard God say, they were to do.
Charles Stanley, the television preacher tells his listeners, "Now, listen!" God wants our attention—he wants the attention, the ears, of his listeners. We've seen people cup their ears in order to capture sound. God wants his listeners to cup their ears to hear what he has to say in his word when they listen to preaching.
We don't merely hear what the preacher is saying, we lean into what is being said. Our bodies are like metal and the speaker is the magnet and we are drawn into what is being said. We lean into what God is saying by devoting our attention to his Word. We are focused on what is being said.
Nothing else matters now. All distractions are pushed to the side. We lean into what he is saying through the preacher, through the Word. As listeners we want to do what God wants us to do. We're leaning into his will and way as we listen, lean into and obediently do what he wants us to do.
Don't tell me to listen!
Some of us really don't like to be told what to do. We'd rather not have anyone tell us what to do, even if it is God. We may not want to hear what God has to say because of what's happening or happened in our lives. Life may have dealt us a bad hand.
There's too much interference around us that gets in the way of what God says. We face job stress, family tension, care for aging parents, worry about health, money concerns, worries about our children or spouse. We're not sure what to do. These concerns seem to insulate us from grappling with what God wants from us—and what we want from God.
You're right. There are all kinds of things that have the potential of getting in the way of really hearing from God when we hear the Word preached. What can we do about it? Throughout the week prior to the worship service, or even during the worship service, pray that God will enable you to hear what is being taught and that you'll be changed by it. This puts you into the right posture to lean into what God is saying.
Not only can you pray for the upcoming worship service, you can pray for the preacher. Ask God to fill, guide, use and empower the preacher—this puts us into the right posture to lean into what God is saying.
Pray for the upcoming worship service, the preacher, and for the other people who gather for worship with you. Pray that everyone else gathered with you in worship will lean into what God is saying.
Then, listen! Lean into what is being said. Sit up straight. Get eye contact with the preacher. Be ready to engage! Something happens when we lean into what God is saying.
You'll become a better listener.
A better listener is open to and obedient to God's teachings. The Israelites were expected to reflect openness and obedience to God's teachings. From verses 2 to the end of the psalm, Asaph recounts what God had done for Israel to encourage them to listen, to give themselves to, to lean into, God's Word.
This truth of God's faithfulness is used as encouragement to the Israelites to tell the next generations of the value of listening to and leaning into God's Word. He also shows them some bad examples of those who didn't listen and the consequences of not listening to and leaning into—of obeying what God expects.
We want to be better listeners. Better listeners know God's teachings. Knowing means understanding. We understand God's story. The psalm is a retelling of all that God did from the patriarch Jacob to King David. The Jews remembered their history by telling stories. These are not made-up stories, they're recounting, retelling of what God has done for them.
Tell the story
The old hymns, "Tell me the old, old story" and "I love to tell the story … of Jesus and his love," is our story in the midst of the larger story of the Bible and as told here in this psalm. Better listeners know God's teaching and better listeners obey God's teaching.
As a Christian you've thrown your life into what God says. You know that there isn't a difference between the person who hears and the person who obeys. James writes in his letter that people are not merely to listen to God's Word, but are to do it!
So, better listeners know God's teachings and obey God's teachings, and better listeners tell others God's teachings. We can tell others about the sermon and pass on what we've learned. We can take notes during the sermon, jotting things down that underscore the idea of the text and apply it. We can talk with others about the sermon and the truth communicated. We can talk about ways we can put into practice the truth of the text preached. We can try to visualize ways in which we see the idea of the text lived out in our lives. We can discuss questions we might have about the suggestions made by the preacher. All the while, we're trying to become a better listener.
It's not easy
But becoming a better listener isn't easy. We may be wrestling with something in our lives that is out of step with what God wants for us. We might have our priorities out of whack and we see this church thing as simply part of a routine but not part of a maturing, growing Christian life. There may be things we simply aren't able to get past to become a better listener.
All is not lost! When you go to worship—that's the first best step. At worship, talk to God. Give him your heart. Give him your concerns. Give him your attention. Give him yourself. Lean into him—that's all you can do. When you do this, you'll become a better listener.
Lean into what God is saying and you'll become a better listener
This is what the text is saying: Lean into what God is saying and you'll become a better listener. Leaning into what God is saying and you'll become a better listener is a biblical principle that we see woven throughout the tapestry of Scripture. Men and women coming to terms that if they gave everything they are to God, their lives would change. Abraham did it. Moses did it. Ruth did it. Paul did it. Men and women and boys and girls throughout the ages of the church have done it, they've leaned into what God is saying and their lives were changed.
When I heard Pastor LeVan tell the congregation what it means to become a Christian, my life was changed. I was already leaning into what was being said—and I became a Christian—and a better listener. I can remember listening to Dr. Vanderbeck preach at a tiny country church in western Pennsylvania and leaned into what he was saying and I was changed by his words—I became a better listener. Your story might be the same—leaning into what God is saying and your life was changed, you became a better listener.
Becoming a better listener may seem to be a huge task—but you can do it. It's worth the investment. Your life will be changed. And you'll keep on changing. You'll lean, and lean and lean and grow. That's the ultimate result, spiritual growth, becoming the mature believer that God wants you to be.
Yes, you, too, might be a professional sermon listener. You may have developed a distance, a professional detachment to this thing called sermons. How do we listen to sermons?
When Haddon Robinson was a high school student, he wrote in his diary, "Some preachers can preach for twenty minutes and it seems like an hour while other preachers can preach for an hour and it seems like twenty minutes. I wonder what the difference is." Certainly there are preachers who are easier to listen to than others. This text calls us to hang on every word so we don't miss what God has to say to us.
We may not be able to remember every sermon. The reality is, you can't remember every meal you've eaten. But you've been nourished by these meals. You can't remember every sermon you've heard. But you've been nourished by these sermons, especially if you've leaned into what was said.
The result is that we'll be changed—we really will be changed: our heart, our life, our thinking, our living, our perspective, the very essence of who we are. That's what happened to Israel, that's what happened to those who have faithfully followed our Lord throughout the ages. And it's my prayer, my hope, my desire for you: Lean into what God is saying and you'll become a better listener.
Dr. Scott M. Gibson is the Haddon W. Robinson Professor of Preaching; Director of the Haddon W. Robinson Center for Preaching; Director of Th.M. Program in Preaching; Director of the A.J. Gordon Guild; and the author of Preaching and Discipleship.