For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
The churches' websites includes recorded sermons for those who are interested. Click the links below to access them.

Friday, October 13, 2017

On Listening to Sermons

God has ordained that the preaching of the Word be an essential part of the life of the church and an important part of our Christian life. So how can we get the most out of listening to sermons?

What is at stake?
It is essential to understand what is supposed to be happening during the sermon. It will give us important clues to how to approach listening to sermons. Fortunately, Paul gave some instructions to a young pastor named Timothy about what he was supposed to be doing as a preacher. These instructions can help us figure out how to benefit from listening to even a "below average" preacher.

Paul tells Timothy to Preach The Word (1 Timothy 4:2). The topic of the sermon is to be the Bible. The preacher is to help people understand what it says and how to apply it to life. Paul tells Timothy to do his best to rightly handle the Scriptures (2 Timothy 2:15). There is depth in the Greek terms which Paul uses here. The phrase "Do your best" means to exert oneself with diligence and effort. The phrase "rightly handle" was used for cutting fabric in sewing clothes. Timothy is to do his very best to "rightly cut" the Scriptures. This takes both skill and patience. So we should expect the sermon to make careful use of the Bible and accurately explain what it means.

Paul firmly grounds the preaching subject in the Scriptures because the Scriptures are able "to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 3:15). Paul insists on the careful study and application of the teachings of the Bible. Salvation...heaven and hell...are at stake in this matter of preaching. He explicitly says so in 1 Timothy 4:16. Preaching is serious business and not to be taken lightly by either the preacher or the listener. Paul warns that people will prefer to listen to those who do not preach the truth of Scriptures and will wander away from the gospel. It will sound good and be popular but will lead to damnation. (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

The word "preach" means to herald. The herald is the town crier raising his voice with the message of the king. It is not the message of the herald voicing his own ideas or opinions. It is the message of the king that is being joyfully announced. That's why the preacher-herald must study carefully to make sure that they have the message right. The listener must be diligent to listen carefully to what God is saying through the ministry of the Word because the Word points the way to salvation. Preaching is Scripture-based and Christ-exalting.

It Is Not Always Fun
Paul says that Scripture is designed to make us complete and equipped for everything that God has called us to do (2 Timothy 3:15-17). He explains that it does this through four different means:

  • Teaching: the laying out of doctrine, precepts, or instruction.
  • Reproving: the correction and confrontation of false ideas and doctrines. 
  • Correcting: the straightening up of lifestyle; the correction and confrontation of wrong behavior.
  • Training in righteousness: the education and development of godly character and lifestyle.
Paul tells him to preach the Word and explains what that looks like: reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and training (1 Timothy 4:2). This is not always fun in the way that tickles our ears and feeds our sinful passions. It is absolutely essential for the health, wellbeing, and salvation of our souls. Drinking deeply of the Word brings life. Our souls crave the Word. Our sinful nature does not. The faithful ministry of the Word will benefit our souls if we allow it to soak into our lives.

Good Listening is Important

Given what is at stake during the sermon, we must be diligent to pay attention to what is being said. We are not to automatically accept everything that the preacher says. Far from it! Paul warns that false teachers will infiltrate the church and attempt to lead people astray (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Instead, we are to be like the Bereans. The Bereans listened to the preaching of the Word and then examined the Scriptures to see what was being proclaimed was true. Because the preaching lined up with Scripture, many of the Bereans believed and were saved (Acts 17:10-12). Good lisenting is not passive, but an active responsibility of every believer.

Strategies to get the most out of every sermon.

Pray Before, During, and After the Message
For your preacher: Pray that he would be diligent in study and prayer as he prepares the sermon. Pray that he would encounter God afresh in his study. Pray that he would see clearly how to apply the text. Pray that Sunday morning he would preach the Word with power.
For yourself: Pray that you would be hungry to hear what God says through the preaching of the Word. Pray that Sunday morning would not be a rushed blur of activity getting to church. Pray that you would not be distracted from hearing.
For your preacher: Pray that he would have liberty in preaching and that the heralding of the message would have the effect God intends. Pray that Christ would be exalted.
For yourself: Pray that you would hear what God is saying to you.
For your preacher: Pray that he would be refreshed and renewed. Most preachers are exhausted by Sunday afternoon. Pray that he would apply the sermon in his own life.
For yourself: Pray that you would have the diligence to remember and apply the Word. Where the Word challenged your understanding, pray that you would carefully examine the Scriptures to see if what was preached accords with God's Word.

"Ignore" the Messenger
This takes a moment to explain. Sometimes we don't hear the message because we have a problem with the messenger. Perhaps we don't like his voice or his mannerisms. Perhaps his style of delivery or his accent is a distraction. Perhaps we think his clothes are wrong or he is too skinny or too tall or has bad hair. Ignore it all. The sermon is not a TV talent show. It is a moment to try to hear the message of God. Fight through whatever you find personally distracting about the messenger's delivery so that you hear what the Word of God is saying.

Fight to Limit Distractions
Our minds are so prone to wander! Good preachers do their best to keep our attention, but we must work to keep them focused on the message. 
Sit near the front. I find that sitting near the front helps me listen. The fewer people between me and the preacher, the better. I am rarely distracted by the people behind me. At concerts and sporting events the "best" seats are in the front where you can really see and hear everything. Where do you think the best seat is in the church service?
Turn the cell phone off. Cellphones are great because we can have the Scriptures with us wherever we go! But for many people, the temptation to be distracted is simply too great. There are the "holy distractions" like checking to see what our favorite internet preacher said about a subject or looking up different translations. Then there are the "unholy" distractions like the SMS from the person three rows back wondering if you want to go to lunch. Even on silent mode, our phones constantly call for our attention. Consider using a paper Bible instead. If you don't want to carry one, they are available on the table near the door.
Consider who you sit next to. Some people are "fun" to sit next to because they are constantly seeking to entertain us. The whispered comment that causes us to giggle may be fun in some settings, but the sermon is too important for those kinds of distractions. One of the reasons that we have a children's ministry during the sermon all year round is because we want parents to be undistracted during the ministry of the Word.

Take Notes
Simply taking notes and writing down the main ideas of the sermon can be a tremendous way of focusing our minds on what is being said. It also helps us remember what was said.

Watch Your Attitude
It can be easy to become critical. A critical attitude can be deadly because it is an almost certain sign of pride. It evaluates the "performance" of the preacher rather than listening to what God might be telling us.

Ask Yourself a Question
What is God saying to me through the Word? How does it apply to me? Is it affirming or correcting what I believe? Is it encouraging my godly behavior or am I convicted of my sin and need to repent? Is there a promise to cling to? What is the central thought that is being conveyed? How would I summarize the passage and the message?

Talk About It
One of the best ways to focus and sharpen our listening skills is to talk about the passage and the message after the service. I am not suggesting that after church we should criticize the message each week (although I do think that pastors are well served by having a selected team of people have input into their preaching). Instead, make it a practice to talk about what encouraged you or challenged you in the message. Such conversation helps drive the biblical truths deeper into our hearts.

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