It is curious that we as believers take no time to think about how to listen to a sermon. In fact, it makes no sense.
One would think we’d be naturally motivated to learn how to develop the spiritual discipline of listening to a sermon. Even just for a very practical, utilitarian reason–to not waste our time. Get this: If you attend Sunday morning worship 45 out of the next 52 Sundays, that is 45 x 40 minute sermons. That is 1,800 minutes or 30 hours of sermons; a significant amount of your time. If you are an adult that has been in church for many years you have spent hundreds of hours of your life sitting through sermons. Just the sheer amount of time we spend listening to sermons should at least spark curiosity in us about how to listen to a sermon effectively.
But of course, there is a far greater motivation for a believer to want to listen to a sermon well: the fact that we know preaching is God’s design and a great gift of His to us. We find it in passages like 1 Corinthians 1:20-25, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, Ephesians 4:7-16, and 2 Timothy 4:1-5: Christ’s appointed shepherd, delivering a message from God’s Word to God’s gathered people, all under the anointing and power of God. Natural or unnatural, easy or difficult, we know at a basic Christian level that regularly sitting under the preaching ministry in our Sunday morning services is God’s plan and a great gift from Him.
Listening to a sermon is a learned discipline that can be developed in you.
So listen: if we know this is God’s plan for us and we are going to spend countless hours doing it, why wouldn’t we want to get really good at it? What if I told you listening to a sermon is a learned discipline that can be developed in you and will maximize the effect of preaching upon your life?
Here are some pointers to get you going:
First, just knowing that listening to a sermon is a spiritual discipline that must be developed is a game changer. This tells you it’s ok if you struggle to concentrate listening to a monologue for forty minutes; it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. It also tells you that it is possible for you to develop the ability to listen to a sermon well. But, this also tells you that if you don’t put forth effort to work at it, you won’t ever develop the ability to concentrate through a sermon.
Second, I preach through books of the bible. So, most Sundays, you know in advance what passage I’ll be preaching from. Take a few moments during the week to read the text and familiarize yourself with it so you aren’t starting from scratch when the sermon starts. The more ambitious could even do a little research and bone up on some background information on the passage.
Third, pray in advance for the sermon time. Preaching is a very spiritual phenomenon: God revealed through Christ revealed through the Scriptures revealing a particular message through His appointed, earthly messenger to a particular audience on a particular Sunday. It is a highly spiritual phenomenon and if you don’t approach it spiritually, you won’t experience its full effect upon your life. So, in advance, pray for the Holy Spirit to give me His message for NEHBC and to help me deliver it. Pray for the congregation and yourself to hear and understand it. We need the message delivered effectively and we need the message received effectively. Both require the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
Fourth, know your learning style and prepare for the sermon time accordingly. Here are some examples of how I do it: I am easily distracted by people around me. So, my solution is to sit in the very front and center of the room. Even when Nicole and I were 22 year old newlyweds without children, we sat in the exact same seats as lay people in the church to which we belonged in North Carolina that we sit in as lead pastor couple now: second row, front and center. If my pastor has a message for me from God, I want to be able to concentrate, which for me means sitting up front. I also know my mind wanders; a laser like focus I do not have. My mind resembles the attention span of a Labrador puppy more than a King Cobra. So, my solution is to take notes when I listen to a sermon. By taking notes, it forces me to concentrate more, and it keeps my mind on message.
Finally, here is a basic technical aspect of a sermon that can help you focus: a sermon has a “big idea;” a main, central truth or principle. Everything the preacher says is going to be about that principle: he will show it to you in the text and then flesh it out, argue for it, defend it, apply it, etc. Different preachers use different approaches to showcasing the big idea of the sermon. Some build up to it as the sermon unfolds so it doesn’t come out until later in the sermon, or some announce it at the beginning of the sermon and then unpack it as the sermon goes along–you know, the whole “tell them what you are going to say, say it, then tell them what you told them” approach to teaching. Here’s a tip for finding the central truth of the sermon: generally, it is a sentence that the preacher keeps saying repeatedly for emphasis. Once you find it, write it down, and lock it down in your mind. Everything the preacher says in the sermon is about this one main, central truth or principle. Knowing this, go into the sermon seeking the big idea–this will really help you concentrate and understand Christ’s message to you.