It’s been said that sitting under the preaching of Holy Scripture is a risky ordeal. You will either harden your own heart (by not listening), or be taken one step closer to God (by listening). Either way, you will leave changed.
Because the Bible is God’s Word, it is enormously important to cultivate better practices for listening to it—listening to the Almighty speak on Sunday mornings. It is through the Scriptures that we hear instruction that is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). After all, each of us are told by the Lord to “consider carefully how you listen” (Luke 8:18, NIV).
I believe there is a famine in our land, in particular, with the hearing of God’s Word. Few value its presence, and even fewer recognize its power. Much like what the prophet Amos wrote, “”Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD, “When I will send a famine on the land, not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, but rather for hearing the words of the LORD,”” (8:11).
Looking at our Sundays, we are in need of some help with hearing what is said. Listening to a message from God’s Word involves much more than just sitting down and staring up at the preacher.
This is why I am grateful for Christopher Ash’s Listen Up! A Practical Guide to Listening to Sermons. Finally, someone has decided to write to the person in the pew on the subject of preaching. (I also appreciated his book on The Priority of Preaching and consider this its complement.) In Listen Up!, Ash walks through “seven ingredients for healthy sermon listening,”1 and I’d like to highlight each of them for you below.
SEVEN PRACTICES FOR HEALTH SERMON LISTENING
1. Expect God to speak.
Quiet your heart and mind before the sermon.
[W]hen the Bible is faithfully opened up, we are to listen to the preacher’s voice as the voice of God Himself. The preacher stands in the great tradition of prophets and apostles who spoke the Word of God. Unlike them, the Chirstian preacher cannot offer new or fresh ideas to add to the Bible. But like them, there is a borrowed authority to speak what God wants spoken. We ought to listen to this kind of sermon with the utmost seriousness.
This means that we will want to read next Sunday’s Bible passage sometime during the week. We will want to pray for the pastor’s preparation, as well. Above all, we should try our best to prepare Saturday night for Sunday morning—meaning that we come to church rested and ready to pay close attention.
2. Admit God knows better than you.
Submit to what the Bible clearly says, and pray that the Spirit will help you to change.
We must come humbly to the preaching of God’s Word. But we don’t want to do that. We come to the Bible with all kinds of prejudices. We don’t come to the sermon as blank sheets, like a new page in a notebook. On the contrary, we come to the sermon with our lives already scribbled over… I come to the Bible as a thoroughly messed-up person, unable to think straight, speak right or act as I ought. That means I must expect the Bible to call me to repentance and not to reassure me that I’m ok. It will never make me comfortable or complacent in my sin.
Above all, our problem is with being teachable. Do you have a teachable spirit? Remember, “A rebuke goes deeper into one who has understanding than a hundred blows into a fool” (Prov 17:10).
3. Check what the preacher says with what the passage says.
Test whether the message is true to God’s Word.
If preachers can show they got it from the Bible, then I must humbly submit to the authority of the Word of God. But if not, then it’s just the opinion of one human being against another. Some people find it helpful to have paper and pen and take notes. This focuses them on what precisely the preacher is saying and helps them to see whether or not it comes from the passage.
Discernment will require an investment of your time and energy. The psalmist desired this when he wrote, “teach me good discernment and knowledge,” (Psa 119:66). Additionally, the Bereans were described by Luke as “more noble-minded… for they received the Word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11).
4. Hear the sermon in church.
Gather with your brothers and sisters to hear the Word preached.
When we listen to a sermon together, we are accountable to one another for our response. Hearing while gathered is significantly better than hearing alone… The Bible’s purpose is to make and shape the people of God, which means in practice the local church. So the first question to ask ourselves is not: ‘What is God saying to me?’ but rather: ‘What is God saying to us?’
There are many factors that contribute to a lackluster love for Sunday morning services. The point is it needs to change. The people of God should view the local church’s worship service as the greatest place on the face of the earth! Therefore, they should desire to sit together with others under the preaching of the Word.
5. Be there week-by-week.
Make this time a ‘non-negotiable’ one for your home.
Keep count for six months or a year of how many weeks you are in your own local church to hear the sermon. Make a note of the different reasons why you’re not there. If you find you’re away more than you realized, and more than you ought to be, take some practical diary action to make sure you’re there more regularly.
This one needs little-to-no explanation, but I’ll repeat it. Parents are abdicating their role in spiritual matters; the reprioritization of sports (and many, many other extra curricular activities) are taking precedent over Sunday mornings; others are just making excuses. Don’t forget: you not only hurt yourself, but others when you miss. “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25).
6. Do what the Bible says.
Respond to the preaching of God’s Word.
After this week’s sermon… write down as definitely and precisely as you can some action you need to take to obey this Bible passage. It may be a change of attitude, or an alteration in the way you speak, or some action you need to stop doing, or start doing. Whatever it is, write it down. In a week’s time, and then a month’s time, look at what you’ve written and ask yourself whether the Bible passage made any difference to you.
For a person to walk out of church after Sunday services without any kind of ‘to-do’ list impinges directly on how he or she views the very Word of God. If the Bible was preached, then a response that takes it seriously is required. “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and every expression of evil, and humbly receive the Word planted in you, which can save your souls. Be doers of the Word, and not hearers only. Otherwise, you are deceiving yourselves” (Jas 1:21-22).
7. Do what the Bible says today—and rejoice!
Respond and rejoice every single time you hear the Word of God preached.
When we become Christians, we do not leave repentance and faith behind, on the contrary, we enter a life which consists of daily repentance and faith. The turning of our hearts towards God and His way is never a thing of yesterday. The decision we may have made yesterday is proved genuine by the fact that we do the same turning of the heart today.
At stake, of course, is our heart attitude. If we truly believe the Bible to be God’s Word, then it is vitally important to cultivate humility as we sit under it. Each and every time.
WHAT ELSE WILL YOU FIND IN THIS BOOKLET?
You’ll also find instruction on how to listen to bad sermons, biblically inadequate sermons, and what makes for a heretical sermon. Moreover, the last page lists seven suggestions for encouraging good preaching.
When we seek to improve on how we listen to our pastor’s preaching, what we are actually doing is learning to become more and more like Christ through His Word. It is not a once-and-done effort with an instantaneous result. But when these seven steps are implemented (expect, admit, check, attend, regularly, obey, and rejoice), godly growth is guaranteed over the long haul.
Spend the $3. It is well-worth the investment.