How to Listen to a Sermon


This week's post by Brandon Adent. A deacon at Redeemer, rock climber, musician, and history dweeb.

Have you ever been caught “present”, but not “here”?

Recently, my wife and I were waiting for our lunch order and discussing the development of household plumbing in Europe - as one does - when a bit of a breeze picked up.

Unfortunately, I had left my jacket at the office, and for just an instant my mind wandered off to retrieve it.

When it returned to my still-stationary body, I noticed the pause indicating it was my turn to talk.

“Yeah”, I said. Not the most appropriate response to a question like “I know the Romans developed the aqueducts to carry the water around, but when did that technology actually arrive in the townships?”

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume that we’ve all been in similar situations. When it comes to conversation, we’re present but not “here”. Listening to a sermon is no exception.

Hearing the Word

When it comes to hearing the preaching of God’s Word, we easily adopt this present-but-not-here mentality. It’s easy to hide in the crowd, and it’s easy to forget the origin of the words we hear.

Even if with our heads in the game, listening can be a real battle. I’ve personally noticed that I’m rarely more hungry, rarely more thirsty, rarely more sleepy, and rarely have to use the restroom with greater frequency than when I am trying to listen to God’s Word preached; it’s as if my whole body is telling me I need anything and everything but Him.

But especially when it’s hard, listening is important. We’re hearing about God, how we’ve treated Him, what He’s done in and through His Son, and how we are to respond. These are topics of the utmost importance; we have to do something with what we hear. That something could be nothing, but if so we’re missing out on an opportunity for growth, and, I think, a real chance at joy.

Here are some things we can all do to improve at listening to the preached Word.

1. Pre-Read The Text for the Week

In his introduction to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes of how Hobbits “love to read books about what they already know”. I’ve found that trait true for myself, as well; I’ve been reading books about the Second World War since high school and the more I read, the more I want to know.

Social sites like Facebook are built around this proclivity in order to gain financially: if you click on content of a certain type you will see more content of that type on your news feed, which drives ad and product sales for Facebook and their customers.

The more familiar we are with a subject, the more we want to know about it. Similarly, the more familiar we are with a passage in the Bible, the more curious about it we’ll be and therefore more likely we’ll be to listen to it preached. We’ll get stuff out of it that we probably wouldn’t find on our own.

If you can, try to spend fifteen or twenty minutes looking at the passage for the week. Try to identity the main point of the passage and be able to articulate why you think so.

If you’re really feeling ambitious, try reading the whole book or letter. If for example, the passage is in Ephesians, read the whole letter of Ephesians; this will give you an idea of the main theme(s) of the letter and help you put what’s preached in context.

However much you pre-read, you’re be able to engage with the Word at a deeper level during the sermon.

2. Put Your Back Into It

Listen actively. Get your whole body and mind focused on what you hear. Let your body know it’s time to listen, and assume a posture that reflects that desire.

That looks different for everyone. I’ve got a friend who makes eye contact, says nothing, and doesn’t move. Right when you’re not sure he’s been listening, he responds in a way that only a listening person could. For me, that’s head up and eyes forward unless directed elsewhere. I do weird things like shake my head and nod. Somehow, it helps work things into my thick head.

Some people take notes to cement what they heard into their memory or for later review.

Feel free to try things out, but please don’t be weird or distracting to others.

It’ll help you stay focused and communicate to others that it’s time to listen.

3. Look At The Text

While the words we hear are those of humans, they must be anchored in the Word of God and drenched in the good news of the Gospel. Part of listening actively is making sure they are, and in order to make sure that they are, we need to have God’s Word in front of us, either in paper or digital form.

Personally, I am a huge advocate for paper. I bring my own so that I’m familiar with the layout and can flip to verses quickly, where I can quickly scan the text and put the verse in context.

If it works for you, you can totally use your phone or a tablet. There’s apps you can use to check words or phrases and alternate translations.

If you go digital, just make sure you stay tethered to what you hear “now”. In addition to the obvious distractions of social media and text messages, scampering down rabbit trails of discovery can be a diversionary tactic of the flesh and a soft spot in our armor for the devil, who whispers “It’s okay that you’re not listening; you’re reading the Bible”, a half-truth that undermines the authority of the preached Word where the Scriptures affirm (Nehemiah 8.1-8, Acts 2, Acts 6.4).

If you’re still interested in an hour (and hopefully you are), you can look it up then.

4. Talk About What You’ve Learned

As many of us know, it’s much easier to get away with passive listening in a classroom. When conversing with a friend and we’re caught not listening, our friend’s feelings may be hurt. But in a group setting, we’re never really confronted with the relational implications of what we’ve done.

Put yourself in a position to share what you learned. Engage on the topics with your Gospel Community, whether or not they come up in a formal context. Ask your spouse or talk with your kids about what they learned, or if there were any verses in the passage that stuck out to them.

The more senses we engage the more we’ll learn, and hopefully the knowledge we gain will stir our hearts to look more like Jesus.

The Perfect Listener

Listening is hard. It just is. Sometimes it’s more difficult than others, but it’s an important discipline, one that we’ve all failed at one time or another.

But because of His great love for people who ignored and spurned Him, Christ came and lived spotlessly, listened perfectly and applied what He heard flawlessly. He died and rose to make rebels righteous.

In His power, we can really hear what He says through His Word preached.