How to Listen to a Sermon

By Clement W. Welsh

How does one listen to a sermon? Even in this age of the laity the subject seems strangely neglected. So we venture to pass on a few suggestions that we hope may be helpful.

 

 

  1. Attend Church – Not as self-evident as it may seem. Sermons, unlike TV spectaculars, are Always on Sunday. “Dropping in to hear a preacher” can be stimulating, but it takes repetition to know a preacher and to be able to read between the lines of his human discourse to find God’s word. It takes the service itself, known by heart, to set instantly the framework for the sermon. Even the Opening Sentences begin to alert and prepare the sermon-listener for a discourse directed to those who live in God’s world.
  1. One at a time – leave your own sermon at home. Everyone has at least one sermon that he thinks ought to be preached, even if he might be terrified at an invitation to do it. If the preachers sets forth on something of his own, don’t be disappointed. The best sermons are often the ones you didn’t expect to hear. If their text suggests one thing to you, discipline your mind to hear what is said about it by the preacher. (If all this becomes intolerable for you, perhaps you should consider studying for the ministry.)
  1. Do your homework – The preacher may be discussing topics that are hard (God, Man, Suffering, Death, Love). If he has to start from scratch, it may take him longer than twenty minutes. Have you read anything recently that might give you a head start? It is alarming to hear people say, “I like his sermon for children, but I find the real sermon dull.” Not ready for it, possibly? Never passed the elementary course?
  1. Messageor merely man? – “Message” – an odd name for a sermon. Or, is it? Is the sermon merely one man’s opinion, or a message from God passed onto the preacher? A little of both. The preacher has studied God’s Word, and tries to bring it to bear on today’s world. It’s a chancy business at best. Often, his sermon is, indeed, one man’s opinions – but the opinion, probably of a devout Christian man, steeped in the Christian understanding of God’s will for the world. So hear him with respect.
  1. Expect trouble – At some point the preacher may utter the authentic Word of God (perhaps only when he gives out his text). This may hurt. When God speaks to His sinful children they often discover that Love is not the same as leniency. Who else in our world, except the preacher, assumes with care and thoughtfulness the risky job of telling us a few unpleasant truths about ourselves? Remember, he’s preaching to himself, too.
  1. How to disagree – The listener has his rights. Much in any sermon is debatable. No preacher knows everything. Listen with an alert mind, matching your experience against his. It can be good for you both. But with this freedom goes responsibility: be sure you have understood. Discuss disagreements with the preacher later. All good sermons turn into a dialogue between preacher and listener.
  1. Wanderings of the mind – When bored stiff, don’t feel guilty. It may be a terrible sermon and if so, God doesn’t expect you to listen like a faithful moron. Let the mind pick up a word, a phrase, or the text itself, and use these rare moments for thinking, something we seldom do. If this situation occurs very often, the trouble may be in you, in the preacher, or in both. People who watch expert entertainment on TV Saturday night will probably not be exactly patient with just average preaching on Sunday morning, but did they come to church to be entertained?
  1. Forming a Christian mind – Sermon time in Christian churches may be the most important moments in the life of man. It is then that Christians in greatest numbers think together about the world and God’s will for it, in detail, in view of present needs, in terms of their own actions, and with the guidance of their spiritual leader. Bring to such moments yourself at your best. Come with high seriousness, willing to view all things with love, with compassion, with courage, with humility. Make of these moments an act of worship of the mind.
  1. What to say to the preacher – If you want to infuriate him, say, “I enjoyed your sermon.” He takes this to mean, “I missed the point, stopped listening, and subsided into a pious trance.” Say, “I found the sermon interesting (or helpful, or whatever).” Be honest – or be kindly silent!

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