Thursday, February 3, 2011

How to Listen to a Sermon

Do you find your mind wandering during the sermon?  Here are some ways you can concentrate on what God wants to say to you.

The last notes of the choir’s anthem have floated up into the rafters. N now’s the big moment.  As your pastor steps up into the pulpit, you shift in your seat, settling into a comfortable position to hear the sermon.

A few minutes later you notice that your mind is wondering: Just what is the pastor trying to say anyway?... Will he ever get to the point?.... Did I turn off the iron when I left the house?
Mr. Epp The Founder BTTB

Most of us expect a lot from a worship service and especially from the sermon.  We want to hear God’s Word expounded clearly and succinctly so that we have something solid to take with us into the week.   Because of these high expectations, we tend to lay a heavy demand on the preacher to instruct us, entertain us or somehow captivate us.  If we’re not properly inspired, we tend to blame the speaker:  “Well, that was a pretty boring sermon today!”

As a preacher myself, I believe preachers would be faithful and do the best they can to relate God’s truth to the flock.  But when I find myself being overly critical, it helps me to remember that the preacher’s responsibility begin in the preparation and ends with the delivery.  Charles Spurgeon once compared the preacher to a fisherman:   He can’t put fish into the net, but he can throw it out for“whosoever will.”

 Whether the proclamation comes to us in clever, snappy phrases or in halting words, our responsibility remains the same.  We can get more out of the sermons—if we want to. As I thought about what I can do to make sermons more meaningful.  I identified these suggestions.

Desire to hear.  Don’t go to church always expecting to learn new truths, but do expect to hear old ones reinforced.  I prepare myself before listening to the sermon by praying, God, help me want to hear.  Let me listen to anything You have to say to me.

As simple as that sounds it helps me to concentrate.  I prepare myself to listen.  In compare that in the way I prayed before church when I was in college:  Oh, Lord, help me stay awake today.  In those days I would suffer (and I mean suffer) through an atrocious sermon, then complain about it all afternoon, Sunday after Sunday.  I have finally growing beyond that.  Now I pray like Samuel, Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears

Pray for the Preacher.  Before and during the service, pray for the preacher to speak with authority and eloquence.   Las Sunday I listened to a newly installed preacher deliver a sermon.  As I sensed his nervousness, I prayed for the Holy Spirit to give him freedom to speak.  He did loosen up

Pray for yourself.  Ask God to communicate with you—and the rest of the congregation—so that all of you are touched by the Holy Spirit.  Expect God to break through hardened hearts and indifference and meet the needs of everyone present.

 Read the Bible test.  Most churches provide bulletins that list the biblical text for the day as part of the order of worship.  In like to read the Bible lesson silently before it is read aloud and then when it is, I follow along in my own Bible.   When I have a translation different form the one I hear read, I sometimes see new insights.  Even when I think the preacher misunderstands a text, I can still read and allow the Holy Spirit to speak to me.

Sit near the front. A seminary professor ones did a study and concluded that the farther people sit from the pulpit, the less benefit they receive from the message.  Naturally, those most interested might sit up front—to receive maximum benefit fro the spoken word.

Another study indicates that school student who sits in the first three rows get the highest grades.  Other factors enter in, such as the desire to learn, but seating does have a significant impact on how well we hear a message or a lesson.

Take notes.  I learned to jot down the major point of a presentation when I taught in the public schools.  One year I had a low-grade-level class.  They read poorly and none of them could spell.  I decided to make them say each letter as they wrote it, they wrote out each letter of each word a minimum of five times.  And to their surprise, their spelling ability picked up.

From that, I deduced that if I put both my mind and my hands into the sermon, I would come out ahead.

Talked to yourself as you listen.  We all talk to ourselves—constantly.  Most of us process information in our minds at about 600 words a minute.  People usually speak at less than 150 words per minute.  What do we do with our minds the rest of the time?  Most of us do little to control them.

I tell myself to listen attentively.  I mentally underscore points by telling myself, Take note you’ve been lax there.

Ask questions.  During the sermon, I not only mentally talk to myself; I silently carry on a little internal dialogue with the preacher that helps me concentrate.  I ask, Are you sure? Can you prove that?  Do you honestly believe what you’ve just said or are you repeating orthodox words?  What if you’re wrong about that position?

Surprisingly, the preacher often seems to read my mind and says.  “You may not agree, but….” One time I didn’t understand the point and the pastor said, “Maybe I need to make that clear.”

Avoid mental wandering.   Mind wandering is a habit that we must make a conscious effort to break.  When I become conscious of having fogged out, I ask God to forgive me.  I ask the Holy Spirit to help me keep my mind on the topic.  I also tell myself, Listen carefully to the rest of the message God is speaking through this person.

Ask, “So what?”   My task as a listener isn’t complete until I have applied the truths to my own situation.  It’s wonderful to know God’s commandment to love my brothers and sisters.  Yet until I start loving them in some kind of practical way by doing something, I haven’t grasped the message.

James says, “Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.  Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (1:22,24, NIV).

Listen with the whole self.  I’ve discovered that our bodies participate in the listening experience.  If I make sure that bodily discomfort doesn’t distract me. I hear better.  Once I had a new pair of shoes that kept rubbing the back of my heel.  I took the shoes off and my distraction left.

Talk to the preacher at the end of the service. Don’t say, “Great sermon,” or “Sure enjoyed that today.”  How about, “You know, I never thought about that before…” or, I felt God speak to me through…”

Why not ask for clarifications? “I didn’t quite understand what you meant by… “But don’t use this as a game to show the speaker how smart you are.

It’s appropriate to disagree, provided it’s done lovingly—and privately.  I talk with the speaker if I can affirm or encourage.  I assume that encouragement will result in a better sermon next week—and then the entire congregation receives the benefit.  Most of us will hear hundreds of sermons in our lifetime.  Some will be powerful and motivating, others long and boring and others still down right confusing.  But of this we can be sure: God will speak to us if we have ears that listen. 
                                                                                            by Cecil Murphey
                                                                                                   (Author Confident Living Magazine)

Confident Living Magazine, Back to the Bible (BTTB) India.
Epp Pic. credit: Back to the Bible International

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