How can we hear a sermon well?

There are lots of things written and said about preaching well. Some of them are even on this blog. But what does it mean to hear a sermon well? It is all very well blaming the preacher when we don’t get anything out of the sermon – and sometimes that might be fair enough – but what are our responsibilities as listeners? Are there things we can do to make sure we get more out of a sermon?

Pray before you come

Key to listening well is praying before you come to church. Ask the Lord to open up the Word to you. Pray that the Lord would apply the sermon particularly to your situation. Pray for the preacher, that he would helpfully speak into your situation and that the Word would be apt for you. Pray before you engage and ask the Lord to help us hear well.

Engage with the reading

It’s all too easy to just let the reading of scripture wash over us. Almost like it is the prelude to what is about to come. But we will get much more out of the preaching if we carefully listen as the Bible is being read publicly. If we are able, following along in our own Bible’s will help us because we may notice things in the text ourselves that we had not seen before. As the preacher opens up the passage, he may land on these same things and apply them to us more fully. The better we engage with the reading, the more likely we’ll gain from the preaching.

Respond to what is said

I appreciate there are going to be all sorts of different cultural ways to do that. But as the preacher is preaching, engage with him. Some people in my church will shout out when they agree with something. Some people will nod along. Some bury their head in the Bible to check the verse that has just been mentioned. Some crack a smile when something funny is said. Some lean in when something serious is said. All of these things suggest proper engagement with what is being said. The preacher isn’t just speaking to a sea of blank faces but is seeing people respond in real time to what is being preached.

Apply it to yourself

Most good preachers will try to offer some pointed application of the passage you are reading that morning. But no preacher will be able to pointedly apply the passage to every individual in equally helpful ways. Whilst they will try to think of who is in front of them and some of the situations they may be facing, and how the Word speaks specifically into those things, they cannot do that for every individual. Which means each point made and applied are examples of how the Word might apply to others. But there will inevitably be a bit of work we have to do, thinking about if the Word applies to them that way, how might it apply to my situation that is a little different. The preacher will hopefully give some examples that are on point for your situation too, at some point in the sermon, but he’s unlikely to do that every time. We need to try and work from the examples to our own situation.

Seek clarifications after

There may well be things we hear in the sermon that don’t sound quite right to us. That might be because we’ve misunderstood the preacher. It might be because we misheard what he said. It might be that he has overstated something unhelpfully. It might be that he is wrong. I have lost count of the number of times people have claimed that I said something in a sermon when I was literally making the exact opposite point. Either they haven’t heard what I was saying, they zoned out at that point, they were distracted or they’ve badly misunderstood.

Of course, those things are easily dealt with when people come and speak to you afterwards. Not in accusatory tones, but just seeking clarification. ‘I thought you said X, but I thought the passage was saying Y. Did I understand you rightly?’ It gives the preacher an opportunity to say, ‘yes, I did say that, but here is why’ or ‘no, I didn’t say (or mean) that, I think you’ve misheard or I haven’t been as clear as I might’. But if we have been active in listening during the sermon, we should be equally active in seeking clarification for anything that didn’t seem right to us.

Offer encouragement too

By the same token, there may be stuff we heard that was particularly helpful for us. It might be an insight into the text we hadn’t seen before or an application that was especially pertinent for us. Whatever it my be, go and tell the preacher afterwards. If he has blessed you in the Word that morning, go and bless him by telling him so. And when you do, be specific. Don’t just say, ‘I really enjoyed that’ but tell him exactly what was helpful and why. Nothing will encourage a preacher – or your pastor – more than knowing the Word has been heard, engaged with and done its work, whatever that might be, and to see people growing and built up by it.