By Skylar Spradlin
What does it mean to listen to a sermon? My guess is most people don’t realize they have a responsibility when it comes to the proclamation of God’s Word.
I recently wrote a piece to help pastors train their congregations to listen. Now, I’d like to offer suggestions for the people within earshot of the sermon—tips pastors can pass along to those they serve through the preached Word.
As you practice the following five suggestions, you’ll help your preacher present better sermons by showing you’re intently listening. These tips will also work to your advantage by allowing you to truly and seriously enrich your soul during the preaching of God’s Word.
1. Distractions are dangerous.
In our church we ask parents to keep their children with them during service (we do this because we expect others around them to help out and be understanding). These little ones will, from time to time, produce noise of surprising volume, pitch, and power.
On top of that, there’s always a phone ringing, sound equipment failing, or someone running for the door to use the restroom.
Additionally, there’s your growling stomach, the argument you had before church bouncing around in your head, last week’s idea you just happened to remember, a surprisingly uncomfortable chair, and the plans you have for later in the day all coming into your mind with surprising speed and demand for attention.
These things seem harmless enough. But they’re part of the spiritual warfare taking place in your church’s worship service.
The devil will be perfectly content with your church attendance so long as you’re subtly distracted from the sermon. Such moments of distraction, far from being harmless, are actually robbing you of glorious, divine truth that not only reveals to you the mysteries of God but also gives you food for spiritual nourishment.
Much more is at stake when your mind wanders than just missing out on what the preacher might have said.
2. Application is required.
There are only two people who will ever know the realities of your heart, and neither one of them is your pastor. Only God and you, to a lesser extent, know your heart.
This means it’s naïve and reckless to rely on your preacher alone to apply God’s Word to your life. In reality, you ought to constantly wrestle with the text of Scripture. Part of that wrestling isn’t just understanding the text, but clearly and precisely applying it to your life.
As a text is expounded, ask the Spirit of God to conform your life to the truths being mined and exposed. Each point and each verse, once explained and made clear, should have direct implications for your life.
After all, these Scriptures are living and active (Hebrews 4:12) and are breathed out by a God who’s intimately involved in your life (2 Timothy 3:16-17). They’re being presented not just for knowledge, but also for sanctification. So, as Scripture is read, sung, and preached, you should be applying it to your life for your own good.
3. Fact checking is necessary.
Many years ago, I first heard John MacArthur use the phrase “Master Teacher” to refer to Jesus. Since then, that phrase has stuck with me in remarkable fashion. I’ve even used it in more than a few sermons.
Such a phrase is wonderful because there’s only been one Master Teacher, and I’m not Him. Neither is John MacArthur, Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, or the great Dr. Lloyd-Jones.
In other words, all preachers who aren’t Jesus Christ fall short of perfection. We’re prone to error. We’re prone to use the wrong words, wrong application, and make real mistakes. It’s hard to admit, but my theology is far from perfect, and my preaching is even less so.
This means everyone who listens to a sermon is called to be a good Berean (Acts 17:10-12) and examine the Scriptures on their own to make sure what they hear is actual truth.
This isn’t to breed distrust in preachers. It’s to hold them accountable to the truth and to make sure what you’re hearing is eternally accurate.
4. Preparation is critical.
Most people assume they can simply stroll in to a worship service and expect to glean all they need for the week ahead. By God’s grace this may be true, but it shouldn’t be our presumed expectation.
We prepare ourselves for sports games, doctor appointments, school, and a host of other life events. Certainly, worship and the preaching of God’s Word should deserve our intentional preparation.
This means you should get a good night’s rest on Saturday night so you’re not falling asleep during the preaching.
If breakfast and getting the family dressed (or in front of a screen to watch online, given the pandemic we’re in) is a challenge, then take a note from how you get ready for every other day of the week and plan accordingly.
If at all possible, read through the passage beforehand, spend extra time in prayer, and talk with your family about what lies ahead for the upcoming Lord’s Day.
In other words, don’t just stroll in (or tune in) on Sunday morning. Do whatever you can to prepare for and enhance your worship of God and your hearing of God’s Word.
5. Effort is expected.
There’s no such thing as a good, lazy listener. Good listening requires work.
We should fight against distraction. We should work at precise and personal application.
We should examine the Scriptures personally. We ought to prepare before Sunday, and we should let these Scriptures mold us so that we might glorify God and spread the gospel message to others.
In the book, The Compelling Community, Jamie Dunlop and Mark Dever briefly address listening to sermons. They highlight three responsibilities of a good sermon listener. They tell us that listeners have responsibility for what preaching they support, responsibility to change, and responsibility to help each other change.
While these three insights certainly have ample meaning, they at least mean good sermon listening isn’t void of action. Effort is expected.
Put forth that effort. It’ll be worth it.
SKYLAR SPRADLIN (@SkylarSpradlin) is the lead pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Weatherford, Oklahoma. He’s earning his Masters of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the co-host of “Pastor Talk,” a weekly podcast geared toward helping Christians think biblically.