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How to Listen to a Sermon

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

Pastor Dan Jongsma

A frustrated preacher once described the sermon as “30 minutes to raise the dead.” His equally frustrated listeners described it as “30 minutes of death.” I suppose it all depends on which side of the pulpit you stand on. Preaching has been around for thousands of years. Even in a video age such as ours, preaching is still a valuable form of communication.

It goes without saying that preachers are responsible for mastering the craft of sermon-making.

But it’s equally important that the congregation master the craft of sermon-listening.

When the ability to listen well is underdeveloped, even the most skilled preacher will have little impact.

That’s why Jesus says in Luke 8:18, “Consider carefully how you listen.” Later in the book of Revelation, He says, “He who has ears, let him hear.” Clearly Jesus is very concerned about our ability to listen – desiring that we come with open ears, open mind, and open heart. He knows that as we become more attuned to listening for Him, we will hear Him speaking more clearly and more frequently.

In the Old Testament, God instituted certain rituals designed to prepare His people for receiving a word from Him. There was a cleansing, a purifying that was required as they approached the tabernacle/temple to hear God speak through His prophet or priest. The people were expected to prepare themselves for this divine encounter. They were not to approach Him in a flippant or careless manner; instead, they were to guard His honor.

For us today, we too must pay attention to how we approach God in order to hear from Him. If we do so in a cavalier manner, we ought not be surprised by a sermon’s minimal impact on our lives.

What all this teaches us is that good listening begins with good preparation. Preparing our-

selves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to be ready to hear from God. Finding the right place, being in the right frame of mind, having our hearts softened by means of worship and prayer – all of these things will greatly enhance our ability to listen well.

By far, the very best way to prepare for listening to a sermon is to spend a few moments in prayer. Pray for yourself -- that you will be open to hearing from God in the next few moments. Pray for the preacher --that God use him/her to speak to you exactly what you need to hear. Pray for others who may be listening -- that they may have a fresh encounter with God.

In Ephesians 6:19 Paul gives us a preacher’s prayer when he says, “Pray also for me,

that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel.”

As a preacher, I know from personal experience the awesome privilege and humbling responsibility of speaking on behalf of the living God. I know that without divine empowerment, my words will fall flat and have no lasting impact. Here is the hope I hold onto: If God can speak through Balaam’s donkey, maybe He can even speak through me. But it takes prayer to unleash the power of God through a flawed human instrument.

If truth be told, when it comes to preaching, most congregations get what they pray for. In other words, the more you pray, the more God will work through the pastor’s message.

Another helpful tip is to listen with the right expectations.

The sermon was never intended to spiritually feed someone for an entire week. If we only rely on a once-a-week, 30-minute message to provide all that we need for our spiritual growth, we will be in trouble.

Rather than seeing the sermon as a complete meal, we need to see the sermon as an appetizer. Something that wets our whistle and creates a hunger to learn more. We might also think of the sermon not as a landing pad, but a launching pad. Something that launches us into a group study or individual study of some key biblical passages and themes. The key is to move from simply being spoon-fed through sermons to learning how to become a self-feeder of God’s Word.

We also have to see that the sermon is its own unique form of communication. It’s not a theological lecture, a moral essay, a spiritual pep talk, a personal testimony, or even an in-depth Bible study. Now these elements may be found within a sermon, but that’s not the essence of a sermon.

A sermon is not just teaching, it’s preaching. It involves explanation, illustration, and application. A good sermon not only addresses the question “What does God want me to know?” It also asks the question “What does God want me to do?” It points to both right thinking and right living. It is meant both to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable. Sermons are not simply to be informational; they are to be transformational.

A final word of encouragement is to listen to a sermon expecting God’s Spirit to speak to you. The whole issue boils down to receptivity. How receptive am I to the voice of God speaking through a flawed human instrument? If I focus too much on the instrument, I will likely miss the message God has intended for me. Being an open, receptive listener means that I can hear God speaking even through the poorest of preachers. But being a closed-minded, non-receptive listener means that I won’t hear God speaking even through the best of preachers. So listen attentively to God’s truth proclaimed – for His truth will set you free.

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