I am wholeheartedly committed to the priority of the preaching of God’s Word in our regular church gatherings. True, I am a pastor, so I guess by default I “have” to say that, but even apart from that role, there is a deep conviction running through me that the Word of God itself bears testimony that it should and must be preached and that preaching must be of high priority among God’s people (see Nehemiah 8, 2 Tim. 4:1ff, Mt. 4:17, etc.).
But, alas, this post isn’t about preaching God’s Word as much as it is about hearing God’s Word preached. Actually, not just hearing but listening and not just listening but listening well.
While I know there is not a one size fits all for listening to sermons well, I would just like to offer a little acronym that I hope will assist you in the discipline of sermon listening. Yes, I said discipline. There’s a reason you can sit through a 3-hour movie but not a 30-minute sermon. In the former, you don’t have to exercise your mind. In the latter, you are to be participatory. You must engage your mind and heart and learn to listen well by using your EARS.
I hope that one or all of the following points will help you to be a better sermon listener. So, here are some tips on using your EARS!:
Listening well to sermons doesn’t begin on Sunday mornings. If it does, then you are already at a disadvantage. If you expect your pastor to prepare to preach, shouldn’t you expect yourself to prepare to listen well?
We need to come to the church’s gathering expecting God to speak to us through His Word. One of the ways to heighten our expectancy is to read over the text that is going to be preached prior to the message. If you’re a pastor, work on letting your people know what is going to be preached the next week, next month, or even next quarter. If you’re not a pastor, ask your pastor what’s coming up so that you can read and be prepared.
Another important point about expository listening is to listen well to Scripture throughout the week. Not just reading the upcoming sermon passage but also a regular, disciplined intake of Scripture during the week will prepare you to listen well to your pastor on Sundays.
This will also include prayer. It is the Holy Spirit who ultimately applies the preached Word to our hearts so ask Him to open your eyes that you might behold wonderful things from His Word (cf. Psalm 119:18).
As you are listening to the sermon you want to be thinking some basic thoughts: What does this passage say about God? What does this passage say about mankind? What response does this passage call for from me? How does this passage point to Jesus? Context is king, which is why you want to be read up to be able to understand the passage properly. Granted, your pastor should supply this for you but even if he doesn’t or a baby is crying during part of the sermon, you will be equipped to listen well because you’ve spent time preparing to listen.
Here’s a great place to insert a quote by J.I. Packer:
“congregations never honor God more than by reverently listening to His Word with a full purpose of praising and obeying Him once they see what He has done and is doing, and what they are called to do.”
(A)ttention to Points:
You’ve prepared yourself to engage in the preaching of God’s Word, and the pastor has begun his sermon introduction. Now what? Pay attention to the point(s)! Here it’s a little tricky because pastors aren’t perfect, and pastors have different personalities.
Some pastors are easier to listen to than others. Some may specifically say “Here’s my point:” or “The point of the passage is:”. Some may have several points, so pay attention to things like “first” or “number one”, etc. Some pastors may not say “lead-ins” like that, and so you will have to listen closely but if you’ve done step 1, this should hopefully be easier. I think this is something you can and should improve on as you grow in your discipline of sermon listening. If you find that you just are unable to identify the “point(s),” talk to your pastor! If he is anything like me, he would love to hear some feedback from a church member who is actively working on listening better to his sermons.
I think you would be well served to go to Walmart and spend $0.98 on a notebook for sermon note-taking. You can also make notes in your Bible or invest in a Bible with wide margins for taking notes, but writing them in a notebook gives you more room. Taking notes engages more of your senses as you engage the Word preached.
As you identify the point(s) (previous step), jot them down. Putting them in outline form is probably easiest, but whatever way you can get the information down and easily come back to it at a later time is best. Also, don’t spend so much time taking notes that you fail to hear the rest of the message! It’s notes, not an essay. You can also jot other Scripture references that come to mind as well as other thoughts and questions to come back to later. And that’s the point: come back to your notes. Don’t spend the effort in taking notes and not ever come back to them.
Review your notes. Review them with your spouse. Did you hear everything rightly? Compare. You could even use them one evening (or a couple) for family devotion time. This leads me to my final point:
(S)hare with Someone Else:
You’ve listened well, you’ve taken notes, you’ve looked over your notes, so is there anything else you can do to get the most out of a Sunday sermon? Yes there is! Discuss it with someone else.
This could be informal while you’re at work “Yeah, you know my pastor was preaching about something similar this Sunday. Can I talk to you a little more about it?” Preferably, this could also be more formal as in meeting with someone you are discipling (or who is discipling you) and discussing the pastor’s message together each Thursday afternoon over lunch or each Monday morning over a cup of coffee.
As mentioned above, going over the sermon sometime during the week with your family is an “easy win” for dads. The preparation was already put in on Sunday morning. All you have to do is pull out your notebook and discuss it with your wife and kids one night after supper.
Don’t just walk out of the church building, shake the preacher’s hand, and say “Good sermon.” Go back to it for the purpose of sharing it with someone else. You didn’t just listen to a message to gain information but for the purpose of transformation. Share the transforming power of God’s Word with others.
Again, I will reiterate that informally is good (at school, work, with your exercise group), but formally is better. Plan to meet on a regular basis with 1–3 people of the same gender from your church for the purpose of discipleship, and let a regular part of your meeting be a time of sharing about previous weeks’ sermon(s), even if only done briefly.
So, how are your EARS? This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch but hopefully, it will get you thinking more seriously about how to listen well to the preaching of the Word. If you are a pastor, I would encourage you to teach your people how to listen well to what you are preaching. Feel free to “customize” this outline and pass it out to your people. If you are not a pastor, feel free to share this outline with your pastor or small group for the purpose of encouraging others to grow in their discipline of sermon listening.
*I first heard the phrase Expository Listening from 9Marks.