We do it every week. We grab our coffee, greet some friends, sing some songs, and then sit down to listen to a sermon. Some of us Bible nerds even do it more than once a week through podcasts. We know sermon listening is good for us and part of the Christian life. We have been inspired, challenged, bored, distracted, convicted, and entertained by sermons. So we keep coming back for more.
But we don’t often stop to think about how to listen to a sermon.
There is a way to glorify God most in how we go about listening to a sermon, whether in person or online. Here are five tips to help us be sermon listeners and not just sermon consumers.
1. PREPARE YOUR HEART
Let’s face it. Between checking one more text, Instagramming our coffee, or scrambling to get the kids checked-in, much of the time we’re not even remotely prepared to take in a half hour or hour-long sermon.
Before giving into the Sunday morning frenzy, we must remember that we’re not at church for the sake of routine, but because we really believe the Creator of the universe loves us and wants to speak to us. As you find your seat or pew, take a deep breath, exhale everything on your mind, and ask the Lord to speak to you. A simple prayer, “Jesus you are here, I love you, I want to hear from you, speak to me,” can go miles in preparing your heart.
Leave your phone in the car if at all possible. Use a physical Bible and paper journal to keep you from digital distractions. Spend some time praying before the gathering if you can. Pray for the preacher, the church, potential visitors, and for yourself.
Come prepared to hear the sermon as a member of the church, not just a consumer of its services.
2. ASK BETTER QUESTIONS
How many of us come away from a gathering and we judge the whole experience like we would the latest Marvel installment? "How did you like the sermon?" "What did you think of the music?” “Was the pastor’s Iron Man or Ant-Man example funnier?”
The point of gathering with the saints and sitting under biblical preaching is not for us to judge the Word, but for the Word to judge us. Responding to God’s Word the same way we respond to movies will train us to treat it like cheap entertainment. We are called to be disciples, not consumers. Consumers come, take, and leave; disciples come, see, and go and tell.
Let me suggest three questions to ask after listening to a sermon, either to yourself or someone else.
What did God say to you? Sometimes God speaks through the sermon, prayer, communion, music, benediction, or a moment of silence. He loves to speak to his people. Let’s listen and ask one another how we’re hearing God through sermons. This makes it less about the jokes, antics of the preacher, personality or style, and more about hearing from God—which is the point! And God is faithful to speak through his Word even in the less “entertaining” or poorly articulated sermons because his Word does not come back void (Is. 55:10-11)!
How is God calling you to respond? In Hebrew, the word “hear,” or shema, means “listen & obey” (cf. Deut. 6:3, 4). The American version of listening is fine with just listening, even listening and responding enthusiastically to what has been said, but with no real change, obedience, repentance or transformation. We love to say, “Oh man, that was such a convicting message!” and then go on with our day as if we never heard it at all.
I’m afraid too many of us are content with just listening—listening that doesn’t result in heart change or genuine response. Jesus rebuked this kind of listening, calling it having “ears but never hearing” (Matt. 13:13). And in one of the most terrifying passages of the Bible, Jesus says, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46).
Biblical hearing leads to biblical action. After listening to a sermon, we should ask ourselves how God is calling us to respond. Is he telling me to stop doing something? To start doing something? To think something different? To give something away? Questions like these bring sermon listening to life.
Who could you share this truth with? Sermon listening shouldn’t end with us. God invites us into a life of community and mission; a life of loving him and loving others. After all, faith comes by hearing the gospel, and hearing the gospel comes through the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). Others need to hear the Word we have heard!
Whether you are building someone else up or you have someone else help you in responding to the sermon, sharing what God speaks to us and how we will respond is one of the great joys of being the church! As you reflect on the preaching you’ve sat under, ask yourself who you could share with.
3. FIGHT ENEMIES OF LEARNING
Pride, stubbornness, and a lack of teachability are enemies of listening and responding to a sermon. That’s why Hebrews 3:15 says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” We can nitpick a sermons’ delivery, critique the personality of the preacher, pridefully boast that we already have heard this text before, or use the time to think through all the ways we would teach Scripture differently. These are all walls in front of our hearts that will block the Word of God.
This hurts us and hurts the church. Pride and stubbornness are not badges of honor in the Kingdom of God; they are not biblical virtues and we ought to fear them. Pray for humility and teachability. Ask the Lord to keep you from stubbornness. Assume the sermon application does actually apply to you.
I’m not saying to mindlessly embrace everything taught, but I am saying to prayerfully join a gospel-centered church, one that preaches the full-counsel of Scripture, and then submit to that teaching. There will be times where the application does not apply directly to you, or when your pastor was off on the text. But if applying the Word you heard is the rule—and not the exception—the more likely you will wrestle with your sin rather than scapegoating the preaching (Heb. 4:12). Pursue humility and default to submitting to the preached Word.
4. PRAYERFULLY PARTICIPATE WHEN TRUTH IS REPEATED
If you have been part of a church for a long time, you will inevitably begin to hear stories, illustrations, and applications repeated over and over. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Scripture repeats personal testimonies, commands, and evidence of God’s work and calls us to remember what God has done in the past.
As consumers, we want every sermon or gathering to seem new, fresh, or different. But the point is not to be entertained by something new, it’s to be transformed by something eternal. The next time you begin to think, I’ve heard this before, or I know where they are going with this, lean into prayer instead. Ask the Lord, “Why are you having me hear this again? What do I need to remember?” And pray for those in the room that may have never heard that particular point.
5. PODCAST SERMONS OCCASIONALLY AND RE-LISTEN REGULARLY
The number and accessibility of podcasts, with godly men rightly exegeting the Word of God, is a gift of grace. But like any good thing, too much of it can be a bad thing. For the sermon-podcast junkies out there: be careful. You can listen to so many podcasts that you train your mind to hear a sermon with no response. Sermons can become means of entertainment instead of transformation.
We can also begin to build an imaginary or ideal preacher that doesn’t exist, making us unable to enjoy our local preacher because he’s not as funny as Matt Chandler, as astute as Tim Keller, or as passionate as Francis Chan. But that’s good! Your local church pastor is the one God gave you to hear from most regularly, and God intends you to hear his truth through their personality.
Be wary of listening to sermons so much that they become mere entertainment. Sermons are not popcorn. God has sovereignly placed you in a local congregation, so enjoy and appreciate your local preacher instead of binging sermon podcasts. Consider re-listening to a sermon that has spoken to you deeply. Reflect on it. Sermons are to be savored.
LET’S BE GOOD LISTENERS
Hearing God’s Word preached is a privilege. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Is. 52:7).
Let’s be good listeners of God’s Word, reveling in the beauty of the gospel and giving thanks for those who teach it.
Jake Chambers is the husband to his beautiful bride Lindsey, and a daddy to Ezra, Roseanna, Jaya and Gwen. He is passionate about Jesus and his church and has spent the last decade both leading a church plant in San Diego, CA and helping others plant churches. He is currently helping create a church planting strategy for Resurrection Church in Tacoma, WA and hopes to plant a church in his hometown of Gig Harbor, WA in the future. Preach, pray, lead, listen, write and recreate are the 6 ways that God has specifically called Jake to enjoy his presence and serve his church locally and globally.