Believe it or not, preachers are not the only ones who need to prepare for their sermons. Those who hear their words also need to prepare so they can be wise and effective listeners. Here are three habits that will help you be a better listener.
Not surprisingly, the most important thing you can do to prepare for your pastor’s sermons is pray.
It is important to ask God to help your pastor preach well and to ask God to help you be a good listener. After all, God is the only real source of power a preacher has, and God is the only one who can open your ears to hear what he wants to say through your pastor.
What you pray about, however, may be less important than the simple fact that you pray. That is because prayer is the way we connect with God. As such, prayer allows God to interact with us on a regular basis and gives us practice in hearing and obeying his voice.
The more you pray, the more you will be prepared to hear God’s voice when Scripture is preached.
Second, it is important to think about difficult and important issues on a regular basis.
A sermon is a unique social phenomenon in our culture. Where else—besides in academic settings—do people voluntarily gather to hear someone present a monologue about anything, much less a piece of writing about 2,000 years old? Even when people gather for such a thing, how many expect to hear from God through what is presented?
When we gather for a sermon, that’s exactly what we are doing. Listening to a sermon—to say nothing of evaluating, digesting and applying it—takes a good deal of mental effort. The best way we can prepare for this mental task is to give our brains regular workouts.
Unfortunately, many American evangelicals have not always been very comfortable with or good at thinking. It can be scary to think. We discover lots of ambiguities in the world and lots of uncertainties in our own minds when we begin to think. Too many of us are afraid of ambiguity and uncertainty, so we pretend they don’t exist.
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One of the jobs of a preacher is to dispel our illusions of certainty so God can be at work precisely at those points that make us the most anxious. A preacher must help us unlearn some bad mental habits so we can have a more accurate view of God, ourselves and the world in which we live. Our preacher cannot do this task effectively if we are unable to join him or her on a journey into the unknown.
Third, you need to cultivate a habit of regular reading.
Obviously, you need to read the Bible. You will be better equipped to understand what your pastor is talking about if you already have a good understanding of the big story told in Scripture and of the little stories that make up the big story.
Reading the Bible is not the only reading you need to do if you are going to be the best sermon hearer you can be. You need to read other things, like articles and especially books of high quality.
These materials can be about things of interest to you and that will encourage you to keep reading. They should always contribute to your knowledge of God’s world—or, in the case of fiction, to your ability to imagine how other people think, feel and live.
There are two ways this kind of reading helps us be better sermon hearers. First, reading gives us practice in following a complex argument. Every sermon we hear should make a thoughtful, carefully crafted argument.
Unfortunately, it is no longer second-nature for us to work our way through these kinds of arguments. Our world lives on tweets and sound bites. So, we have to practice working our way through an argument that has multiple stages and pulls together multiple concepts. Reading helps us practice.
A second way reading facilitates good sermon listening is by building our knowledge base. Sermons are meant to inspire and also to inform. Preachers are better able to communicate truth and illustrate how it impacts our daily lives when they are confident the audience actually knows what they are talking about.
Moreover, sermons work best when they are a dialogue between the preacher and the audience. The preacher presents her or his reading of a particular text, and the audience responds by bringing its own matrix of knowledge and experience to bear on what the preacher has presented.
A well-read audience can expand the persuasive power and real-life applicability of a sermon by augmenting the preacher’s work with its own insights. A well-read audience also is better equipped to spot any evidentiary deficiencies or logical flaws that may emerge in the preacher’s presentation and to suggest more appropriate ways of handling a text or topic.
The congregation’s responsibility
It may not seem very creative to say people should prepare to hear preaching by praying, thinking and reading. However, so much of the Christian life is about doing the hard, monotonous, inglorious work of daily devotion to Jesus and daily discipline of the self. This work is especially important for lay persons whose church is organized on the basis of what is usually called “congregational” polity.
In congregationally led churches, the members of the church ultimately are responsible for what is preached from their pulpit. They make the ultimate decision on who will be their shepherd and what will be expected of that person. It is a heavy responsibility.
The steps outlined here are important for all who follow Jesus. However, they are especially important for those who have a direct say in the affairs of their congregation. They are the only way a congregation can be a responsible guardian of their church’s ministry and reputation.
Wade Berry is a resident fellow at the B. H. Carroll Theological Institute, specializing in New Testament and biblical Greek. He has served as an associate pastor, youth minister and in a variety of lay leadership and teaching posts. This article first appeared on the Carroll Community blog and is adapted and republished by permission.