While preaching has fallen on hard times in some Christian circles, I’m going to assume for the sake of this article that you believe biblical preaching and teaching is a critical part of your discipleship and the church’s growth in Christlikeness (see 2 Timothy 3:14–4:2). Yet, despite the importance of preaching, my guess is that many Christians give little thought to how they can get the most out of their church’s weekly sermon.
Maybe the idea of sitting and listening doesn’t seem overly complicated, so the thought of preparing for a sermon doesn’t seem all that necessary. After all, isn’t that the pastor’s job?
This is where we need to be reminded that hearing God’s Word is a spiritual exercise that demands our attention (see Hebrews 3:7–4:13). We are, after all, finite and weak creatures who still have to do battle with sin and Satan. Furthermore, if we really believe that God’s Word strengthens our faith, increases our joy, and causes us to persevere in hope, then we should want to get the most out of it.
With this in mind, I want to offer some practical suggestions for how we might grow in our ability to hear, understand, and respond rightly to God’s Word. You could probably add to this list, but perhaps these suggestions will be helpful as you consider how to make the most of your pastor’s weekly sermon.
- Get Some Sleep
That may sound like a rather mundane suggestion, particularly after being reminded that hearing God’s Word is a spiritual exercise. However, God has made us embodied creatures with physical limitations, and those limitations affect us spiritually. For example, fatigue prevents us from thinking clearly—an important aspect of hearing a sermon!—and can even alter our affections. Therefore, we should try to be alert and engaged when listening to God’s Word.
Of course, there are many extenuating circumstances that we may not be able to change—mothers with young children, those whose jobs require late Saturday nights, those who have trouble sleeping, etc. God has grace enough for those situations. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aim to be physically and spiritually alert when we gather with God’s people to hear his Word proclaimed. It may mean turning the TV off sooner or not making Saturday your “late night” (which, admittedly, can be difficult during football season). But if we have the opportunity to hear from the One who has “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68), isn’t it worth it?
- Read Ahead of Time
One of the simplest ways to prepare your mind to receive the preaching of God’s Word is to read and meditate on the sermon passage ahead of time. You can begin asking questions about the passage and letting its truths roll around in your mind. Multiple readings of a passage often give us new insights and perspectives.
Reading the sermon passage ahead of time is also a great way for parents to help their children stay mentally engaged during the sermon. On Saturday night, point out some important truths in the sermon text, and help them with new words and concepts. You don’t have to have all the answers (who does?), but you can at least get them started on the right path. Like you, they’ll benefit from multiple readings. Even if you’re not sure what the passage means, you can simply let them know what to expect. “This is what Pastor_____ is going to talk about tomorrow. We’re going to hear about why God gave his people these laws and commandments.”
- Pray for Insight
Ultimately, we need more than a good night’s sleep and mental focus. Getting the most from a sermon is a work of God’s Spirit, who alone can open our hearts to receive the words that he has inspired (1 Corinthians 2:6–16). Therefore, we should ask God for insight and understanding, for a humble and submissive heart.
Hopefully, this kind of prayer is a part of the weekly gathering, but don’t let that be the first time you ask for the Spirit’s help. As you read the passage at home, echo the prayer of Paul in Ephesians 1:17–18, asking that God might give you
the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe …
Because this kind of hearing is a spiritual work, we need the Spirit’s help. And, gratefully, God gives generously to those who ask in faith (James 1:5–8).
- Actively Receive and Respond
Getting the most from God’s Word is not only about preparing beforehand but also responding afterward to what we’ve heard. Not every sermon will have an application that is immediately tangible, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way for us to respond. Regardless of whether that application is taking a meal to a needy neighbor or standing in awe of God’s holiness, we don’t want to neglect what we’ve heard.
Scripture warns us not to be forgetful hearers. Otherwise, we risk deceiving ourselves (James 1:22–25). The point is not that we have to frantically run out of the weekly service and immediately find some good works to do, for it is ultimately God who transforms us through the proclamation of his Word. Nevertheless, we should be eager and intentional about responding to what we’ve heard with faith and obedience. In some cases, responding to a sermon will involve practical steps that need to be taken right away. At other times, the response will be an ongoing process of changing the way we think about God and repenting of sinful motives.
Some church small groups review and discuss the weekly sermon in their meetings, which is another great way to reflect on and respond to what you’ve heard. Hearing how God’s Word has affected others may offer more insight and alert you to some applications of the sermon that you hadn’t considered. It’s beneficial to hear from others in whom the Spirit is at work.
For those who take notes during a sermon, you might make it a habit of reviewing those notes on Sunday evening or at some point in the days that follow. If you’re not a note-taker, you might consider writing down some takeaways later that day and praying for God’s help in applying them. In the end, the point is to lean in, listen to, and respond to God’s Word.