How to Listen to a Sermon


In the year 1528 it was reported that reformer Martin Luther preached 200 sermons, which was noteworthy because 1528 was a year marked by the Black Plague, so it may have been an off year for him. On average, Luther preached one sermon every other day for the entirety of his ministry, preaching an estimated 4,000 sermons in his lifetime of which an astonishing 2,300 still exist today, nearly 500 years later.

George Whitefield, “the golden tongue of the Great Awakening” was reported to have preached up to 500 sermons per year, which is nine sermons a week. And Charles Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers” had over 600 sermons under his belt before he was 20 years old; and in his 38 years of ministry, he preached so often that his collected sermons fill 63 volumes, which you can purchase – and this work is according to John Piper, “The largest set of books by a single author in the history of Christianity.”

On a much more humble scale – my first sermon as a pastor was on February 4, 2007; and as I preach about 40 times per year, over the past 15 years, plus extra sermons here and there – I have probably delivered something like 600 sermons in my short ministry life.  

And while that does not come close to the preaching luminaries of our past; what I would like for us to consider is that it is not the volume of sermons that matters nearly as much as to how well or how poorly we listen to each one.

So my question is: “How well do we listen to God’s Word?

Some may respond, “I didn’t know any preparation was needed, other than just showing up?” Well showing up is half the battle – but we often don’t think about our job during the sermon itself.


Consider three problems that get in the way of us listening well to sermons.

First, many people perceive preaching as irrelevant. What is more archaic in today’s culture of tweets and technology than having a person actually stand up talk for a half-hour or longer? Many in the younger generations are dismissing preaching as being the same category as steeples and pews. Nostalgic thing of the past that have little relevance today.    

A generation ago, the average church member, would have heard about 9,000 sermons in their lifetime – an average of three per week – once on Sunday morning, another on Sunday night and usually a third on Wednesday night. However, today’s church member if they attend church once a week, 30 out of 52 weeks (which might be generous) such a Christian would only hear 1,800 sermons over a sixty-year period.

The second problem thwarting us from getting the most out of a sermon is poor listening skills. Probably you would agree that we could all improve in our job as listeners.

The story is told of a brand new pastor in his first church; and as it was an aging congregation – in his first four weeks he did eight funerals. And because did not have time to prepare for the next Sunday’s sermon, all he could think to do was to preach his first sermon again – and he did that for the next three Sundays. This caused a controversy in the church and the Deacons went to the Superintendent complaining that this new pastor had used the same sermon now 4 times in a row! The Superintendent, a wise man, asked what the sermon was about. There was a pause. They scratched their heads and hemmed and hawed – but they could not remember. So the Superintendent said, “He can use it one more time.”

The third and most vexing problem to overcome is our lack of theological understanding about preaching – meaning that we don’t realize what God is doing during a sermon. We don’t often stop to ask, “God what are you doing right now – during this sermon?” Most of us have not considered the theology of preaching.  


And so let’s now turn to a solution to these three problems.

The Greek word for preaching means, “to make an official announcement, to proclaim, to make known.” This action was used commonly of a herald or a town crier. Because most of the population was illiterate – distributing information in writing was not an option. So the herald would take a message from the King, go into the public square and loudly proclaim the message in each and every village. Their job was to be faithful with someone else’s message.  

Like good herald a good preacher is diligent to faithfully deliver the message of the King of Kings and not his own opinion. Like a good herald, a good preacher gives all of the message – not only the good news. And like a good herald a good preacher seeks to be clear and interesting. Heralds were trained vocally – to be heard and to draw attention to their important information. If the herald mumbled, was too soft and boring – chances are the message would be lost or ignored.  

But we must go beyond the image of a herald – because a preacher is also a shepherd. It is vital that we see both side-by-side. A herald had no personal relationship with his audience, whereas preachers are to love and care for their flocks. The shepherd seeks the sheep’s best interests. One could say preachers should care about information and application. Information is the job of the herald, application is the job of the shepherd.

Let me summarize the theology of preaching in a simple sentence: “During a sermon, God is speaking to you.” Let me say that again, “During a sermon, God is speaking to you.” Let me say it a third time – because it may not have registered with you yet: “During a sermon, God is speaking to you.” Do you believe this?

If we believe God is speaking to us during our pastor’s sermon, it changes everything about how we value and approach that experience.

Martin Luther put it this way:  

“Would to God that we could gradually train our hearts to believe that the preacher’s words are God’s Word… If someone announced: ‘I know of a place in the world where God speaks and anyone can hear God there‘ – if I had gone there and seen and heard a poor pastor baptizing and preaching, and if I had been assured: ‘This is the place; here God is speaking through the voice of the preacher who brings God’s Word‘ – I would have said: ‘Well, I have been duped! I see only a pastor.’ In fact, we do not enjoy listening to any preacher unless he is gifted with a good and clear voice. If you look more at the pastor than at God; if you do not see God’s person but merely gape to see whether the pastor is learned and skilled … then you have already become half a Jacob. For a poor speaker may speak the Word of God just as well as he who is endowed with eloquence.”

So, sure, us preachers need to do better with our delivery, clarity and relevance, but theologically, regardless of the skill of the preacher – if the Bible is being preached be sure that God is speaking to you.


Here are 11 ways we can improve our sermon listening skills:

  1. Before the sermon is preached read and reflect on the passage. Often we know the passage in advance on a  Sunday, so read the passage in advance – the return on time invested in prior study and reflection on the passage to be preached is huge because you come to the message already anticipating the topic or questions posed by the text.
  2. Second, pray for the preacher. If you see the sermon as a time when God speaks to you, praying for the preacher should be a high priority. Pray for their study time, to be protected from distraction, for creativity and clarity.
  3. Third, pray for a receptive heart – Pray for your own heart to be ready to receive God’s message. Tell God you are want to hear from Him, even if His message is not what you want to hear. By praying for the pastor and for a receptive hear, you make the sermon an answer to your prayers, which will change how you view it each week.  
  4. Fourth, get a good night’s sleep Saturday night. If you are out until very late on Saturday and are tired for Sunday morning, you often will not be able to hear God clearly. Don’t let Sunday sneak up on you – but anticipate it with how you spend you entire weekend.
  5. Fifth, develop positive Sunday morning habits – such as eating a good breakfast, setting out clothing for children and talking about worship on the way to church. Sunday morning is a notorious time for stress and arguments – but a little proactive planning can greatly help reduce stress and you will be much better prepared to hear God’s Word.
  6. Sixth, take notes. If a sermon outline is presented for you, use it. Like a program at the symphony it tells you what to expect and where the message is going. If that doesn’t work for you, at least mark and record thoughts in your Bible. Nearly all the great men and women of God have Bibles well marked up through personal study and Sunday morning sermons. When you meet with your boss at work, I would guess you have some way to record the instructions he or she gives to you – should we not do the same with God?
  7. Seventh, if the preaching is bad – study the passage on your own. This is very practical, and many times over the years I have found this to be good advice. If the preacher is not connecting with you – instead of tuning out or thinking about lunch – discipline yourself to continue to focus on the passage and seek God’s message for you.
  8. Eighth, encourage the preacher by sitting up straight, making eye contact, nodding your head and saying “amen.” Often preaching is seen as a one-way monologue – but there is more two-way communication then most people know. Preachers can sense if you are with them, or if they  have lost you based on your body language and attentiveness. When you respond to preaching in some physical manner – the preacher is encouraged to press on with more confidence. You will improve any preacher’s preaching by simply being physically attentive.
  9. Ninth, engage in at least one post-sermon discussion. This might be during Sunday lunch with your family or friends; or in your small group. And as you bring up the sermon – don’t let yourself fall into “movie critic” mode and just point out typos or bad grammar, but rather focus on application. Those who study pedagogy (how we learn) know that if a student reviews what they have learned in class, even once outside of class – the outcome is much greater.
  10. Tenth, if you miss a sermon – catch up. Can you imagine reading a book and skipping random chapters? Yet if you miss a Sunday – how often do you make it a priority to catch up on the sermons you miss? All of us have to miss church from time to time due to traveling, sickness, etc., but make it a priority to listen to the sermon that you missed. Why? Because during a sermon God speaks – and you don’t want to miss something He intended to say to you.
  11. Eleventh, file your notes. If you don’t already have one – I encourage you to come up a filing system for your Bible study, and sermon notes. It might be an electronic file, or hard copy, whatever works for you. Long before I was called to seminary I started a system to keep handouts and sermon notes, which has been helpful to this day. Think of all the mundane stuff we save – such as car maintenance records, receipts for taxes – if we believe God is speaking to us through the sermon – why wouldn’t we want to have a system for maintaining a record of His work in us?

When I was in the business world – I had a once a week meeting with my supervisor, the Vice President of Business Affairs. And while I had many other meetings and responsibilities during the week – that meeting with my boss had a special place on my calendar – because I knew I was going to receive messages from her vital to my job. And so I made sure I was prepared before knocking on her door. Once I was in the meeting, I took notes, I listened carefully, and kept track of her requests to I could execute them well.

So it should be with the sermon on Sunday morning.

Puritan pastor Richard Baxter said: “Come not to hear with a careless heart, as if you were to hear a matter that little concerned you, but come with a sense of the unspeakable weight, necessity and consequences of the holy word which you are to hear and when you understand how much you are concerned in it, and truly love it as the word of life, it will greatly help your understanding of every particular truth.”


We thank you that you are a God who speaks. You spoke through your prophets and through your Son, Jesus and the apostles. You have given us Your Word – the Bible to guide our lives and to provide for us everything we need. May we be people who take your Word seriously and who anticipate and are prepared each Sunday to that sacred time when Your Word is preached – proclaimed to us -so that we might not miss your direction and message for our lives. This we pray, in Jesus name.

One comment

  1. Great message. Thanks for all that you do to prepare for our Sunday sermons. It always apparent that you have spent countless hours preparing. And your applications are so practical and down to earth that it is very easy to apply to our lives.

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