I started this series of posts with a counter-intuitive principle – worship together as a whole family; don’t send your children to children’s church. I said it seems counter-intuitive because children can be a distraction. But anyone who has been to our worship services knows that there are sixty or more children who really worship. They don’t draw pictures, play electronic games, or in other ways tune out the service. Part of this is learned behavior and part of it is because God’s grace draws people away from a man-centered focus and into a God-centered dialogue. There is no passivity. Even when listening to a sermon, our hearts should be engaged with God, not simply with the preacher. Cornelius said, “we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God” (Acts 10:33).
That verse emphasizes two things that are absolutely essential to the art of listening to a sermon. The first involves an expectation that God will indeed speak to us through His servants and the second is that the preacher is a servant of God, not the focus of attention. When people come to worship only to hear a celebrity speak, they are lacking both prerequisites. I will deal with the problem of celebrity preachers in my next post, but today I want to address the attitude of expectation.
Listen with faith that God will indeed speak to you
The art of listening to a sermon requires that we come with faith that God will indeed speak to us. In Acts 10:24 the household and friends of Cornelius came with that expectation. They were waiting for God to speak through Peter (v. 33). And they had faith that God would. When I have come to worship services with a similar faith, I have never failed to connect with God and to in turn be blessed. But it does take effort.
When we hear a sermon, we should continually be interacting with God about that sermon. These interactions may involve an internal “Amen!” or a note of repentance to God for a sin that had been pointed out. They may involve glorying in who God is, what He has done, or what He has said. It may involve prayer – “Lord, please help me to live this out this week!” or “Lord, please cause the church as a whole to become aware of this glorious truth.” But listening to a sermon should not be a passive spectator sport. There should be the constant response of the heart to God in expectation that He is present and speaking to us through His Word (Heb. 4:12-13).
But how do we handle services that have theological errors in the music and faulty theology in the sermon? If the church is liberal and dead, we should leave and find a new church (Rev. 18:4) because liberalism produces what Paul calls empty preaching (1 Cor. 15:14). But if the church is basically solid, I recommend that you eat the corn and throw away the corncob. Paul rejoiced in evangelical preaching even when it had error because he still saw Christ in those errant sermons (Phil. 1:15-18). He had a determination to be God-focused when listening to preaching, not man-focused. His determination can be seen in the fact that the preaching bothered him (vv. 16), but he resolved that because “Christ is preached… I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice” (v. 18).
And this resolve to worship during every sermon has helped me frequently during my lifetime. For example, during my last vacation I attended a church where a Dispensational was preaching about the Beast of Revelation. Though I knew he would preach eschatological error, I sought to focus on the text and on the portions of his sermon that were true and to worship God through those portions. And though his identification of the Beast was in error (no surprise), I found his application of the text was the same as mine would have been. And I was able to worship God and rejoice in Christ because of the truths that came through loud and clear.
But many are robbed of the ability to worship if they note the slightest error or disagreement in a sermon. Many years ago a friend of mine introduced me to Reformed doctrine. We still attended an Arminian church, and he would fume and fuss after every Arminian sermon that we would hear. He told me that he didn’t get anything out of the sermon. That surprised me because there was still so much truth in the sermon that could have been used as a vehicle for worship. I too disagreed with the pastor, but the pastor was not the focus of attention in my worship; God was. And I pointed out that even if the sermon had been a total loss (which it was not), he could have spent time interacting with God over the fabulous Scripture text that had been read. At the very least he could have turned his frustrations into a prayer for God to bless the preacher with increased illumination as well as to ask God for increased humility.
But this illustrates how easy it is to allow anything to rob us of a God-centered focus when listening to preaching. I encourage people to be just as God-focused while listening to the sermon as they should be in the rest of the service. Listen to His voice speaking through the Scriptures. Apparently in the church of Laodicea there wasn’t much God-centered worship going on because Christ was outside the door of that church. Yet His promise remains for those who struggle with this issue: “…If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him…” (Rev. 3:20). To the church of Pergamos he promised closer fellowship and communion than even the High Priest of the Old Testament had, using an amazing symbol – eating of the hidden manna (Rev. 2:17). I would encourage you to take the advice of John Piper for listening to preaching that he applied to worship as a whole. He said,
Worship is the full-hearted response of God’s people
to God’s grace
with God-centered joy
in God-glorifying praise.
If we can learn to respond to preaching in the same way, we will have learned one of the most important lessons of the art of listening to a sermon.