Listener’s Guide: A Practical Guide for Listening to the Word of God

Listen

 “…manifested in his word through the preaching…”

WHY IS LISTENING IMPORTANT?

Preaching finds its importance in the doctrine of Scripture. If we value the Word of God then we will value the exposition of it from the pulpit.  If we value the exposition of the Word from the pulpit then we will value each opportunity we have to listen.  We will listen with intensity as the words of the God who created all things is being proclaimed before our eyes. Titus 1:1-3 says,

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior…

Paul as a servant of God understood his role was to preach the word and here he is reminding Titus that the hope of eternal life was made known to us through the preaching of the Word. Thus we understand that preaching finds its significance in the hope of eternity found in the Word.

PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS FOR LISTENING

The following is not a doctrinal explanation for why you listen to preaching, rather it is a practical guide.  The goal is to assist listeners to prepare for, participate in, and practice the Word of God proclaimed from the pulpit.

Preparation

Godly listening begins long before you come to church on Sunday morning.  We must prepare our hearts to hear God’s word all week long.  If you wait until you arrive through the church doors you may miss a majority of intended blessings which comes from God’s Word.

Read

One of the first ways you can prepare your heart for God’s word is to read the scripture before coming.  God’s Word is the tool he has designed to cut to our hearts and reveal what lies in side.  As we read God’s word we will become more open to seeing the light of God’s word and its implications for our lives.  This can take a variety of forms however the point is that as you increase your familiarity with God’s word it will become easier for you to grasp the context and meaning of the passages being expounded each week.  One of the ways you can accomplish this is by following a Bible reading plan.  This will give you a fuller understanding of Scripture as a whole and help you to see how the passages fits into God’s bigger story.  A more particular way ,you can study is by reading the passages which will be preached on the following week.  Ask your pastor what direction he is going so you can begin studying the text and preparing you heart.  No pastor is going to be offended and most pastors will be overjoyed for your desire to study God’s word.  At Heartland we have been preparing devotionals which correlate with the subject/text for the week (click here to see).They are not detailed however help to point your mind and study in the direction we will be taking for that week. You can study the verse more in-depth by reading commentaries or other sermons on them (click here for resources).

Pray

Secondly we can begin to prepare through prayer.  Paul is clear that we cannot understand the truths of God apart from the Spirit’s work in our hearts.

For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:11-13)

Thus one of the best ways we can prepare our hearts as listeners is to pray that God would by the Spirit give us understanding.  However, not just you but the Pastor as he prepares the message and the congregation.  It is through prayer that we recognize our dependence upon God to move even in the Church building.

Sleep

This may seem trite, however one of the biggest distractions to hearing God’s word is drowsiness. If we don’t sleep well the night before we will have a very difficult time paying attention.  So, one of the best ways to prepare for a Sunday morning is to sleep well on Saturday night.  This means that we make plans to prepare ourselves to hear God’s word.  For some this may mean not drinking caffeine late on Saturday for others it may simply be an intentionality about planning things around your late Saturdays. I do recognize that this cannot be helped by all.  Some work late, have infants, or are on medications which make this difficult.  The temptation to fall asleep during a message is nothing new(Acts 20:9-12).  However, we must make every effort on our parts to prepare ourselves for God’s word.

Eat

A final thing you can do to prepare yourself for the proclamation is to eat a good breakfast.  This does two things, first it keeps you from being hungry and secondly it fuels your body so you are not tired around 10:30 when the Pastor steps into the pulpit.  You may laugh however how many times have you been distracted by hunger on Sunday mornings.  Another thing that distracts many people is the age old question, “What are we going to have for lunch?”  One way to solve this is to plan ahead of time with your friends and family, so there is not a question of what you will have to distract you.   This is by no means an exhaustive list of things you can do to prepare for worship through the preaching of the word but it is a good start.

Participate

A second way we can honor God in worship is to participate in the preaching of the word. As one author has said,

There’s a distinction between “lean-in” vs. “lean-back” media. There’s a generational difference. With music it’s easier to know how to participate. The stereotype—the false assumption—is that preaching is not participatory. It’s not that we go from lean-in (music) to lean-back (hearing a sermon). (T4G Panel Discussion on Preaching)

A sermon is not something that happens to you it is something you participate in.  There is a dependence upon the hearer in the preaching of the word.  Many times throughout the psalms there is a call and response in music this is all true of preaching.  There is a call to hear the word of God and it is the listener’s responsibility to hear it.

Active Listening

The first way to participate is by being an active listener.  This includes several things but let me just name a few.  First, sit up and pay attention. It is not going to help you  pay attention if you are slouching in your seats; it may indeed make you more tired  and it gives the pastor the idea you are not paying attention.  Thus your body language though it is not addressed in the Scriptures can in a practical way impact what you take from God’s Word. Secondly, take notes!  I know that this may be controversial so let me explain.  Sometimes it is important to take notes because it engages more of your senses with God’s truth.  You are now seeing and physically doing something with the words that you are hearing.  Let me say from the outset I am not saying you must catch every point of the sermon or get every definition or have a full outline.  What I am saying is that when you are impacted by the word of God you record your thoughts so you can remember them and engage your mind in a deeper way with the same truths. This also includes having your Bible open so you can follow along with the exposition of God’s Word.  Seeing how the pastor has come to these conclusion impacts our personal study of the word throughout the week. Overtime you will find yourself noticing the things the preacher brings out on Sunday morning in your own study. Finally talk back to the pastor.  This looks different in every church and I am not supporting any way in particular, so whether you are actually vocalizing your agreement or simply nodding your head it engages the pastor in a way that cannot be captured any other way.  Throughout the Bible there are many occasions which the people reply to the preaching of the word with what must we do to be saved.  In these stories I am always amazed at how engaged they are with the word of God.  So, I would tell you from personal experience your interaction with the pastor, so long as it is not distracting to the rest of the congregation is a benefit for the pastor.

Avoid Distractions

This brings me to the next point: avoid both making a distraction as well as being a distraction. Avoid being a distraction by thinking about how your movement, noise and other things may impact those around you.  If you are a fidgety person it may be beneficial for you not to sit near those who are easily distracted.  Maybe you have been sitting in a church when someone’s phone or watch goes off, then you know how distracting that can be, so make an effort to avoid those distractions for other people.  There are times when it is an accident or cant be helped however there should be an intentionality to avoid those things.  Secondly, sit somewhere that you will not get easily distracted this may mean for some of you that you have to sit in the front of the church.  It may also mean that you try not to sit next to people that distract you.  It also may mean that you pray for God’s grace to assist you as you hear his word.

Pray

This brings me to the next point, prayer.  Prayer is not only something that should be done before the preaching but during.  It is ok to bow your head during a sermon and repent for sins that are being revealed to you (though don’t get distracted and fall asleep).  It is ok for your mind to check out of the sermon for a moment when your heart becomes burdened for the lost.  Take that moment to pray for them and then refocus your mind upon God’s word.  When God’s word impacts our heart let us not ignore it by waiting till the end of the service to pray or until we get home.  You may be training yourself to ignore your conscience.  Pray, pray, pray!  Pray for the pastor as he pours his heart out for the Sheep. Once again we must understand our need for the Spirit of God to be changing us by God’s Word.

Fight

Finally, this may seem odd but fight.  Fight with your mind to focus on God’s Word.  Pay careful attention that your mind doesn’t wander and when you find it wandering refocus your attention and fight.  This is not something that happens overnight.  In our sinful nature we naturally are prone to wander from the truths of God.  Don’t think you are immune on a Sunday morning.  You must fight with your mind to focus your attention upon God’s truth.  Thomas Watson rebukes us saying,

How far are they from offering violence to themselves in hearing, who scarce mind what is said, as if they were not at all concerned in the business: they come to church more for custom than conscience: Ezekiel 33:31. ‘They come to thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them.’ If we could tell them of a rich purchase, or of some place of preferment, they would diligently attend; but when the word of life is preached, they disregard it. (Heaven Taken By Storm by Thomas Watson)

Practice

Finally you must practice the things which are preached.  We must not leave them at the church building.  Paul in his letter to the Philippians says,

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

Paul exhorts his hearers to think upon God as he is revealed and ask them to take what they have learned from him and practice these things.  Even so each week as we hear the word proclaimed from the pulpit we must think on these things and practice them in our daily lives.  If we do this we too will find the peace of God ruling in our hearts.

 Talk

Don’t leave the message at the church building.  When you leave the church make it your goal to continue to think upon these things as you talk about the message with your family, friends, and neighbors.  Don’t wait! As your eating lunch that day, talk about the things of God, but not only for the day but the next day as well and so on.  Let it dwell on your minds and in your hearts as you do your daily activities.  Home Groups are another great way to accomplish this.  As you go to fellowship with those people you begin to recall the sermon as well as the applications.  It forces you to spend more time thinking through the text.

Re-Read

Re-reading the text can help refresh your mind of text and its main points.  This allows you to retain the information longer and keeps it fresh in your mind as you go to work and play with your children.  This means the significance of the text doesn’t fade with time rather it should become clear and more applicable the more you review it in different context. Not only should you review the text but re-read your notes as well.  Remember it is not the outline that is most important.  Take the truth that most deeply affected you during the sermon and seek to apply it to your life.

Do

This brings me to my third point of practice: do it.  Every sermon has an application whether it be a truth to renew your mind with or a practice which you need to repent.  Repent of your false thinking and behavior and seek ways you can implement it into your day.  Maybe during the service you learn about God’s grace to undeserving sinners.  You can practice this through renewing your mind with this truth.  So, when you find yourself reading your Bible to earn something you can repent and seek God from with a thankful heart of worship.  Maybe you can practice the same kind of grace that you have learned about God in your own life as you interact with others (i.e. children, bosses, neighbors, etc.) Jesus reminds us that,

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.(Matthew 7:24-27)

Jesus makes clear that those who hear his words and do them will be able to stand until the return of Christ.  They will not be crushed by the cares of this world or be crushed by the weight of sin.  Thus when we practice the words of God preached we remain faithful until Christ’s return.

Pray

Finally we must pray! This is not something that is tacked onto the end but our prayer before, during and after the preaching of the word acknowledges our dependence upon God.  It also reminds us that we cannot nor should attempt the Christian life on our own. We must pray for our hearts to love and keep these truths.  We must pray for the congregation.  We must pray for the pastor.  We must seek the power of God to change lives including ours. Do not think for a moment that because you have gone to church, heard the word of God, and even took some notes that you don’t need God to work in your life.  We cannot and will not obey the Word of God apart from his work in our lives.

A PLEA

Please don’t leave the word of God at Church rather take time to think through the areas of preparation, participation, and practice as you listen to the sermon this week.  These ideas will assist you as you seek to grow in holiness and may keep you from being hardened by the deceitfulness of Sin.  Remember our soul is at stake every time we hear God’s word.  Don’t ignore it.

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