Aug  2016 17
How to Listen to a Sermon

According to sociologists’ counting, rather than self-reports, about 20 percent of the U.S. population attends church on a given Sunday (the self-reported figure is about double that).

Twenty percent means that something like 64.6 million Americans heard a sermon this week, minus the few traditions that don’t include preaching. Consider that.

Nearly 65 million persons voluntarily submitted themselves to a 1–3 hour worship experience, and a sermon of between 12 and 45 minutes.

While it is the case that students come to seminary today with many kinds of ministry and locations in mind, educating and training preachers remains a core task of graduate seminaries.

The fact that we succeed with enabling only some students to become better preachers may be due to many factors, but one of those factors is that preaching is a complex discipline.

A good preacher—good as defined by the diverse standards of the guild, the academy, and the people who hear—requires knowledge of self, scripture, interpretation, the times, the particular community, and people as we are.

A good preacher is also a person of Spirit, imagination, and sound character. In a few years of education, a seminary can add only so much. Becoming a good preacher, or a great preacher, takes a great deal of time and effort.

But so does becoming a good listener of sermons. I wonder how many of those nearly 65 million weekly listeners have ever considered what might help them hear a sermon. This is not a new question.

The 18th century evangelist George Whitefield wrote on “Directions How to Hear a Sermon” (summarized here).

While taking time before worship for personal prayer and for reading the scripture and generating some starting questions would be good for everyone, I also know what it is like to get to church on an otherwise busy weekend, with compounded complexity if one is also corralling children.

What might you do to prepare to listen to a sermon after you’re already in your seat?

Writing as one who preaches and one who listens, here are some perspectives that help me listen to a sermon:

  • Ask: Where am I at as the service begins? Am I agitated, calm, thinking about work? Who and what am I bringing to the service today? This self-reflection is a gut-check and call to awareness.
  • Consider what a sermon is. In my opinion, a sermon is a meeting between an ancient community and a contemporary community. The meeting is enabled by scripture, a preacher, and tools of interpretation. In the meeting, the contemporary community listens to an interpretation from its ancestors in the faith regarding who their ancestors thought God was and what God required of them. In light of the ancient testimonies and perceptions, the contemporary community considers who God is, who they are, where God is at work in the world, and what they should do in order to stand and work with God.
  • Consider the logic the preacher is using. When you catch the logic, you can think with the preacher and not simply go along for the ride. The following logic patterns are some of the common ones.

o Linear. This is the old-style “tell them what you’re going to say, say it, tell them what you said.” Intro, three points, conclusion.

o Narrative. Sermon as one story, or sometimes a string of stories loosely tied to portions of the scripture.

o Teaching. Longer sermons, especially in Protestant evangelical services, focus on practical teaching, with numerous teaching points drawn from the text.

o Vignettes. Each element of the sermon is like a segment of a TV sitcom that might pursue 3-4 story lines in 22 minutes of programming.

o Daisy. A theme is announced. The preacher explores the theme in numerous vignettes (the petals of the daisy), and then returns to the theme.

  • Attend to and play with the sermon. Let your imagination engage. Sure, we all LOVE it when a preacher says something that engages our passive imagination, but sometimes we need to attend more actively and work to bring our imagination into the mix. Metaphors, strong words, images, and stories that engage imagination also can cut through or circumvent defenses. Let your imagination lead you where it will. It is not necessary, or even desirable always, to listen attentively to the whole sermon. In most sermons, there are points of re-entry for those whose imagination took them down a fruitful path.
  • Look for grace. Paul Scott Wilson in his book, The Four Pages of a Sermon, writes that a sermon ought to include a page each on: the trouble in the ancient text, grace in the text, trouble in the contemporary community, grace in the contemporary community. A preaching professor I had in seminary challenged us to make stories of grace at least as vivid and compelling as words of judgment. Theologically understood, grace is the self-communication of God. Grace transforms, renews, judges and offers a way and a hope at the same time. Grace is what 65 million listeners each week need to hear.

What suggestions would you make on how to listen to a sermon?


Portrait of George Whitefield (1714-1770), oil on canvas, Harvard University Portrait Collection, H27, Joseph Badger (1708-1765). Public Domain.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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