Have you ever listened to a bad sermon?
Do you find yourself making excuses about attending church because, well, let’s be honest, the sermons are dull and uninteresting?
Is it possible for a pastor to occasionally preach a poor sermon? Or is the problem with me?
I was of the generation of children who sat in adult worship before someone invented junior church. Back then, we had bulletin covers with a printed devotion from the publishing company on the back. That bulletin devo was a welcome respite from what I considered a boring sermon. I would meticulously circle all the A’s, then all the B’s, and finally all the C’s. By the time I circled the last C, the sermon was over.
One Sunday, my mother asked what I was doing. Rather proud of my ingenuity I told her. Someone in the family laughed. “She has a three-point sermon.” Then I had to ask: What’s a three-point sermon?
Sermon listening is an art form.
In a generation used to sound bites, breaking news, and the temptation of the glued-to-the-palm smart phone, it’s tough to keep our attention on thirty-minute speeches that jump from unfamiliar theological terms to gotcha applications. And, let’s face it, once we get that figured out, there’s the preacher who is having a bad day and can’t preach himself out of a paper towel tube.
The preacher of my college years was like that. The guy couldn’t tell a story straight. He’d get lost half way through the details. And his sermons were 90% stories. By that time, I was far beyond doodling on the bulletin cover and desperate to learn more about God’s Word. I listened to every word, trying to find something that would feed my hungry soul. It wasn’t there.
In my desperation, I learned five sermon listening skills that got me through the worst of sermons and the thickest of brain fogs. Here they are:
Preachers have bad days and bad weeks like everyone else. They wake up with sinus headaches, have late Saturday night calls, and may have preached two funerals that week. They, ahem, may have had a fight with their wife or had a teenager stalk out of the house.
Pray that God will fill your pastor with His spirit and His strength. Then look at yourself. Pray that you will be attentive and open to hearing the Word of God. Ask God to speak to you where you are. And pray that you can lay aside your own struggles so you can listen effectively.
Shortly after my husband started to preach, my mother called him. The next minister her church hired was equally disorganized. My husband encouraged her to start praying for her pastor. Wanting to pray specifically, she scheduled a meeting with Pastor Dick. That one meeting led to others and my mother began including others in praying for the preacher on a regular basis.
Sometime later, we asked her how the sermons were. “Oh, jut great!” she said.
Before the sermon begins, check out the sermon title. Imagine where the pastor might go with that topic. If you have time, read the printed text, allowing yourself to ask questions. Where’s he going with this? What will he say about it? As you listen, look for the answers to your questions.
I’ve made taking notes such a life-long habit, I now have trouble listening to the best of sermons without a pen in hand. Our church provides a fill-in-the-blank outline and it’s fun to try to guess what words fit the blanks before the preacher reaches that point. If your bulletin doesn’t provide a place for note-taking, carry a small notebook with you.
If the sermon is a real dud, at least look up and ponder the printed text and other mentioned passages when you get home. Read the verses in context and ask yourself what the writer is trying to say. Use a cross reference Bible to compare similar passages.
Let the Holy Spirit guide you
If your brain grabs on to one sentence and applies that thought to your life, go with it. Jot down your thoughts. Don’t feel guilty that you are no longer listening to the sermon. The Holy Spirit is now guiding you where you need to be led.
Many times, church members have said to my husband on a day he has preached what even he knows was not one of his best efforts, “That was an excellent sermon” and then they would quote something he wasn’t sure he had said. My husband leaves, gratified that the Holy Spirit has stood in the gap, translating the Word of God into the life of the believer.
You don’t have to let your lack of understanding or a minister’s mediocre message stop you from accessing the word of God. Yes, your preacher back home may have been more articulate. The preacher before this dude may have been more dramatic. The speakers on the radio may sound more contemporary. But this is the one God has called to your local pulpit. Pray for him, sharpen your listening skills, and let God use him to expand your understanding of God’s Word.
Once you’ve done all these things and your preacher still hasn’t improved in his delivery, what should you do? We’ll talk about that next at Grace on Parade.