As I taught through the book of Amos a couple of years ago, one passage—which I had paid little attention to before—became an anchor for my convictions about God’s Word. In Chapter 8, God gives Amos a vision of the judgement coming to Israel. “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord’” (Amos 8:11). God taking His Word away is more deadly than your water supply sucked dry. Warren Wiersbe says having no Word from God “means no light in the darkness, no nourishment for the soul, no direction for making decisions, no protection from the lies of the enemy.”
Without God’s Word, we are aimlessly searching, but never finding our destination. Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Without light, we will not find our way home. Knowing God and understanding ourselves is impossible apart from His Word (Psalms 119:130 & Romans 10:14-17). Timothy was called to “preach the word” (2nd Timothy 4:2) because his church needed to hear and heed the Word of God. What we need most is not bread, but God’s Word (Matthew 4:4).
How wonderful, then, is going to church every week and feasting on God’s Word through Bible-saturated sermons! Sermons are not the only time you hear God’s Word, but they are the only time the entire church family gathers for that purpose. It is like Thanksgiving dinner with all our aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. It is when everyone comes to the table for a feast. Sermons are not monologues, filling time between songs. They forge the church family around God’s will. Hearing the Bible explained and applied enriches our communion with God, empowering us to walk by the Spirit as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Growing as a sermon listener blesses your whole church.
Sit to Hear
The picture of sitting during a sermon stresses the significance of focus. At least once a week, while making breakfast for my kids, preparing my coffee, and putting last night’s dishes away, my wife asks me to do a specific task. I say yes, but in less than ten minutes I forget that she even asked. I am so distracted by everything else happening around me that I forget what she said once she stops speaking. As I run around the kitchen, I am unable to focus on her request, but if I sat down and looked at her, she would have my attention.
Martha was the same. She ran around the house, distracted with getting everything ready, and cannot be bothered to listen while Jesus is teaching (Luke 10:40). Listening to sermons with one ear, while checking emails, sending texts, scheduling meetings, and planning dinner makes us like a distracted Martha. We are within earshot, but never really listening, because our focus bounces from one thing to the next. Jesus responds to Martha’s distractedness by inviting her to sit and listen (Luke 10:41-42).
When your pastor walks to the pulpit, it is then that Jesus extends Martha’s invitation to you. Choosing to sit, and leave the distractions for another time, embraces Jesus’s invitation. Sitting increases the blessing we receive from our pastors’ sermons. It takes hard work to sit and focus. Not only do children have a hard time sitting through sermons, but adults also. Let me offer three habits for helping you sit through sermons and listen well.
Growing up, my family made sure the next day’s lunch was always in the fridge and ready to go the night before. Preparing lunch the night before shortened the list of things to worry about before school, making mornings more manageable. It also gave me a few more minutes of sleep, which I always appreciate. Sitting and listening well during a sermon, likewise, begins with preparation before Sunday morning. By making preparation, we are sowing seeds throughout the week, which we reap during the worship service.
I find reading, praying, and resting personally helpful. Reading the passage being preached before Sunday gets me familiar with the text. When my first interaction with the passage happens before Sunday morning, I am more equipped to follow the sermon. Praying for my pastor throughout the week prepares my heart to receive his preaching. Being as well-rested as possible is key for staying awake and alert. Some late nights are unavoidable, but binge-watching The Office on Saturday night never helps me on Sunday morning. Being well-rested gives us the energy we need to listen well.
We can eliminate distractions, but something inevitably breaks our focus during a message: daydreams, crinkling paper, cranky children, or going to the bathroom. Having a routine creates an on-ramp back into the sermon for times when we get distracted. Learning to follow the sermon is like following directions. Every sermon has a destination, and by following the flow of the sermon, you will get to the destination without getting lost.
Taking notes is the usual advice you get for following a sermon. For some people, note-taking is a great tool. I, however, am not a good note-taker. When I tried taking notes during sermons, it was like chasing a bus I could not catch. I wanted to be on board, I could see it in the distance, but I never caught up.
Note-taking is one tool for following the flow of sermons, but if it does not help you, there are other tools in the toolbox. Following the flow of the message is the goal, not note-taking. Having my Bible open and tracking my finger across the text during a sermon helps me follow along. Try some different things and see what works for you.
A brief word to preachers: Work hard to help people follow the flow of your sermon. Stating and repeating the outline of your sermon goes a long way to accomplishing this. It is very rare for me to go hiking. If I do hike, I have a hard time distinguishing the trails from the trees, so I cherish the map. It tells me where I am going, how I get there, and guides me back on the path if I get lost. Your outline provides people with a map.
The mom with small children throwing paper in the back row and the person coming back from the bathroom can get back on the trail if you show them where you are on the map. Stating your outline at the start and restating it throughout the message is like keeping one finger on the map, tracing the trail for people. The clearer you make the path to your destination; the better people can follow you.
I played basketball in high school and into my twenties, but not all that much anymore. My brain, however, always forgets that when I pick up a ball now. In my head, my pull-up jump shot looks like Kobe Bryant. On an actual basketball court, it looks like a dog chasing its tail. As the saying goes—use it or lose it. Just like I lose my basketball talent by not playing regularly, we lose what we learned from Sunday’s sermon by not using it.
Even though we know to be doers and not just hearers of the word (James 1:22), many of us leave a sermon unsure how to apply it. Using what you gain from a sermon for encouraging others is a tangible way of applying the message. Hebrews 3:13 tells Christians, “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Living among brothers and sisters in our church, who put effort into encouraging us, is an incredible gift. Using what you learn from Sunday’s sermon to encourage someone in a conversation, email, text, or phone call is a tangible way we multiply that gift every week. By encouraging you can be a doer of the word every week.
Having a plan to use what we hear from a sermon holds our focus during the message. I paid attention during basketball practice, but not in math class, because I thought (rightly or wrongly) that basketball was useful and math was not. Going into a sermon listening for a word to encourage someone amplifies the usefulness of listening well. You will focus when what you hear is useful. Using every sermon with the goal of encouraging your spiritual family, allows you to train yourself to sit and listen well.
Consider the Joy of Hearing God’s Word
The letters to the seven churches in Revelation conclude with a promise: the one who conquers will receive a reward from Jesus. The phrase connected to each promise shows how Christians conquer, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13 & 22). Jesus strengthens His church to conquer and persevere through the ministry of his word.
The risen Christ walks among the churches (Revelation 2:1), encouraging them by His word to persevere to the end and enjoy all the blessings of being with Him in glory. Sermons are not just a person talking. Sermons are one of the ways in which Jesus encourages His bride, as the Holy Spirit carries the Word of God to the Church. Keep this in mind and be encouraged by Jesus as you sit and listen to Bible-saturated sermons week after week.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Concerned (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2nd Edition 2010) pg. 83.
Scott Hurst pastors at Northminster Baptist Church in Toronto. He enjoys sports, books, and spending time with his wife and their two boys. Keep up with his writing at Write to Understand.