Listen up, members: How to hear a sermon for all it’s worth
According to a recent Gallup survey, three out of four churchgoers say the sermon is a major factor in why we attend. Yet, we have all experienced moments when the message seems to pass by us. Sometimes we catch our minds wandering during the sermon. Other times we cannot recall the main point of the message on Monday morning. A few tips can enable us to listen more effectively.
There’s a grammar to a good sermon. In his book The Four Pages of the Sermon, author and professor Paul Scott Wilson teaches preachers the “parts of speech” that help bring out the deepest meaning of the message. Listening for them helps us engage the sermon more fully.
Drilling without novocaine
A good sermon needs to confront fearlessly the brokenness in or behind the Bible passage. A friend once described this part of the sermon as “drilling without novocaine.”
1. Trouble in the Text. Listen for the painful problem. Every strong sermon will want us to grasp the brokenness or suffering that’s going on in the Bible passage being preached. A good preacher will explore and make vivid the trouble caused by a dangerous ruler, a devastating famine, an unhealed disease, a selfish neighbor, or an unjust society.
I once heard a sermon on Joseph from Matthew 1:18-25, for example, which explained the abuse Joseph faced by choosing to stand by Mary. He not only met ridicule for a pregnant fiancée that he hadn’t touched, he also defied the Scriptural commandment to have Mary stoned. His was a difficult road too. Study plus imagination can help you, the hearer, grasp this.
One of the four major components of a good sermon is this naming the painful underside of the passage. Listen for it.
2. Trouble in Our World. Listen for how the preacher links that ancient problem to today. The sermon isn’t a lecture about 2000 year-old dilemmas and historical crises. It should link the Biblical world with our own, so that we will be confronted with our identical faithlessness, trouble and injustice. The gospel won’t feel like Good News to us if we’re unaware of any bad news among us, or within us.
That Joseph sermon brought Joseph’s dilemma into today. In hearing that sermon I was reminded of the ways I teased long-ago classmates because of their skin condition, speech problems, and reputation. The preacher convicted me that I was complicit in the bad news of human sinfulness. Making that connection is important.
In the rest of the sermon, listen for the reversal of the “bad news.” After announcing the trouble, the pastor will proclaim the unexpected good news of Jesus in the Bible passage and for our world.
3. Good News in the Text. Almost every sermon includes the announcement of God’s power acting in our world. Your preacher should name what God (or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit) actually did: healed, forgave, created, united, strengthened. Listen for the turnaround, the surprising pivot from trouble to grace, in the sermon.
This is obviously the most important section to listen for, the heart of every sermon. Without it, we’re left either with an analysis of society or a pep talk: “Go out there and try harder!” With it, you’re hearing grace-filled God-given news.
In a sermon on Joseph, the preacher might say, “But God gave Joseph the courage to endure ridicule,” or “God helped Joseph remain faithful to his call.” This is Good News—that God strengthened his faithful but beleaguered servant to stand for kindness, faithfulness and integrity.
4. Good News in our World. The final listening challenge is to hear how God is still acting in the world today. God (or Jesus or the Spirit) didn’t stop doing this holy work 2000 years ago. The preacher can inspire hope by showing us ways that God is still working in our society today.
This is often best done in stories. In the Joseph sermon I recall, we were told of a man who was being cajoled into being a “team player” and participating in a scheme to bilk his company. The pressure was strong. But he replied, “Guys, I just can’t do that. I’m a Baptist.” That took courage—God-given courage.
Many good sermons omit a component of “sermon grammar” and still convey powerful meaning. But if you listen for how these aspects are (or are not) included in the message, you might hear clearer declarations of the awesome Word of God.
*The Rev. Larry Buxton is a retired elder in the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Faculty Director of the Course of Study at Wesley Theological Seminar, and a clergy coach.
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