Last week, we discussed how we can prepare for worship. We said that the effective worshiper will engage in the daily tasks of cultivating self-awareness and of focusing on God, and we said that the effective worshiper will offer her or his worship as part of a life of spiritual discipline.
This week, we will discuss how we can prepare for preaching. We are not, of course, talking about the process of preparing to preach. We are talking about what we need to do in order to receive preaching well.
Believe it or not, preachers are not the only ones who need to prepare for their sermons. Those who hear their words also need to prepare so that they can be wise and effective listeners. Here are three habits that will help you be a better listener.
Not surprisingly, the most important thing that you can do to prepare for your pastor’s sermons is to pray. It is obviously important to ask God to help your pastor preach well and to ask God to help you be a good listener. After all, God is the only real source of power that a preacher has, and God is the only One who can open your ears to hear what He wants to say through your pastor.
What you pray about, however, is not the only important thing about your prayer life. Indeed, the “what” of your prayers may be less important than the simple fact that you pray. That is because prayer is the way that we connect with God. As such, prayer allows God to interact with us on a regular basis and gives us practice in hearing and obeying His voice. So, the more you pray, the more that you will be prepared to hear God’s voice when Scripture is preached.
Second, it is important that you think on a regular basis about difficult and important issues. A sermon is a unique social phenomenon in our culture. Where else, besides in academic settings, do people voluntarily gather to hear someone present a monologue about anything—much less a piece of writing that is two thousand years (or more) old? And even if a gathering of this sort does take place, how many people expect to hear from God through what is presented?
But this is exactly what we are doing when we gather for a sermon. And listening to such a presentation—to say nothing of evaluating it, digesting it, and applying it to some real-world situation—takes a good deal of mental effort. The best way that we can prepare for such an arduous mental task is by giving our brains regular workouts.
Unfortunately, American evangelicals have not always been very comfortable with or good at thinking. It can be scary to think. We discover lots of ambiguities in the world, and lots of uncertainties in our own minds, when we begin to think. And too many of us are afraid of ambiguity and uncertainty, so we pretend that it does not exist.
But one of the jobs of a preacher is to dispel our illusions of certainty so that God can be at work precisely at those points that make us the most anxious. And, a preacher must help us unlearn some bad mental habits so that we can have a more accurate view of God, ourselves, and the world in which we live. But our preacher cannot do that task effectively if we are unable to join him (or her) on a journey into the unknown.
Third, you need to cultivate a habit of regular reading. Obviously, you need to read the Bible. You will be better equipped to understand what your pastor is talking about if you already have a good understanding of the big story told in Scriptures and of the little stories that make up that big story.
But reading the Bible is not the only reading that you need to do if you are going to be the best sermon hearer that you can be. You need to read other things, articles and especially books of high quality. These materials can be about things that interest you; that will encourage you to keep reading. But they should always contribute to your knowledge of God’s world (or, in the case of fiction, to your ability to imagine how other people think, feel, and live).
There are two ways in which this kind of reading helps us be better sermon hearers. First, reading gives us practice in following a complex argument. Every sermon that we hear should make a thoughtful, carefully crafted argument. Unfortunately, it is no longer second-nature for us to work our way through these kinds of arguments. Our world lives on tweets and sound-bites. So, we have to practice working our way through an argument that has multiple stages and pulls together multiple concepts. Reading helps us get that practice.
A second way that reading facilitates good sermon listening is that it builds our knowledge base. Sermons are meant to inspire, but they are also meant to inform. Preachers are better able to communicate truth and illustrate how it impacts our daily lives when they can have confidence that the audience actually knows what they are talking about.
Moreover, sermons work best when they are a dialogue between the preacher and the audience. The preacher presents her or his reading of a particular text, and the audience responds by bringing its own matrix of knowledge and experience to bear on what the preacher has presented. A well-read audience can expand the persuasive power and the real-life applicability of a sermon by augmenting the preacher’s work with its own insights. A well-read audience is also better equipped to spot any evidentiary deficiencies or logical flaws that may emerge in the preacher’s presentation and is better able to suggest more appropriate ways of handling a text or topic.
A Closing Note
It may not seem very creative to say that people should pray, think, and read in order to prepare for the sermons they hear. But so much of the Christian life is about doing the hard, monotonous, inglorious work of daily devotion to Jesus and daily discipline of the self. And this work is especially important for laypersons whose church is organized on the basis of what is usually called “congregational” polity.
You see, in congregationally led churches, the members of the church are themselves ultimately responsible for what is preached from their pulpit. They make the ultimate decision on who will be their shepherd and what will be expected of that person. It is a heavy responsibility.
The steps we have outlined in this essay are important for all who follow Jesus. However, they are especially important for those who have a direct say in the affairs of their congregation. They are the only way that a congregation can be a responsible guardian of their church’s ministry and reputation.