Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

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reprinted from the March 2002 edition of Essentials  

How I listen to sermons

  I've been asked to write a piece on how I listen to sermons. I wish I could say that I read the passage to be preached on ahead of time (at St Jude's, Carlton, we usually have a series of sermons on a book of the Bible, so one knows in advance the reading for Sunday) and memorise key verses. I used to take notes during the sermon. However, now I am the mother of a toddler and a baby, I often listen to sermons quite distractedly! Nevertheless, the following are some of the principles that I try to be guided and shaped by.   Fiona McLean is a member of St Judes
  I try to listen to sermons: Carlton

1. attentively and respectfully

  I think it is only courteous to give a preacher my attention and to listen respectfully and attentively. Furthermore, I value sermons as one of the key ways in which God has provided for his people to be taught and encouraged to live and grow as his people. So when I fidget, or amuse myself by looking up cross-references, or by hunting for a tangential reference, or start wondering what we are going to have for lunch, or whether Anna (newly toilet-trained) needs to go to the potty … then I feel guilty that I am not respecting those who are over me in the Lord (1 Thess. 5:12). To help me concentrate, I try to keep my eyes on the preacher's face. I like to open the Bible to the relevant passage, and read the verses that the preacher is expounding. Where it is provided, I follow the sermon outline. Taking notes is another way of helping me concentrate.  

2. critically

  "Test everything; hold fast what is good" (1 Thess. 5:21). I try to listen critically, with discernment, testing what is said against God's Word, the Bible. Here, some theological study can be helpful, but even good Bible studies in home groups, years of listening to good sermons, or working through a book such as Andrew Reid's Postcard from Palestine can provide a basic overview of the Bible and leave us less vulnerable to the dangers of undue focus on an isolated verse taken out of context, or to misapplication of an Old Testament narrative, for example. I thank God that I belong to a church where the Bible is taught faithfully and in context, but even there I believe that faithful listening means I should not leave my critical faculties behind, but hold the preacher accountable to God's Word. Is the preacher using the text appropriately? How does Jesus fit in? What is the main point of the passage?  
  Furthermore, I try to bear in mind the difference between form and content: a lively, entertaining speaker may preach heresy, while a dull, boring, stuttering preacher may still faithfully expound God's word. Don't be deceived by an attractive presentation! Is the message worth listening to?  
  I also try to differentiate between exegesis and conclusions/application, for an application can be true and helpful, even if the preacher has used questionable exegesis to get to it.  

3. humbly

  The Bible is God's Word to us, and a sermon, when it appropriately expounds God's Word, will be relevant to me and teach me things I need to learn. (I believe that I need to listen humbly even to "dodgy" sermons. God can speak through anyone!) Thus I try to listen to sermons humbly and thoughtfully, trying to work out what I need to repent of (though I am not of the school that believes that a good sermon should inevitably make one feel guilty!), how I should be encouraged or rebuked, what aspect of God's wonderful character I need to realise afresh, what I have to be thankful for, or matters to pray about and how to pray about them. Sometimes listening to a sermon will move me to tears. I find that often there is not an immediate, direct application of the sermon for me, but I hope and trust that God is changing me gradually, in subtle, long-term ways - in terms of the direction I am heading in and my values and priorities, staying on the hard way that leads to salvation (Matt. 7:14), so that, more and more, I will "walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God" (Col. 1:10).  

4. thankfully

  I am very thankful to God for the privilege of listening to great sermons, and thankful for those who faithfully put in the time and effort to prepare sermons. Thank you to those of you who work hard at preaching good sermons!  

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