In today’s media age, we are constantly bombarded with messages, whether on TV, via our hand-held device or computer, and through a continual onslaught of traditional in-print advertizing. This has caused all of us to be rather selective in our attentions, forcing new-casters and product peddlers to coat their pitches with entertaining stories, visual pleasantries and a pretended informality.
Then we find ourselves on a Sunday morning listening to a sermon. Today’s preachers are forced to compete (at least by subconscious comparison) with talk show hosts, comedians and some of the country’s most creative and talented (and often heretical) preachers, otherwise known as televangelists. Certainly, all of these cultural considerations should demand that preachers take their task even more seriously and work both on improving their content and how they deliver it.
Yet, as Christians, we each have a responsibility to make the most of every sermon we hear. The sermon is an opportunity to explore the themes of Scripture more deeply; to be challenged and comforted by God’s Word, and just maybe, to hear specific instructions for our life by the power of the Holy Spirit. Here are eight suggestions for how you can make the most of every sermon you hear.
First, get a good night’s sleep. It is far easier to focus on the liturgy and to worship our Lord after having had enough rest. Of course, there will be times when we come half-awake to worship merely out of habit and commitment and this is a good thing, but we will have far more ability to take in the sermon and to be alert for the Holy Spirit if we are wide awake.
Second, arrive early and settle in. If you’re in the parenting stage of life arriving early and settling in will be more difficult, though not always impossible. Being there early allows you to breathe and push aside distracting thoughts. When we come late or barely on time it often takes half the service (including the sermon!) for us to clear our minds and give our full attention to what is happening in the liturgy.
Third, review the Scripture readings ahead of time. Some people do this as a personal practice on the Saturday night before worship. This isn’t a bad idea and could be a way for individuals or families to get ready for Sunday worship. More people do this prior to the service which highlights the importance of arriving early.
Fourth, pray. Prayer could be listed along with every other suggestion I’m making in this article. Pray over the readings, pray that you will be awake, pray that God will speak through the preacher to you, and the entire congregation. Pray after the sermon that God would give you the strength to live out its message.
Fifth, stay focused during the sermon. This, as most worshippers know, is not as easy as it sounds. Make an intentional choice not to look at the person walking in or to stare at the baby in the pew ahead of you who is playing with her mother. Depending on your day and how things are going, it’s also easy to just fade away into distant thought or into a sort of trance. Even if the preacher is not engaging, you have a responsibility to listen and hear what God might be saying.
Sixth, talk about the sermon afterwards. This is a good habit to cultivate. Spouses and family members can do this on the ride home, as can friends out a lunch after worship. Knowing you are going to have to talk about the sermon with someone will help your retention considerably. In addition, these sorts of conversations can be spiritually uplifting in themselves and often your conversation partner will have been moved by portions of the sermon you weren’t.
Seventh, on occasion follow up with the preacher about the sermon. Preachers usually receive little meaningful feedback about the sermons they deliver. Following up with the preacher to ask a question or make a comment will help you to digest God’s Word more easily. In addition, you may provide some much needed encouragement to a preacher who is wondering why he or she bothers to spend so much time in preparing sermons that no one responds to.
Eighth, review the sermon later in the week. This would be a good discipline to do mid-week to check how much you remember and more importantly, how well you are living out the message of the sermon in your daily life. You could review your sermon notes (yes some people take these!) or listen to the sermon again via a podcast or a CD made available by the parish. Certainly, a written manuscript would also be helpful, though most sermons are designed to be heard rather than to be read.
By recognizing the importance of the Word of God and by implementing one or more of these suggestions you will be more likely to fulfill the Anglican vision for engagement with Holy Scripture: “Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen“(BCP, 236).