Sermons are a central feature of the Sunday morning church gathering. Especially in Protestant and Evangelical churches. Whether it lasts for twenty minutes or fifty minutes, no single portion of the morning will be given as much importance or weight. And when done properly, we can understand why, because preaching is meant to be the explanation of God's Word and exhortation of God's people. But unfortunately, there are many barriers to hearing the sermon well.
I am not talking about circumstantial impediments, such as volunteering on a Sunday, loud children or problems with the sound system. The barriers I want to discuss are the ones that hinder you from truly hearing the content of the sermon on Sunday, even when you are able to listen distraction free. When you are sitting in the pew, ready to listen, but you just can't seem engage with the sermon. Or you feel like it isn't having an impact on your life. There is a fog that doesn't seem to lift, and the words are fighting to get through like headlights in the hazy precipitation of your mind, but you leave feeling unchanged and unaffected.
There are many reasons you may find it hard to fully participate in the sermon on Sunday. Too many for me to enumerate here, but allow me to suggest three barriers, that if rightly confronted, may help you engage more this coming week.
When you hear a sermon, hear it for yourself and not your neighbor
We are prone to believe that problems exist more in others and less in ourselves. Sometimes because we are prideful and fail to understand the propensity for sin that exists in our hearts (Jer. 17:9). Or we avoid our own issues, and make ourselves feel better by focusing on the sin of others. Rather than asking ourselves how the sermon will inform our own understanding of God or the way we live, we think about how great it would have been for our friend, neighbor, coworker, spouse or classmate to have heard that sermon. You may even approach your pastor after the service and say something like this to him, "That was a great sermon pastor, I only wish my cousin Suzy would have been able to hear it."
When teenager, Deborah Hatheway, a new believer in Suffield (then part of Massachusetts, now part of Connecticut), wrote a letter to Jonathan Edwards in 1741, she asked for his advice to a young convert. He wrote her a letter with a number of points, and one of them begins like this:
"When you hear sermons hear ‘em for yourself: though what is spoken in them may be more especially directed to the unconverted, or to those that in other respects are in different circumstances from yourself. Yet let the chief intent of your mind be to consider with yourself, in what respects is this that I hear spoken, applicable to me, and what improvement ought I to make of this for my own soul’s good?" (you can read the entire letter here)
The advice was as valuable then as it is now. When you hear a sermon, listen to it for yourself, not your neighbor. There might be good application for others, and it may be given with a different sort of person in mind, but your job is not to hear it for them, but for yourself. Before asking who would benefit from hearing the sermon, ask how you can personally learn and grow from hearing the sermon.
When you hear a sermon, listen for what can be helpful rather than jumping to critique
In the age of podcasts and celebrity pastors, every local pastor gets compared with nationally known pastors and speakers. It is simply not fair to expect your local pastor to give sermons that compare with some of the most gifted and talented preachers in our nation. God has gifted each person in a different way and for a different task, so don't compare your pastor's sermon to the one you heard last week on a podcast by Matt Chandler, Timothy Keller, John Piper, James MacDonald or many others. It isn't helpful to your pastor. And it isn't helpful to you.
If you are wondering why you aren't getting anything out of the sermon, it might be because you are spending the entire time critiquing every word that is said and comparing them to others. Rather than spending the sermon asking yourself what is wrong with it, stop and ask yourself what you can learn and apply from it.
There is a place for critique. And we must be honest, not all sermons are good. But good sermons are often dismissed because they are not great sermons that will go viral. Be careful to not undermine the work God wants to do in you and your church community because you have spent the whole morning being critical. Your pastor probably doesn't need another critic. But he could use another person in his church who is taking God's Word, and their own growth seriously.
When you hear a sermon, find a way to keep your mind attentive
There is a lot happening in life. You have projects to complete, groceries to buy and work to finish. Monday is just around the corner and a new week is on the horizon. When we are listening to the sermon, our minds can wander to many of life's responsibilities. These are often important and necessary things to think about and deal with, but just not during the sermon. Our inability to keep our mind on the subject at hand is a barrier for hearing the content of the sermon.
I have two very practical suggestions. First, take notes. Bring a pen and a notepad, or use the sermon notes page that you are given when you walk through the door. The notes don't have to be extremely detailed, but even creating an outline will help you stay focused. It will help you follow the general argument and progression of the sermon. And it will help you stay focused and attentive.
Second, have a place to write down the important thoughts that pop in your head, which do need to be dealt with eventually. I find it hard to get mental distractions to go away if I don't write them down. I can't let them go, because I don't want to forget to deal with them later. So they hang out in my mind, taking up space and mental energy, crowding out room for me to take in the message of the sermon. If I have somewhere to write down the thoughts that pop up, then I am able to let them go, knowing I will remember to deal with them later. I actually practice a similar habit when I am reading my Bible, praying or having a quiet time.
Be ready this week, to hear the sermon well
There are likely other distractions. If you can think of one that I didn't mention, write it in the comments section below. Otherwise, prepare yourself this week to be more engaged in the sermon content. Be ready to fight the barriers that commonly occur. Be ready to listen to the sermon for yourself and apply it to your life.