"Great sermon today, pastor. I really appreciated it!" The middle-aged man held a cup of coffee in his left hand as he extended his right to greet the pastor.
"I'm so glad God was at work," the pastor replied. "What was God revealing to you that stood out?"
"Oh, I mean... well, you know... I guess it was... hmmm... I'm not really sure. It's not like I really learned anything new. But it was a good confirmation of what I already know. And I liked that illustration about the duck. That was hilarious."
"Well, praise the Lord, and thank you for the encouragement," the pastor said as the man moves on and the pastor greets the next person waiting to speak to him.
Pretty much every pastor who has ever been brave enough to ask a similar question has had a conversation like this - perhaps many conversations like this. The loving members want to encourage their pastor as they genuinely appreciate the hard work he puts in each week. They really did enjoy the sermon! The pastor is indeed grateful for the encouragement and wants to hear how God is working in the lives of those he is charged to shepherd.
But the conversation also reveals a weakness in the way many churchgoers listen to and interact with sermons. Some listen to learn more about the Bible, others to receive an inspirational or encouraging nugget of truth to get them through the next week, and still others (thankfully relatively few) for entertainment.
However, none of these are the end goal of the preacher who is faithful to both explain and apply the scripture; therefore, they must not be the aim of the listener either. For both the preacher and the hearer of God's word each Sunday, the goal is not the transfer of information but rather the transformation of the heart.
For both the preacher and the hearer of God's word each Sunday, the goal is not the transfer of information but rather the transformation of the heart.
But how does heart transformation happen? Certainly it is a miraculous work of God. Yet both the preacher and hearer must be ready vessels for the Holy Spirit to fill. They must understand how the Holy Spirit intends to work, and cooperate with him in the process.
Romans 12:2 gives us a window into how this works. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, ESV). God intends to renew our minds with his word. In the scriptures, he is giving us the only right perspective on his work in this now-corrupted world. But mind renewal isn't the end goal. God commands us to "be transformed" by this renewal of the mind. He calls us to discern the will of God and walk in it, offering our bodies as a living sacrifice of worship to him.
That's why listening to a sermon is so much more than gaining information or inspiration. Instead, we must submit ourselves to the Holy Spirit's process for transformation every time we find our seat and open our copy of God's word that the preacher will explain and apply.
To listen to a sermon in this way, we can consider the journey of truth that I wrote about in the article, "Total Discipleship." We must actively listen with the expectation that the Lord wants to take the truth being preached from our heads to our hearts to our mouths to our hands and feet.
Listening to Transform Our Heads
Listening to learn and understand truth is not the entire goal of hearing a sermon, but it does have its place. A good expository preacher will take time to explain the scripture in its context. The text cannot mean to us what it did not mean to the original hearers. Without this accurate understanding of the word of God, we cannot rightly see God's intention in a fallen world. We must resist the urge to conform God's word to our world rather than us being conformed to his design. We may or may not learn any new facts, but we can make sure that our understanding of scripture is accurate to the context and that we are rightly interpreting God's word in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ.
As you listen to a sermon, ask, "What does God want me to understand from this passage of scripture?" After the sermon, sit down with your sermon notes and try to explain in your own words the main point of what the passage of scripture is teaching. Also, identify anything you didn’t understand and either listen to that part of the sermon again or ask another mature believer who also listened to the sermon.
Listening to Transform Our Hearts
A good preacher will also seek to illustrate the truths of God's word in a way that helps them find their mark in the heart of his hearers. His goal must not be to manipulate emotions, but he should be concerned that the congregation's affections are appropriately stirred as they see their holy God in all his glory and grace.
A biblical concept of the heart is also more than our emotions and affections. The heart is the operating system for the entire person, combining body and soul - mind, will, and emotions. It is the operating center for our motivations and desires that shape the way we think and act. The Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the word, wants to prevail upon our entire being and have his way in us. Every time we listen to a sermon, we must expect that he is eager to do this work in us.
As you listen to sermons, be sensitive and attentive to the ways that the Holy Spirit is moving in your heart. Is he bringing conviction? Is he causing celebration? Is he calling you to any acts of obedience? I would recommend developing the habit of writing these things that capture your heart into your sermon notes. Then come back and reflect, not just on the fact, but on these movements of the Spirit upon your heart. Submit and surrender to him.
Listening to Transform Our Mouths
When we listen to a sermon, the congregation mostly silent while only one person talks (aside from the very welcome "Amens" and "Preach it!" exclamations that some people let out!). This type of extended listening is a forgotten art. However, when the sermon is over and the work in our heads and our hearts has taken place, it is time to open our mouths and put words to what God has done in us. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45).
This is something that takes practice as the scene at the beginning of this post demonstrates. It can be difficult to put words to the internal work of the Spirit, but I am convinced that the more we learn to do it, the more we will learn to preach these truths to ourselves and others again and again, and the more we will stay faithful to applying them. We want to be like rivers that the living water of God's truth runs through, not lakes where it sits stagnantly.
In the process of listening and reflecting afterward, consider, "What will you share about what God was doing in your head and heart that will encourage and edify others?" This could be in your sermon discussion at Gospel Community, and/or in other meaningful relationships with believers and non-believers alike. Listening to a sermon with the expectation to pass it on will change the way you listen.*
Listening to transform our hands/feet
A faithful preacher will offer suggestions for application. There is no way he can be exhaustive in these exhortations, but neither are they arbitrary. He has prayed and thought deeply about how this word could affect the daily lives of the whole congregation, and the hearers should do the same.
James instructs us, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:22–25, ESV)
The goal of Sunday preaching is Monday-through-Saturday living. The aim is not merely to hear a sermon and fulfill a religious duty or have a momentary spiritual experience. Rather, the aim of hearing a sermon is to be affected to such a degree that we begin living the sermon. What if you expected every sermon you heard to directly affect your outlook in the following week and to change the way you acted in each situation? How much growth would you see week after week?
As you listen to a sermon, think through situations where you must act on what the Lord was doing in your heart. Consider others in your sphere of influence who you can disciple in these truths even as you work them out yourself. Consider the ways these truths affect your ministry to others in the church and your evangelism to those outside the church.
In this, don't allow yourself to generalize. Get specific. Think of temptations you commonly face and responses you typically have. Look and pray for opportunities to apply the truth of God's word in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Putting it all together
As you listen to a sermon, keep this entire "journey of truth" in your mind. To help you, our provided sermon notes have application questions that reflect this pattern each week. Our Gospel Communities also discuss the sermon in this way, and it will be most helpful if you listen to the sermon prepared to discuss. If you miss a sermon, or you want to reflect on it further, they are all available on our media page.
Lean into what the Holy Spirit wants to do to transform you week after week. If you yield to his work and allow the scriptures to complete this full journey every single week, I guarantee you will see significant spiritual growth over time.
Imagine if every person in our church were this tuned into God's word - what could God do in and through his people? How much glory would he receive from us and from those who would come to know him through us? May that be our aim in listening and living!
*(Note: In this, I'm not talking about listening to apply the sermon to someone else before applying it to your own heart. First, take the log out of your own eye, and then you will be able to rightly assess the speck in your brothers' eye).