How to Listen to a Sermon

Before you read on, please watch the video above, starting at minute 19 and go to about minute 23. This is from Howard Hendrick’s memorial service. Howard was a longtime professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, a pastor, and an author. This is his son, giving an important recollection of how his dad listened to sermons.

OK. Read on.

One of my commitments is that I share the pulpit. There are two reasons. One, I believe that a big part of  my role is to raise up pastors, so sharing the pulpit means enabling other pastors to develop as preachers. Two, I think it is a better thing for a church not to be built around one man, even if that means we don’t grow as fast or as big. In the longterm, I think it creates a healthier church with a more long term benefit to the kingdom. There are implications to this. One is that a congregation must learn to listen to men of varying degree of ability, style, and experience as preachers. There is a sacrifice, in other words. But, it is worthwhile, given my two guiding principles.

That is some context to what I am about to say. I hope this is a helpful reflection, and not a rant, but I admit it comes as a response. People have been giving me feedback. I guess I should take it as a compliment but it is also disturbing. Some folks, and it may just be a few overall, are struggling to engage some of the other preachers for one reason or another. Now, that is OK. Nothing wrong so far. Here is what discourages me. I have been told said people “check out”, on principle, once a certain preacher conveys a less than desirable signal, mostly by way of tone, body language, and/or simply their rhetorical style and ability level to date. I asked said people if there was anything wrong with content. Was anything unbiblical or heterodox? “No” was the response. In fact, usually said preachers were commended for being Biblically and theologically precise. So, here is what discouraged me. Good people, who love the Lord, and…who know better…decide to check out if the communication style is not amenable.

Now, let me say it again, there is nothing wrong with struggling with the communication style or ability of a preacher. Certain styles evoke certain emotions given the listener, the cultural orientation of the society, the relationship between speaker and audience, and a whole bunch of other factors. The question then becomes, should that ever be a reason for “checking out”? My emphatic answer, and I say this out of love, is NO! Let me put it another way: if a sermon is Biblically based, and therefore teaching God’s truth, one is accountable and responsible to listen, to submit, and to apply the teaching, as God’s word.

So, how does one get to that point as a sermon listener? Let me give you some suggestions:

1. Believe that the most important thing about a sermon is that it is Biblical.

Homiletics is important. Content is so much more important. Please come prepared to take in content first and foremost. Let strong communication be the icing on the cake, but not what you depend upon. The most important part of evaluation is “is this guy getting the text right?” If the preacher is doing something that can improve his ability to communicate, take note of it by all means, but don’t check out unless the sermon can rightly be called a sermon of man’s thoughts, not God’s.

2. Talk with the preacher in a loving way if there are things that can improve his preaching.

OK, so you are struggling with the dude’s style at the pulpit. But, you listened to his content and you grew by God’s grace because truth was spoken. Come and talk to him, and do it out of love because you want to see him grow. In other words, just as you don’t check out from a sermon, don’t write off a man. Love him. Desire for him to thrive. Talk with him. Be gentle, and desire to serve him as one of your pastors.

3. Know that the teaching team at the Bible church strives for excellence and growth.

Our staff is committed to excellence, and where we are not excellent we want to change and grow. From building appearance, to signage, to guest experience, to the heat of the building, to overall communication, to preaching, we want to grow. No one is being shoddy on purpose. Every Wednesday morning the teaching team gathers and reviews the previous sermon and helps the preacher who will preach the next Sunday prepare for that sermon. We are hard on each other. Probably harder than you will ever be. But, sometimes we are not as sensitive to certain things and that is why we need to hear from you. Just know we care about meeting you where you are at, short of compromising Biblical values. All we ask is that you commit yourself to being an excellent listener on your end.

4. Please gain perspective.

Sometimes when all you have driven recently is a BMW and most people around you drive BMWs, you forget that most of the world drives entry level compacts. In fact, you forget that a Honda Accord is a great car. Then, you feel entitled to the performance and door fit of a BMW and get peeved when you rent a cheap compact, and it’s an American car to boot. What am I getting at? Friend, the least developed preacher on our team is better than most regular Sunday preachers in this country. It’s just that you are used to “big church” world where we have really nice buildings, and big budgets, and cool media, and really gifted communicators. That’s all good. Hey, this is who we are but just don’t forget that this is not normal. As we allow other preachers to develop and as we commit to the Bible church not being the Jay Thomas show, please realize you are not really making a very big sacrifice. Really. Truth. Promise. Get perspective!

5. Be Thankful.

Finally, realize what you have. You have a group of godly pastors, who love Jesus, who love you, and who love the Word of God, and they are doing their best to bring God’s word to your life so you can see Jesus in all his glory and be transformed by his marvelous grace. Are we all there yet as communicators? No. But, we generally bring a Biblically faithful message to you every week. Please be thankful for that. Don’t focus on how one dude does this or that or the tone in his voice. Talk with him. Help him. But don’t check out. Let me be super blunt. I think the devil might be getting a foothold. If you read The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, by checking out in a sermon due to stylistic reasons, you are falling into a huge satanic trap. Be thankful. That is an impenetrable armor for satanic attack.

6. OK, one more: strive to have an intrinsically motivated love for God’s Word that needs little coddling.

One thing that struck me about Howard Hendrick’s sons testimony is that Howie, as he was called, loved God’s Word. Period. He believed it was a gift from God above. Yes, it is great to have an anointed preacher, but if you love God’s word, intrinsically, you will never hear a bad sermon if that sermon is a proclamation of the Bible. Seriously. You won’t. Try it!

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1 Comment

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One response to “How to Listen to a Sermon

  1. hank

    Powerful video and followup by you. I think these are all wise thoughts and
    we DO love God’s Word, though not worship it–only its Author.

    SUGGESTION: try in some way to get out to the fellowship what is the main Biblical portion for the coming Sunday by Wed. Now with the Rooted series, we should know what is coming next, but maybe not the main verses. This would give a chance for us’ns to study BEFORE the pastor shares which I believe Howie would concur is important!!

    Howie once came to CHBC for weekend lecture series in the late 70s and it was powerful. He also was mighty fun to be around as we ate together, etc.

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