How to Listen to a Sermon — Even When It’s Hard

By Heather Smith

October is Pastor Appreciation Month, and it is not hard to come up with reasons to be grateful for our undershepherds. These men give their lives to serve us in God’s House every week, bringing us Christ in His Word and Sacraments. They care for us and our families at every stage of life, and are on call at all hours of the day and night. Most importantly, they deliver to us forgiveness, life and salvation by Christ’s command.

But what if you find — for whatever reason — that it is hard to appreciate your pastor, and particularly his preaching? Maybe you have a brood of young Lutherans making it nigh impossible to listen to more than two minutes of anything. Maybe you are dealing with spiritual struggles that are rubbed raw by the preached Word. Or maybe somehow you and your pastor just don’t “click.” His sermons are too complex … or too simplistic. He preaches too much Law … or too much Gospel. He preaches too long. (Well, no one ever complains about his sermons being too short, do they?) He mumbles or stutters or has an accent or rambles or gestures repetitively or possesses any host of distracting quirks that make it tempting to grumble about him and his sermons.

Is there anything to be done in those times when you habitually come to church and leave feeling that you did not get anything out of it? In fact, making a few changes in how you listen to your pastor’s sermon may yield a surprising increase in your personal takeaways from the Sunday sermon.

1. Put away distractions —Prepare to listen by stowing anything that could unnecessarily draw your attention. Turn off phones, obviously, but also slip off your watch if you wear one. Make sure the bulletin announcements are not tempting you to glance over them during the sermon. In the Divine Service, eternity comes down to meet us, and it is right that our time-bound worries be set aside so we, like Mary, can rest at Jesus’ feet, listening to His words for us (Luke 11:42).

2. Meditate on the text —If you have time before the service, read through the lessons for the week to prepare your mind for what you may hear preached. If you cannot manage that, keep the readings handy during the sermon to reference as your pastor brings them into his sermon.

3. Take notes —Help your mind focus by jotting the main points you hear. Note-taking can help reveal a structure that is hard to pick out by listening alone. Do not be distracted trying to make a full transcription; aim for main points. Even if your endeavors in note-taking result in what seems to you a jumble of thoughts, it will at least give you a record to help review the sermon and see what points strike your heart and mind.

4. “Highlight” Law and Gospel —Use the classic Lutheran distinction to help guide your listening. What are the main points of Law brought out of the text? How is the Gospel applied once we are convicted by that Law? If you’ve taken notes, you might actually go back through at a later time and literally highlight Law in one color and Gospel in another. Keep in mind, though, that your pastor should distinguish Law and Gospel not necessarily balance them. Some sermons will tilt more heavily toward Law and others toward Gospel, and we need both!

5. Listen for just one takeaway —On the other hand, if you are legitimately distracted during the sermon by the likes of the toddler crawling under the adjacent pew and the preschooler with crayon poised over the open hymnal, you can acknowledge that not all seasons of life allow for written notes and mental analysis. Guess what? It is fine to get just one thing out of a sermon. Yes, just one! If more in-depth listening techniques are overwhelming, rejoice in the fact that a sermon is a banquet of spiritual instruction, and if you can only grab and savor one morsel, that is still rich food for the soul. In times when the mind cannot handle more, limit yourself to listening for one takeaway that you will ponder in your heart throughout the week.

6. Let the hymns preach to you —What about those times when you miss the sermon entirely because of your children’s needs, or when you feel that the whole sermon was a miss for you for whatever reason? Meditate on the words of one or more of the day’s hymns. Your pastor picked these hymns to reflect the themes of the day, and they serve as an extension of the sermon. If you have a hymnal at home, you can reflect upon the hymns during the week as well.

7. Know that the liturgy is your failsafe —If there are days when you feel you simply cannot hear God’s Word through the preaching of your pastor, rest your heart in the surety of the liturgy. Unlike American Evangelicalism, in which the worship service ramps up to the sermon as the high point, Lutheran liturgical worship has a second pinnacle in the Eucharist. Hear the absolution proclaimed and know that it pronounces your sins forgiven. Come to the Lord’s Table and eat His body and blood as the food of eternity that will strengthen you now and unto life everlasting. There is never a Sunday when you “did not get anything out of the service.” You are given forgiveness, salvation and eternal life every week!

8. Talk with others (positively) about the sermon —Review the main ideas of the sermon, share your top takeaway, ask honest questions, or compare perspectives with others to help solidify your own understanding. Chat with your family on the car ride home, or make a standing coffee date with a friend on Monday mornings. Hold each other accountable to speak in the spirit of the Eighth Commandment and to steer away from grumbling and complaining (Phil. 2:14). If points of the sermon still perplex or bother you, make an appointment to talk to your pastor and seek further explanation.

9. Pray for your pastor —Just as the devil attacks you, trying to convince you that it is impossible to listen to your pastor’s sermons, so he attacks your pastor, trying to convince him that he is an unworthy preacher who cannot speak to his flock’s needs. Pray that Christ would defend your pastor against such demonic attacks. Implore the Holy Spirit to give him insight into the Word, as well as to guide him while he writes his sermon. On Sunday mornings, find the collect “for blessing on the Word” in the front of the hymnal and pray it earnestly.

10. Remember that the Holy Spirit is preaching to you through your pastor —Despite all appearances, the interaction between preacher and hearers is much more than one man speaking and a group of others listening. The Holy Spirit is truly active and present wherever the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity (SC, Lord’s Prayer, 1st Petition), and He seeks through this Word to guide us so that we as the children of God may lead holy lives here in time and ultimately with Christ in eternity (SC, Lord’s Prayer, 2nd Petition). No matter what you feel as you listen to the sermon, it is truly God’s Word for you, and it has the power to do great things.

Learning to listen in new ways may reveal depths of counsel and wisdom you had previously missed in your pastor’s preaching. This does not mean you will never again feel frustration with his sermons, but when we humble ourselves to become better hearers of the Word rather than grumbling about why our pastor cannot be a better preacher, the devil is the one who fumes in frustration.

God Himself has placed you as His sheep in your specific congregation. Likewise, He chose your pastor to be His undershepherd in this time and place. That is to say, God knew that He was giving you this particular man to be your pastor, and He saw that it was good. Christ did not leave you as a sheep without a shepherd, but had compassion and sent His chosen man to feed you with His Word and Sacraments. If that isn’t something worth appreciating, what is?

3 thoughts on “How to Listen to a Sermon — Even When It’s Hard”

  1. Some very good suggestions. As a retired pastor I tend to be more critical in all the areas you mention.
    I do practice the points you mention & it helps.
    I think it also helps if the text is noted. Maybe even include an outline in a special insert in the bulletin for note taking.
    When the sermon is read
    That requires special attention by the pastor.

  2. This is a wonderful article. I am sometimes distracted but I am very grateful for the printed copies of the sermon. I take great comfort in the hymns and the liturgy. We all have different gifts and I am grateful for all the different gifts of the pastors we have had over the years.

  3. John J. Flanagan

    Sometimes it troubles me how casual the sermon is viewed by many Christians. I have been to services at other denominations, besides the LCMS, in the past, and noted that even churches which provided Bibles and hymnals in the pews often relied on overheads and screens up front instead. Some churches do not even have Bibles in the pews at all. It promotes laziness, in my view. There are serious churches in which members always bring their personal Bibles, and actually take notes during the sermon. I may be old fashioned, but this is the approach that works the best….if one is diligent about feeding on the word of God. Accompanied by expository teaching, with a message at least 30 minutes in duration….this in my view is the right approach. Soli Deo Gloria

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