Guest post: How to listen to your pastor’s sermons
Copyright by Larry D. Robertson
(Dr. Larry Robertson is pastor of Hilldale Baptist Church, Clarksville, Tennessee. He writes with humor and wisdom on how to listen to your pastor’s sermons.)
Recently I had all our kiddos with me, and we were leaving the 11:00 service. (I had parked on the back side of our church’s Family Life Center.) One of the boys asked, “Are there any snakes out here?” to which I replied, pointing to the driver’s side of the car, “There are no snakes on *this* side of the vehicle.” Immediately, two boys started tip-toeing and watching the ground on their side very closely.
When we got into the car and headed to lunch, one of the boys sitting on the passenger’s side asked, “Were there really snakes on our side of the car?” I said, “Who told you there were snakes on your side of the vehicle?” He said, “You did.” I said, “I never told you there were snakes on your side of the car. I said there were no snakes on *my* side.” LOL!
I know, I know—I can almost hear some of you saying my name reprovingly, including my middle name, like my Momma used to do when I was in trouble. But we all had a good laugh about it…and a discussion about putting words into another person’s mouth.
We pastors are often surprised by what people *think* we say in sermons. Fortunately, I have recordings of my sermons and my sermon notes to say, “This is what I said, and this is what I meant to say…” but that doesn’t necessarily change people’s opinion of what they think they heard. More often than you might imagine, people will hear a preacher say something—hear it through a filter of pain, past experiences, or presupposition—and read into the preacher’s sermon words that he never said or intended…and then get offended at the imaginary sermon!
Are we preachers capable of getting our tangues tungled? No doubt. Committing faux pas? Absolutely. Preaching almost a whole sermon with Jacob and Esau mixed up in the message? Been there, done that. But most preachers I know really do want to handle the Word of God well as faithful stewards and messengers.
May I offer some suggestions when listening to your pastor break the bread of life, especially when what he says makes you feel uncomfortable?
1st, PRAY FOR HIM. Really, pray for your pastor as he prepares and then stands to deliver the message God has given life to in his heart. A diligent preacher will labor in prayer and the Word many hours to preach a single message. Multiply that by the number of sermons he has to prepare in a week’s time (usually 2-3, sometimes more), along with all the other ministry responsibilities a pastor has. And don’t forget your pastor’s family (if he’s married)!
Preaching is hard. Kudos to the preachers who make it look easy, but even they will tell you that preaching is hard work. Pray for your pastor.
2nd, GIVE HIM THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. I know that sounds trivial, but it really isn’t. If something the preacher says makes you go, “Huh?” maybe he committed a gaffe. Or maybe, just maybe, what you think you heard is not what he said.
A man in my home church told his wife on the way out of worship one Sunday night that he had a problem with what our pastor said in his sermon. It really bothered him. His wife asked what he was talking about, and he said, “…the part about God wanting to give us a new wife. I don’t want a new wife; I love you.” The wife had to laugh; the pastor had said that God wanted to give us a new *life,* not wife!
Don’t assume the worst about your pastor; give him the benefit of the doubt. It really will make a difference in what you hear when he preaches.
3rd, BE VERY CAREFUL ABOUT WANTING A PASTOR WHO ONLY TELLS YOU WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR. If your beliefs and worldview are never challenged or stretched from the pulpit, your pastor is either not preaching the whole counsel of God or you’re not listening.
Most pastors know when they’re preaching uncomfortable or unpopular topics. But know this—your pastor cares for your soul (Hebrews 13:17). That’s why he’s willing to risk offending you to speak truth into your life; He’s accountable to God for what He preaches. So, beware of itching ears.
4th, BE MERCIFUL WHEN HE DOESN’T LIVE UP TO ALL YOUR EXPECTATIONS. Unless you’ve been in a pastor’s shoes (or perhaps a pastor’s family), you have no idea of the spiritual warfare that comes with being a pastor. No pastor wants to show his vulnerabilities to the sheep God has entrusted him to shepherd. But know this—he has them…we all do. We have our doubts, and we have our struggles. But God’s grace is sufficient to keep fighting the good fight. And on that note, you never really know the battles your pastor’s fought to bring that Word to you come Sunday. So, show him some mercy when he doesn’t live up to the performance of your favorite podcast pastor, who, incidentally, may very well have professional speech writers on his staff to craft his sermons. No kidding.
And finally, PARTICIPATE IN THE PREACHING EVENT BY ACTIVELY LISTENING. But don’t stop there: “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).
Nothing causes the Word to take root and bear fruit like obedience. In fact, you’d be shocked at the difference in your spirit and life between simply hearing a sermon and living one. Jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker used to say, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”
Of course, you’ve got to be present to participate. Gathering with God’s people, worshipping in one accord, hearing a Word from God…these are all part of what it means to be God’s church. So, don’t rob yourself by your absence or neglect when God’s Word is preached.
Your pastor is not perfect. But he’s not necessarily wrong just because he says something you don’t like any more than he’s right just because you agree. I offer these suggestions to enhance the relationship you have with your pastor and his preaching.
Am I biased? Perhaps. But do you remember the famous tagline from the old Hair Club for Men commercial? “I’m not just the president of Hair Club for Men, I’m also a client!” Well, I’m not just a preacher, I’m also a disciple—a learner—in need of the Word of God being spoken into my life, too.
Five ways to keep people from tuning out your preaching
Article copyright by Bob Rogers
Just because a person is in the pew doesn’t mean he or she will listen. How do you keep them from tuning out? Here are five ways:
1. Be creative. “It’s a sin to make the word of God boring.” So said one of my seminary professors. I agree. If the congregation knows that every sermon will have the traditional “three points and a poem,” they may tune you out simply because you are predictable. Why not try a different approach from time to time? If the passage is primarily a story, consider telling the story dramatically. If the text seems to have two main points or five main points, why not preach a sermon with that many points? If the passage is poetry, consider using music or other art to illustrate the text. Jim Burnett gives more advice on how to be creative in your preaching here.
2. Speak their language. Sometimes people tune us out because we aren’t speaking to their mindset. Failing to do so is like speaking in English to a French audience. Many women tire of constant illustrations from sports, and the well-educated and young people especially tune out statements that come across as judgmental or condescending. The best way to speak the mindset of your congregation is to know your people. Spending time with them, listening to their stories and opinions, and learning about their hobbies and interests, can make all the difference in the pastor’s preaching. The preacher does not have to agree with them; in fact, sometimes he will need to challenge their thinking, but if he knows them and has earned their trust, he can speak in a way that they will listen. Along these lines, the staff of Facts and Trends have compiled a useful article on how to engage nine different kinds of people with the Bible in this article.
3. Make messages on stewardship positive. One of the most challenging topics for ministers to discuss is stewardship. I have found it useful to do a stewardship emphasis by giving short talks on principles of giving early in the service, and then preach the main sermon on a different subject. This touches on stewardship, yet takes away the excuse that “all the church does is talk about money.” It is also important to keep the subject positive, praising and thanking those who give, and talking about the great ministry of the church that people want to support with their offerings. Todd McMichen has some helpful hints on stewardship messages here.
4. Learn how to defend the faith. Many preachers and teachers recognize the need for apologetics (defending the faith), but often feel inadequate doing it. When you prepare a sermon, stop and think what objections people may have. How might a non-believer or person from a different faith background disagree? Write down the questions of your imaginary skeptic. Then seek to give a reasonable answer to the objections of that imaginary person. A great resource is The Apologetics Study Bible, which has notes right in the text to answer objections of skeptics and explain responses to non-Christian interpretations of scripture. This article by Andy McLean should help, as well.
5. Preach with passion. Passionate preaching is not about using a loud voice; in fact, it may be a low voice. Passionate preaching is from heart-felt conviction. When the congregation can feel that you are deeply convinced of what you are saying, they will be impacted by the Spirit of God. This comes from being personally moved by God by the scripture, and bathing the matter in prayer. That is why there is no substitute for much study and soul-searching prayer in preparation for the sermon.
Book review: “Preaching By The Book: Developing and Delivering Text-Driven Sermons”
R. Scott Pace, professor of preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written this concise, but thorough, manual on how to preach expository sermons.
The chapters are structured — like many sermons– with alliterated titles, under three main parts (The Foundation, The Framework, The Finishing Touches), and chapters under those parts (Inspiration, Investigation, Interpretation, Implementation, Introductions, Illustrations, Invitations, Conclusion). However, a better way to understand this book is found on page 18, where he gives a chart of a seven-step process of sermon development. The rest of the book fleshes out the skeleton of these seven steps. As an experienced preacher myself, I can testify that this is a very helpful, balanced, and Biblical approach. It is helpful because it is practical and applicable. It is balanced between theory and practice, and balanced in cautioning against extremes (such as not using too few or too many illustrations). It is consistently affirmed with Biblical reasons and quotations. The only major omission I noticed was no discussion whatsoever of Bible translations, which is a dilemma for many preachers.
Given the brevity of this book (115 pages of text), I was surprised at how much it covered. He does not go into great detail, yet he covers every important topic in the sermon process. He gives sufficient information and examples where needed, such as on page 62, where he gives a sample outline of a text. He frequently gives practical advice, as on page 15 where he advises the rule of thumb that the preacher dress one degree more formal than his listeners, and on page 106 where he suggests a preacher give those responding to the invitation one word to say as they come forward, to cope with their nervousness.
Overall, this can be an excellent textbook for a class on preaching (supplemented by a professor’s assignments of practicing sermon writing and delivery), a primer for a new preacher, and a tune-up for the seasoned preacher.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from B & H Bloggers. I was not obligated to write a positive review.
My top 5 blog posts in 2017
In case you missed them, here are the top five blog posts that I wrote in 2017, in order of how many reads they received. Click on each link to read the post:
Why we need sermons on the wrath of God
Article copyright by Bob Rogers
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” – Romans 1:18, ESV
A subject preachers avoid
Many preachers like to talk about God’s love and kindness and say virtually nothing about God’s judgment. So when people see references to God’s wrath, they often get a picture of a primitive tribe in the jungle that thinks it has to sacrifice somebody to appease their angry God. Yet there it is in Romans 1:18. “The wrath of God is being revealed…” Has God lost his temper?
Apparently even the apostle Paul was aware of this kind of thinking, because in Romans 3:5 he asks, “What shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us?”
Is wrath unworthy of God?
So is wrath unworthy of God? No, not at all. When the Bible talks about God’s wrath, it is referring to His just anger, much as we have justified outrage when we hear about the abuse of a child. Our problem is that we are comfortable with sin that God, in His holiness, finds offensive. But God’s wrath is never vindictive, nor is He an angry monster. God’s wrath is something people choose, and God uses. Let me explain what I mean.
God gave them up
After mentioning the wrath of God in Romans 1:18, we read this phrase three times in verses 25, 26 and 28: “God gave them up” or “God gave them over.” What does this mean to say “God gave them up”? Does it mean God gave up on sinners? No, C.S. Lewis explained it well, when he said that basically, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who say to God “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God will say, “thy will be done.” Because when we refuse to obey God, God gives us over to the consequences of our sin.
Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 5:5 the purpose of God giving us over to the consequences of our sin, “hand this man over to Satan, so the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.”
The purpose of God’s wrath
God knows that if we suffer the consequences of our sin, in order that we, like the prodigal son, will hit rock bottom, realize we have nowhere else to turn, and cry out to God for salvation. And that is when we understand our need for the gospel of Jesus Christ. The ultimate purpose of God’s wrath is to show us our need for the Savior.
Once I met a man at the gym, who told me his testimony of how he was a mean man, who drank and gambled and mistreated his wife and children. I asked him what happened, and he said he lost it all. His wife left him and took the children, and he hit bottom. That’s when he trusted in Jesus Christ, when he had nothing left and he realized his need for God. You could say that God gave him up. But the result was for his good, and for his salvation. That’s good news!
When you’re “not getting fed” by the pastor’s sermons
Article copyright by Bob Rogers.
A few days ago, an employee at the hospital where I work as a chaplain stopped me to complain about his pastor’s sermons. He said, “I’m thinking about leaving my church. I’m not getting fed.” It’s a common complaint about sermons, but what exactly does it mean? I decided to ask him. “What is he preaching?” I asked.
The man said, “He is going through the Gospel of Mark, one chapter each week, and he reads it and explains it.” Then he repeated his complaint, “I’m just not getting fed.”
I said, “Wait a minute! You just told me that he is preaching the Bible, and then you say you’re not getting fed? You have a responsibility to eat the food that is put in front of you!”
As I asked him more about the pastor’s sermons, it turned out that the real issue was that he thought the sermons were boring, because the pastor didn’t add illustrations or personal application. I encouraged him to talk to the pastor privately, thank him for preaching the Bible, and ask if the pastor could add some illustrations and application to help him understand it better. I urged him to conclude the private meeting by praying for his pastor.
When I told this story to my wife, she said that I should also have encouraged him to take notes on the sermon. Her advice reminded me of an episode in my own life. I visited a certain church when I was out of town, and I went to lunch, feeling that the sermon was boring. But as I prayed about it, God reminded me that the sermon was directly from the Bible. So I returned to the evening service with a pen and paper, and took notes on the evening message. It was amazing how much better the same pastor preached was when I came with a different attitude.
Not every preacher can be as eloquent as Charles Spurgeon, but I’d rather have a boring preacher who preaches the Bible than an interesting one who simply entertains. Jim Jones was an interesting preacher, but in 1979, he led 900 people to Guyana and they committed mass suicide following him.
So if you feel you aren’t getting fed by your pastor’s sermons, let me ask you a question: Is he preaching the Bible? If so, are you bringing a fork?
Finding a preacher who can sweat
Copyright 2012 by Bob Rogers
An older pastor retired and moved back to his home in rural Mississippi. A few days later, his phone rang. Below is a verbatim transcript of the phone conversation:
“You got a King James Bible?” the person asked.
“Can you sweat?”
“Got a handkerchief to wipe the sweat?”
“Then I know a church looking for a preacher.”
Apparently, those were the qualifications for a preacher– a King James Bible and the ability to sweat when preaching.
The apostle Paul added some other qualifications. According to the King James Version, he said, “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:17-18, 23-24, KJV)
So if you’re looking for a preacher, find one that preaches about the cross of Jesus Christ, for the message we all need to hear is about Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin. And if the preacher can work up a sweat about it, that’s an added bonus.