Last time I wrote about The Value of Sunday Worship. An essential part of Sunday worship is the sermon. What is preaching? Why does it matter? Do we still need it? Is preaching still effective?

You could argue that preaching has never been that effective. During his three years of public ministry, Jesus preached to 10’s of thousands of people. But after his death and resurrection, how many were gathered in Jerusalem? Only 120! Less than 1% of those who heard Jesus preach joined his “church.” Is preaching a failure if 99% of those who hear the message walk away unchanged?

The Parable of the Soils

Sowing seedJesus was aware of this problem. In one of his most famous parables he used the illustration of a farmer sowing seed (Mk. 4:1-9). He described how the seed landed in different parts of the field, which produced different results. Afterward, the twelve and his other disciples came to him to ask what the parable meant (Mk. 4:10). We are fortunate that for this parable, we have the interpretation given by Jesus himself (Mk. 4:14-20).

In this parable there is much that is the same in every case: the same sower, the same seed, the same field, and the same environmental conditions. The only difference is in the soil. For that reason it might be better to call this “The Parable of the Soils.”

The sower sows the word (Mk. 4:14). As Jesus tells this story, he is describing what he is doing at that very moment. He is sowing the word. It also describes anyone who shares God’s word with someone else. Jesus explains the meaning of the four different types of soil:

  • The path represents those whose hearts are hard. In their case, Satan snatches away the seed before it has a chance to have any effect. This person goes away from hearing the word completely unchanged.
  • The rocky ground represents those who respond joyfully for a short time. But their spiritual lives are very shallow, and as soon as difficulties or persecution comes they abandon their faith.
  • The thorny ground represents someone who welcomes the word, but who allows other desires and priorities to crowd it out, so that their life remains unfruitful.
  • The good soil represents those who receive the word, respond to it, and are changed as the result.

In his explanation, Jesus emphasizes that all four types hear the word. But only one truly listens and allows the word to bear fruit in their lives. The most important factor in benefiting from a sermon is how you listen.

How to Listen to a Sermon

If the single greatest factor in the effectiveness of a sermon is how you listen, how should you listen to a sermon?

  1. Cultivate a heart that is “good soil”
    • Be open and responsive to God’s word
    • Desire to hear what God has to say to you
    • Be ready to put what you learn into practice
  2. Read and meditate on Scripture to stir up a hunger for God
    • Develop a healthy appetite for God’s word
    • People who read and meditate on Scripture during the week get a much bigger benefit from listening to a sermon on Sunday
    • Those who love God love his word
    • Those who love God’s word love biblical preaching

    If you find the Bible boring and sermons boring, that is an indication that there is something wrong with your spiritual life.

  3. Go to bed early on Saturday night
    • It is difficult to listen if you are falling asleep!
    • Students: Would you stay up to 3 am on the day before the SAT?
    • Your preparation for Sunday worship begins on Saturday night
  4. Enter God’s presence during worship
    • Come on time to Sunday worship so that you are there for the praise songs
    • During opening worship, focus your attention on God and get your heart in tune with his
    • Prepare your heart to listen to God’s word
  5. As the sermon begins ask God what he wants to speak to you through his word
    • Are you listening to a “speech,” or seeking to hear God’s voice?
    • A spiritually healthy Christian can hear God’s voice even through a mediocre sermon
    • A spiritually cold person will probably not benefit even from the best sermon in the world
  6. People taking notes during sermonTake notes!
    • Write down the main points of the sermon
    • Make note of how God is speaking to you specifically
  7. At the end of the sermon, ask God how he wants you to respond to what you have heard
    • Use the response songs as an opportunity to reflect on what you have heard
    • Write down any actions that you feel God is calling you to take
  8. Later review your notes and ask God how he wants you to put into practice what you have learned
    • On Sunday evening read and mediate on the sermon passage and review your notes
    • Ask God to show you how he wants you to put into practice what he has spoken to you, and what is the next step

Do you listen for God’s voice during the sermon, or do you merely hear the words of the speaker? What type of soil are you? How can you become a “good soil” person?

You can listen to a recent sermon that I preached on this topic. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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  1. I always felt a particular responsibility as a worship leader to prayerfully choose songs that would help people focus their attention on God, as you mention in #4… as a “normal” congregant now, I find it difficult to not be critiquing songs that are ostensibly for corporate worship as they’re being sung. I wish I could get over it, because the opening worship time at my church currently feels like throwaway time.

    1. Anna, thanks for sharing. The opening worship time should be so much more than just a time filler. I fear that many church members don’t see that time as very important. I appreciate your diligence in the past as a worship leader. As a pastor, it is easy for me to critique the sermon when I visit another church. I have to consciously chose to not evaluate the sermon and instead to ask God what he might want to say to me that morning.

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