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Brian Mavis
Brian Mavis
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How to Listen to a Sermon: Doing Your Part to Get the Most from a Message

Brian Mavis

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Listening with your heart can be tough because our hearts are messed up.

Take the message personally. Don't compare, make excuses, or apply it to someone else. Apply it to yourself.

100 times more people will hear a sermon this week than preach one.

So why are there thousands of articles, books, and classes on how to preach a message, but virtually none on how to listen to one? It's because most people think listening just comes naturally. But that's not what Jesus thought.

Jesus said to "consider carefully how you listen" (LK 8:18). The state and fate of your life depends on how you listen. Teachers are responsible for teaching well, but you are responsible for listening well. Jesus wants you to listen in a way that will change your life.

So how can you listen in order to change your life? You need to hear with more than just your ears. You need to listen with your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Listening like this is an act of love, and it can change your life with God now and forever.

#1: Listen With All Your HEART

Listening with your heart can be tough. Why? Because our hearts are messed up. Oftentimes, we don't feel the way God feels about things, want the things God wants for us, or care about the things God cares about. Sometimes we even love what God hates and hate what God loves. As a result, God's words won't sink in.

Jesus told a story that illustrates this. It's about a farmer sowing seeds onto four kinds of soil (see Matthew 13:3-9, and 13:18-23). It was a metaphor for His words being planted in four kinds of hearts. Jesus said:

  • Some hearts are Hard. They prevent God's words from sinking in, and the evil one snatches them away.
  • Some hearts are Shallow. They keep God's words from taking root, and when hard times come, His words wilt away.
  • Some hearts are Thorny. They choke out God's words with worldly worries and wealth.
  • Some hearts are Good. They take God's words, plant deep roots, grow, and multiply.

The good news is God can cultivate your heart. He can soften a hard heart, deepen a shallow heart, and clean a thorny heart. But the choice is up to you. He'll do this if really want it and if you ask Him. So pray!

Action Step -- Pray before and during the message that God will speak to you. Pray that God will cultivate your heart so you will hear Him. Ask God to prepare your heart to feel what He feels, want what He wants, care the way He cares, love what He loves, and hate what He hates. If you do this, you will be listening to God with your heart.

#2: Listen With All Your MIND

Do you remember getting your first love letter? How many times did you read it? Three? Four? A dozen times? Why? Because you wanted to catch every nuance. You mulled over shades of meaning. You considered the context. You thought of questions. Your mind was fully engaged.

There was a group of people who treated God's message like that. Here is what the Bible says about them: "the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11).

When Paul preached, the Bereans did two things. First, they received the message with "great eagerness." They desired to hear from God's word -- in other words, they listened with their hearts. Second, they "examined the Scriptures." They received the message like a love letter from God. They examined it, thought about it, and made sure what they were hearing was true. In other words, they listened with their minds.

Some people think that Christians have to leave their brains at the door before they can listen to God's message. But God wants you to use your mind. Treat the Scriptures like a love letter. Who wrote it? When? Why? What's the tone? What comforts, confuses, or challenges you?

Action Step -- Open your Bible and take notes. This keeps your mind focused. Write the main idea of the message. Also, jot down any questions or insights you have from the Bible. By writing the most important notes in your Bible, you will always have them for future reference. If you do this, you will be listening to God with your mind.

#3: Listen With All Your SOUL

Have you ever been listening to a message and thought, "Oh, so and so needs to hear this?" Most of us have. We hear God's message meant for us, but apply it to someone else.

Even people in the Bible did this. One time Jesus had a message for Peter about Peter's future martyrdom. After Jesus spoke, Peter saw John, and "When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?" Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me" (John 21:21, 22).

Jesus' message was for Peter, but Peter wanted to know about John's life. Jesus' reply was basically, "Worry about yourself." This is also what Jesus meant when He said, "How can you say, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:4).

You listen with your soul by taking the message personally. You don't make an excuse for yourself, you don't compare yourself to someone else, and you don't say, "Lord, what about him?" Instead, personalize it, and apply it to yourself!

Action Step -- Take the message personally. Don't compare, make excuses, or apply it to someone else. Apply it to yourself. Picture what your life will look like by following God. If you do this, you will be listening to God with your soul.

#4: Listen With All Your STRENGTH

When you look in the mirror, what do you see? You usually see the things you want to change. You brush, cover, inject, spray, and spend to change what you don't like. But you have another mirror -- one that reveals things about your inner life. It's God's Word.

"Those who listen to the word but do not do what it says are like people who look at their faces in a mirror and, after looking at themselves, go away and immediately forget what they look like. But those who look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continue in it--not forgetting what they have heard but doing it--they will be blessed in what they do" (James 1:23-25).

The Bible is a mirror into your inner life. It reveals who you really are. It shows you sins to turn from, promises to believe, work to do, attitudes to change, and God's deeds and attributes to praise. When you see things in your inner life that need changing, do you give them the same attention as those things you want to change in your outer life, or do you walk away and forget them?

If you don't act on what you hear, you aren't listening in the way that God expects. "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says" (James 1:22). So what's the best way to know if you are listening as God intends? Look at your life. Does your life reflect what you have heard? Walk the talk!

Action Step -- After listening to the message, ask "What does God want me to do?" Then do it! Is there a sin to leave, a promise to believe, a job to do, an attitude to change, an act to thank, or a divine attribute to praise? And don't try to do it on your own power. Ask God to work in, with, and through you. If you do this, you will be listening to God with your strength.

2008 Brian Mavis

Brian has been in ministry for 20 years, but in 1999, he was given a special calling to strengthen church leaders. God then guided him to help develop and lead SermonCentral.com from 2000 to 2005. During that time, Brian worked with thousands of preachers and read tens-of-thousands of sermons. As a result of that unique experience and perspective, Brian came to the conclusion that most sermons were biblical, but they weren't as human and transformative as they could be. To help pastors make sermons more transformational, he is writing a book called The Five Questions Your Sermon Needs to Answer. Brian would be happy to send you a free copy of the Introduction and Chapter One; (that's all he has finished). Just send an email to bmavis@gmail.com and request it.

Brian's current passion is helping churches honestly answer "yes" to the question, "If my church vanished, would my community care?" Brian is the minister of Community Transformation for LifeBridge Christian Church, and he is also the Executive Director of The Externally Focused Church Network.

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