Getting the most out of the Sermon: Moving from Passive Listening to Active Discernment

Pastor Molly’s Thoughts…

“Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live!” (Isaiah 55:3)

How long do you think a sermon should be? Next time you chat with me, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
When I was a child, most pastors were expected to preach at least 30 minutes. When I was in seminary, that had dwindled by half. A professor reminded us that after 7 minutes, people stopped listening (or at least actively listening) at 7 minutes because that was the length of time between commercials on TV.

I think it doesn’t so much relate to lesser attention spans, but perhaps more to expectations for listening. Look at these statistics children ages 2-11 spend 24 hours per week watching TV. Adults 33-49 spend 33 hours. I won’t even get into teens and young adults (when you consider “screen time” including computers, hand-held devices, etc. it has to be over one half of the waking day.

This environment helps to shape our expectations on Sunday morning. We no longer want long exposes or theological treatises. Most preachers (at least Lutheran ones) are awarded fifteen minutes or less to get our point across. Also, we need to amp up the delivery with power points, good illustrations and/or jokes and make it relevant to each listening ear.

Worse, most preachers feel like their whole congregation is in a Nielsen rating program. Never mind the core message – did it entertain? Did you feel comforted and encouraged? Did you learn something? How was this experience for you? Will you come back?

It can be exhausting, this preaching task. Yet, it is one of the most rewarding and important things a pastor does.
So – how can we all experience the “preaching moment” – together – so it is not just Pastor’s twenty minutes to entertain and comfort. How can we ( as Jim Ladoux of Vibrant Faith says) “go deeper” so that the sermon isn’t just like any other TV program where we sit as passive “consumers” of a little message which doesn’t necessarily rock the planet for our lives?

I would like to offer a way in which sermon time can become MUCH bigger for us all. A way in which we can mine so much more as active listeners than passive watchers.

The operative word in the shift toward meaningful listening is discernment. What if we could employ a discipline of questions, before, during and after the sermon which invite us into the possibility that God is trying to talk to us; that God has a specific and clear message for us each and every time we hear (and talk about His Word)?

The prophet Isaiah describes what this looks like:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
(Isaiah 55 9-11)

Discernment begins with two convictions 1) God is actively speaking to me and 2) I am actively listening to what God has to say.

Preachers have less than 50 percent of the job in giving a good sermon. The majority of “effective” preaching rests upon the lis-teners who are present. This doesn’t excuse bad or boring preaching. And there are always “great” preachers who really move us. But the truth is, it isn’t the preacher who gives life to the preaching. It is the Holy Spirit in God’s and God’s Word which make the preaching event a truly divine thing.

So – I’ve come up with a few questions for us to consider. Questions before, during and after the sermon – which may help to move us beyond passivity and into discernment.

Before the sermon:
How am I feeling today? What has been on my mind this week? Am I open to hearing something different than I expect? Can I hear the texts, message and music in a new way?

During the sermon:
What pictures, images and words stand out? What is the central theme? How does the message relate to my life. Why or why not? What questions are answered? Which ones aren’t? What questions do I have? What answers have I been given?

After the sermon:
What is the main thing I remember? How does this matter in my life? How am I changed as a result of hearing? What will I do differently?

Actively listening is work. But engaging in the text, music and message, expecting to hear God speaking to us gives us so much more meaning and allows us to be changed. We move beyond our thoughts and ask what God is thinking. We look for God’s purpose in our listening.

So – I still want to know how long you think a sermon should be. But I also want to know how that expectation changes when you engage in the questions above and the discipline of active listening and discernment!