Pastors talk a lot about sermon preparation. Each pastor has his favorite routine for getting a sermon ready. Over the years, I’ve learned that “different strokes for different folks” is a truism where sermon prep is concerned. Some pastors spend an hour of prep for every minute of delivery. Others, well, let’s just say, not nearly that much. Some think their prep is finished when they type “Amen!” on the manuscript. Others will spend additional hours rehearsing their presentation of the sermon.
Some pastors’ sermon prep is almost constant. Helmut Thielicke, a well-known, effective German preacher, once said that every conversation is fair game for inclusion in one of his sermons. No doubt some people were a bit wary of a chat with Pastor Thielicke out in the narthex. For most pastors, preparation includes a load of prayer, living inside the Scripture text, noting its moves and moods, parallel-texting the text with other Scripture, and looking for ways to structure the truths of the text, illustrate them, and apply them. The more visual the language of the sermon the better. The more the Biblical text is engaged throughout the sermon the better. They will strive to show God’s judgment on sin and God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
That said, it dawns on me that we don’t do much teaching on how a listener prepares for a sermon. We just come, often tired, empty-headed, and totally unprepared to receive the Word. The pastor does the preparing. We come almost daring him to get our attention. The first church I served actually used to dim the sanctuary lights for the sermon. You could almost hear the whispers, “Good night, honey!”
So what would preparation look like for the sermon listener? Here are a few suggestions:
- Delight in God’s Word, written and proclaimed. Come to the sermon expecting good, even great things from your Lord. If you need help with this, read Psalm 19, or if you have a lot of time, read Psalm 119.
- Spend time in the week prior to the sermon reading and meditating on the sermon text and its context. This means the sermon text must be published ahead of time. If that’s not possible, get at the text as soon as you land in the pew the day of the sermon. Read it, live in it, and pray your thoughts on it back to God.
- Come to the sermon with your specific needs that day. What struggle are you having? What assurance do you need? Come, expecting to have that need met by the Word of God. It’s amazing how a sermon text and title may at first seem to be irrelevant to your need, but as the sermon unfolds God speaks to your struggle. Come needy to your sermon listening.
- Be ready to ask questions of the sermon like these: What does God want me to know here (insights)? What does God want me to be (attitudes and values)? And what does God want me to do (actions)? Expect the Word to bring change, improvement, growth, even transformation.
I can tell you that most pastors love to preach and work hard at doing an effective job of mining a text for proclamation. We expect them to prepare well for the task. That same expectation belongs to those who plan to “hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28).