As a pastor who preaches hundreds of sermons every year, I love preaching God’s Word. I love seeing ah-ha moments occur in the eyes of listeners. I love watching the gospel transform lives. I love those moments in a message when you can hear a pin drop and the reality of Holy Spirit awakening hearts is felt by the gravity of the room. You can physically sense the gospel soaring through the air like arrows, piercing the hearts of those gathering. There is nothing like it.
However, one of the frustrations of a preacher or communicator is that listeners rarely remember much of what I preached. By the time the handle on their vehicle door is pulled, 90% of the content I preached has already been forgotten. That number may actually be too low.
So why do I want to keep preaching when most people will not remember hardly anything I said? Who would want to subject themselves to that kind of ongoing frustration?
Honestly, it does not bother me at all. In fact, I do not do anything intentionally to try and change that number. Why? Because I don’t care? No. Because the goal of the sermon is not to remember everything – or even most of what – I said. The goal of the sermon is to leave an impression upon the heart and mind of the listener. The goal is for them to experience the voice of God through the sermon and be changed.
So how should a listener of a sermon approach it? How can a listener get the most out of a sermon? Should they take endless notes?
I am not against note-taking. I believe taking notes can helpful for going back and studying what you were taught. However, 95% of note-takers – I just arbitrarily grabbed that percentage – do not go back and look at notes. The reason that is important is if you are taking notes during a sermon it is possible you are so busy writing and trying to “catch” everything, that you actually are not letting something hit you in the heart.
Whether you are a note-taker or not, let me offer you 3 helps for getting the most out of a sermon.
1. Before the message begins, briefly pray that God would open your ears to hear what He desires to say to you.
Jesus deployed the “ears but don’t hear” description on the crowds who followed him around, including the most religious ones (Mark 8:18). There is such a thing as listening but not hearing. There is such a thing as understanding the words, but not perceiving the meaning. The things of God are spiritually discerned, which means we need spiritual help. Praying for God to do this may actually help you hear the sermon.
2. Find one thing God is speaking to you.
As you are listening to the message, gauge how your heart is responding. You may be agreeing with the things said. You may even find yourself intrigued by learning new points of theology or insights on a passage. But pay attention to what causes your heart to engage. Maybe it is a statement. It could be a passage that comes screaming off the page. Perhaps it is a revelation about something you need to do. Whatever it may be, find the thing that God is trying to say to YOU in the message. You will often know what that is because your heart wakes up, you feel convicted, you feel hopeful, you feel joy, and you sense that was the voice of God speaking to you. Sure, you may find more than one, but you should never leave a message without being able to say, “This is what God spoke to me…”
3. Make an immediate plan to act on what He spoke.
One of the reasons people go week-to-week and year-after-year listening to messages, and often remain unchanged, is they don’t apply God’s Word to their lives. It is not enough to be a hearer of the Word, we must be doers of the Word (James 1:22). After you have nailed down something God is speaking to you, write down a follow-up plan for how to apply it to your life. This could look different every week. If you feel God just convicted you over your unwillingness to forgive, despite how much He has forgiven you, then write down you need to forgive. Make it a point to begin prayerfully dealign with your unforgiving heart. Then as God is delivering you from bitterness and resentment towards someone, and you come to forgive them, find a way to tell them (even if they have not asked for forgiveness or care if you forgive them). This is how we are transformed. We hear from God and respond by faith and obedience.
If I were to chase you down after a worship gathering – not in a creepy and weird way – and said, “Hey, before you leave, what did you guys get from the message?” Instead of the “good message, pastor” or “I liked it” or “I’ll have to look at my notes,” it would be so encouraging to hear, “Well, I believe the Lord spoke _________ to me. And so I’m going to _________ this week.” Something like that would delight this preacher of the Word. If you will remind yourself, you would find retaining everything is too low of a goal, but hearing from God Himself and having an impression left upon the heart are the real desires.