Preachers and Hearers

“I don’t get anything out of the sermon.”  “This preacher is boring.” “He just isn’t doing anything for me.”  “Why are we sitting here listening to someone instead of participating?” All these statements encourage us to ask the question. “Who is responsible for the outcome of the Sermon.” Is it solely the Pastor’s responsibility to, entertain and cause the hearer to gain something? In short, the answer is no.   Pastors are the ones who are doing the communicating and so often there is an expectation that they have a large part of the responsibility for preaching well, but they are not solely responsible for what happens in a sermon.  The Congregation shares that responsibility as well. In this short post I plan to lay forth what the responsibilities of the pastor and the congregation are.

The Pastor’s responsibility

Every pastor I know wants to preach good sermons and wants to avoid bad sermons.  A Good Sermon is a faithful and helpful sermon. If we examine the history of the church the conclusion is that style has nothing to do with a good or a bad sermon. There are great preachers that are not energetic and there are great preachers that burn enough calories while the preach to make multiple fit bits happy.  Neither of these ends of the spectrum nor every spot in between defines a sermon as good.  With that said, what defines a good sermon?   I propose that a pastor is doing his job well if he is doing 3 things.  

First a Pastor must submit his sermon to the text of scripture.   The Job of the pastor is to go to the scriptures and expose them to his people.  In a good sermon the scriptures are the authority, it is their words that shape the direction and focus of the message.  The pastor must avoid taking the authority that belongs to the scriptures unto himself.

Second, a pastor must strive for theological accuracy.  A good sermon is one that is filled with the truth of what the bible says and who God is.   He Must Study to find himself approved (2 Tim 2:15) striving to defend the faith that was once delivered to all the saints (Jude 1:30  

Third the pastor must strive to engage in experiential preaching. He must teach the scriptures in a way that intentionally applies the words of scripture to the actual lives of the hearers.  He must seek to actively step on his listener’s toes, engage the pain and suffering of their hearts with the balm of the scriptures, and set Christ up in front of his hearers so that they might glory in him and his wonderful works.   The pastor seeks to stoke opportunities for the congregation’s heart to be led to worship, really and truly comforted by the reality of the savior, and be brought to moments where they are called to moments of decision where they must either repent or reject.

If a pastor aims to do these things then he has accomplished the task that he has set out to do.   A sermon that is marked by each of these three characteristics can be a helpful and faithful sermon.

The Congregation’s responsibility

The pastor is not the only one who bears responsibility for the outcome of the sermon that is preached.  The Congregation bears tremendous responsibility in the practice of preaching. The preacher is responsible to preach in a helpful way and the congregation is responsible to hear in a faithful way.  “Calvin was Motivated to stress profitable hearing of the word b/c he believed that a few people hear well. He said, “if the same sermon is preached, say, to a 100 people 20 receive it with ready obedience of faith, while the rest hold it valueless, or laugh, or hiss, or loathe it.”[1] What characterizes profitable hearing?  A plan to meet the Lord at the assembly and Active listening in submission to the word.

The first aspect of profitable listening is that the church would plan to meet the Lord at the assembly. In explaining the events surrounding the Scottish revivals of 1839-1840 says, “The people came believing that they would meet with God. The subject was Jesus Christ in his fullness, freeness, offers; and privilege and duty of immediate acceptance, and danger and present guilt of delay or refusal.”[2]  The people show up to the assembly with the purpose of meeting the Lord, the intention of being helped. They are not showing up concerned with their own preferences and thoughts they recognize they are present to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8).  They recognize that when they go to the church on the Lord’s day that he is there, and it is him that they desire to know. They are seeking experiential results; they desire the preaching of the word of the lord to change them in their hearts. If we are not prepared to meet with the Lord then we cannot expect that he will meet with us.  If we are not drawing near to him, we cannot have confidence that he will fulfill his promise and draw near to us. It is in fact an arrogant heart that says that we are confused we have not met the Lord or to blame faithful preachers for not bringing us to meet the Lord if we have done nothing ourselves to be prepared to meet with him.   

The second aspect of profitable listening is that it must be active.   We must engage the sermons not only with our ears but with our minds and our souls as well. In other words, as listeners, we must stop casting aspersions and blame on others instead we need to take responsibility for ourselves.  The Congregation must listen and reason through what is being said. The hearers should approach the sermon with open hearts, open ears, and open bibles. When the preacher points you to the text the listener should be able to engage that with their eyes as well as their ears.   They should think about what they are hearing. It is a travesty of enormous ingratitude to the Lord when a person listens to a sermon and does not engage it with their mind well enough to have something that they can take with them throughout the week.   (Even if it is just the scripture passage preached on.)      

As the Preacher preaches, we should see that profitable listening is concerned with the experiential results, it is asking questions of the text and of the sermon, “What does the Lord want me to do with this?”  The word of the Lord is sufficient to engage your heart and practically benefit your life. It is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)   This means that a faithful sermon can always bring your heart some experiential benefit.   The listener has the responsibility of seeking it out instead of expecting it to show up at their feet just by being present.

If the listener will be prepared and actively engage the sermon then they will find that the Spirit often brings them help in a sundry of ways.  Christian take responsibility for themselves as you engage, be prepared and attentive.   Do so and God will help you and will prepare you to help fellow members in your home and in the church as you consider the sermon that was preached.

God has shown us in His word that he will use preaching to expand and strengthen His church. Ultimatly the effect of a sermon is the Spirit’s responsibility. He is the one that uses the word to cut the hearer to the heart, but the preacher and the hearer have a practical part to play as engage this means of grace.

James Briggs

[1] Beeke, Joel R. Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People. Crossway, 2018. Pgs. 113-114.

[2] Bonar, Horatius. The Life of John Milne of Perth. The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010. Pg. 53. 

2 thoughts on “Preachers and Hearers

  1. Some good words Pastor James. Your sermon this past Sunday was also “right on” and very good–delivery and content. May God continue to bless you as our shepherd at FBC!

  2. Good points. It’s through such proper action that we see the “action” of growth. It’s important to remember the role we each have to ensure our own growth which thereby supports the growth of the larger body of the church. It’s equally important to remember our responsibility to the larger body of the church so it may continue to spark growth. I am grateful for the insight of your sermons and their rootedness in scripture. In connection to this, I was grateful for your 2/14 devotional. Prior to listening to it I had just been contemplating the daunting Hebrews 6:4-8. After contemplating that and listening to your devotional on Hebrews 2, I think it’s possible to feel fallen away at times but to not have fallen away. It’s our action once that realization is made that is so essential. It makes me think of the narrow gate in The Pilgrim’s Progress and how there were still struggles after going through that gate; there was still work. It also makes me think of an earlier comment you made of how walking the path of Christ doesn’t always look perfectly straight; there can be detours from our sinful nature but the important thing is we’re drawn back to the path. If we were truly fallen away I don’t think we’d be guided by the Holy Spirit working within us, right? Someone who is fallen is not in Christ and that someone would surely despise the path. So wouldn’t a desperation to cling to the Word, to prayer, to celebrate the ordinances, to gather with believers, to share the gospel… be a mark of not having fallen? Hebrews 6 can seem all too hopeless. Yet I think it’s important for a believer to remember sinlessness is not the expectation. Such a very difficult reality for Type A people.

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