From a preacher's perspective, it's our happy task before God to craft and deliver a sermon that's worth listening to, attending to, learning from, and retaining. Any regular reader of this blog probably attends a church whose pastor takes this as a solemn, joyous, exhilarating, devastating, God-given duty.
On that assumption, then, how can you gain the most value from the sermon?
I'll tailor my remarks specifically to profiting from an expository sermon in a book-study series. Some of these suggestions will apply to any Biblical sermon, but I have in mind a series that progresses through a book of the Bible.
- Pray in advance. Pray for your preacher, because sermon preparation is both a science and a spiritual exercise. It's his part to "consider," but he needs the Lord to "give understanding" (2 Tim. 2:7). Pray for yourself, because you need the work of the Spirit to open your eyes to your riches in Christ (Eph. 1:16-19). Pray for others who come, including unbelievers, that the Lord might open their hearts to respond to the truths of God which your pastor will preach (Acts 16:14).
- Read the passage in advance, asking yourself questions, or imaging the questions you might be asked. Priming the pump is a terrific way to learn the most. It's always both humbling and a blessing to have read a passage, and then to see it anew when a brother brings out valid insights that had never occurred to us.
- Use the rest room before the service. Not very spiritual, I know. But the sermon is a piece, prepared to be taken in and enjoyed as a piece. Also, the fewer distractions, the better to others. (At the risk of TMI: as a relatively young Christian, I had a bad habit of drinking too much coffee, and sitting up front...with predictable results. The pastor eventually had a word with me. He was right.)
- Absolutely do pick up the outline if there is one, and absolutely do use it. My mother-in-law is right: the faintest ink is better than the best memory. And even if you don't keep the outline, the more of your senses you involve in engaging in what you hear, the better you'll listen, the more you'll learn, and the more you'll retain.
- If there is no outline, try to make one of your own. Most preachers have one that they follow. The better ones (in my opinion) make it plain with signals such as "I see three things in this text, and the first is..." See if you can't pick it out.
- Pray as your pastor preaches, for him, for yourself, and for all present. See #1 above. Your encounter with the Word of God -- and others' as well -- is a moment of crisis, a pivotal moment (Heb. 4:12-13). Eternity hangs on it. Don't leave it unprayed-over.
- Attempt to look up every verse. Remember what you are, what your goal is. You are a disciple of Christ, a pupil for life; and it is your job to stay in and retain His Word (Matt. 28:18-20; Jn. 8:31-32). Don't be the sort of person who complains that he can't find anything in the Bible, and then sits and watches when your pastor tries to show you where it is in the Bible. And if you don't do it because you don't know the books of the Bible... well, friend, what do you think I'm going to say?
- After the sermon, read the passage yourself without your notes. See what now leaps out, and what you remember. This is an absolutely splendid way of making what you've learned your own, so that you have it, you own it, you can use it for worship and for life, and you will have it to give to others (cf. 2 Cor. 1:4; Heb. 3:13; 10:25).
- Then look at the notes, to reinforce.
- Tell someone what you learned. Take the seed your pastor sowed, and multiply it. Invite the folks you tell to come hear the next one for themselves.