23 October 2012

Ways to profit from an expository sermon

by Dan Phillips

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.
  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?
  8. 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).
  9. Then look at the notes, to reinforce.
  10. 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.
UPDATE: re-reading this, an apposite word from Spurgeon — and, really, isn't there always an apposite word from Spurgeon? — came to mind. I've now shared it over at my place.

Dan Phillips's signature


Andrea said...

eeutedShould I assume that "attend to" was used twice in a row as a humorous rhetorical device to remind us to pay attention here, too? If so, good one!

This was immensely helpful, with some excellent advice, some of which I had heard before, and other parts which seem obvious now that I've read it. Particularly the part about passing it on!

Bill said...

Very pastorally-minded post; exhortation with grace and humility...thanks!

Kerry James Allen said...

Great stuff Dan, thanks. For additional reading, Ken Ramey's book Expository Listening is a tremendous help for preachers and listeners. Highly recommended.

Scot said...

I'm going to try #5 next week and see if that doesn't help my understanding of the sermon.

I usually read the sermon text beforehand but never I've considered doing it afterward.

I like this list. Thanks for some great advice!

Anonymous said...

I also use a journal for note taking and to supplement the outline. Very helpful.

Kerry James Allen said...

And if I might add, as a pastor, one more that you already alluded to in your own past life as a church member, sit closer to the front! And remember what happened to a fellow who didn't! Matthew 26:58

And from a secular article in USA Today: "Still, sitting closer to the front of the room does have an effect on student-teacher rapport, which is linked to greater academic performance. Students who choose to sit in the front may find it easier to maintain eye contact, and there is a greater likelihood that the student will be spoken to."

Michael Coughlin said...

How about this as an addendum?

The first thing you mention to your pastor after the sermon should not be the 2 times he mis-spoke or the couple verses which may have been out of context.

There may, in fact, be a place for clarification - or even a need for correction. But while he is standing there after pouring out his heart shaking hands with the folks for whom he labored is not the time, IMHO.

Herding Grasshoppers said...

What a wonderful list of suggestions!

You remind me of how much I appreciate our pastor, who does make his outline obvious under the guise of it being “for the kids”, but oh-so-helpful for the rest of us as well. I find myself re-outlining his sermon as I take notes. (As a side note, as well as posting the sermon online for later listening, he also posts his notes. Very helpful for us visual learners.)

He encourages the kids to take notes, (which they post on the refrigerator in the church kitchen), and then he acknowledges them by name from the pulpit the following Sunday. That simple recognition and encouragement - which only takes a moment - has done wonders to inspire diligence and attentiveness in my own boys, and I would assume in others as well.

And hurray for mentioning #3 ;D

Julie G

Chip Van Emmerik said...

Excellent points, and highly practical. Please share with readers that number 2 is nothing to be ashamed of. Pastors enjoy this practice of discovery very much, as a whole. And number 10 cannot be overemphasized. Talking it though with someone else has so many benefits. Plus, if the other person heard the message for themselves, number 2 might kick back in again after the sermon.

Aaron said...

Good post but you did forget one thing. Podcast the sermon and listen to it later! After all, the sound guys go through a lot of effort to record and upload the sermon each week. ;)

DJP said...

Good point.

trogdor said...

#10 seems to be aimed at non-believers, but there's great use in discussing things with fellow believers, too. The question I picked up somewhere is: how is the manner of your life in regard to these things?

This is great after-church or lunchtime or drive home conversation. We just truth X and exhortation Y - how are we doing? How can we live it out, where are we lacking, where are we showing it to be true?

One church I formerly attended took this concept to another level - one option for small groups was 'pulpit curriculum'. They'd prepare questions based on the current sermon series designed to drive the truth home and promote reflection/application (a great place for those extra 39 points you didn't have time to fit in). You could do much of the same with a mid-week email with reminders, further application questions, and maybe a preview of next week's sermon.

Rachel said...

Thank you so much for this post! It was a wonderful encouragement. Several of the points I already do (outlines, note taking, finding all the verses, etc.), but the one that I really want to start adding into our Sunday AM routine is spending some time doing a review of the passage being taught that Sunday.

I'm shamed to say this, but the prayer part for my pastor and my own understanding didn't even cross my mind until you suggested it. That one seems to be the most important of the bunch, and the most obvious, but at least it can now be immediately rectified.

DJP said...

That's encouraging to hear, Rachel. It's an area in which my own appreciation and understanding has (I hope) grown over the decades. In early days, so high was my view of Scripture that I unknowingly felt as if the power were built-in and virtually automatic: just study it right and preach it right and it will do its work. Of course, there's a great deal of truth in that and my view of Scripture is still just as high; but I've also grown more to understand (again, I hope) the ongoing relational and spiritual dynamic, the need of the pastor for the Spirit's work as he studies and prepares, his need of the Spirit's work as he preaches and exhorts and pleads and instruct, and hearers' need of the Spirit's work as they listen and hear and heed.

David A. Carlson said...

@trogdor - our church goes further and provides a handout (along with a sermon outline) with additional study and questions for each day of the following week. It gives a method for additional bible study/quiet time that builds upon the sermon.

Wait, Trogdor, your talking about a church you formerly attended? Don't you know you are never allowed to leave a church?