Please allow me to be very blunt. Generally speaking, I am not overly impressed with the Christian church in America. There is a lukewarmness that rivals the living-dead in Laodicea (Rev. 3:16). There is inactivity that resembles the sluggard (Pro. 6:6). And there is infighting that reminds us of the house of David (2 Sam. 12:10). We are surrounded by a cultural crisis on every side. Jesus Christ is the answer, but the church, the very people who are to be most invested, equipped and victorious are nowhere to be seen in the fight. Not all, but most.
So what do we do?
We all know the right answer, don’t we? In addition to prayer we must “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2)! God’s people need God. They need to hear the voice of their Shepherd. They need to be challenged and encouraged and equipped and convicted and strengthened for the battle. They need to get their own lives right in divine devotion and personal holiness. They need to know the General, the battle plan, the tools available, the enemy and their individual calling in the conflict. All of this is accomplished through the faithful proclamation of God’s inspired book. We have his word on it!
So the solution is simple, the pundits tell us. We need to train up unashamed workmen who can “accurately handle the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Build more seminaries. Raise up more leaders. Put all you’ve got into that sermon. And to that I shout a hearty “Amen!” And to that I still say something is missing!
Communication is a two-way street. We need exemplary pastors, but why is very little emphasis ever placed on the listener? Men can preach like Spurgeon, but if people are not rightly receiving the message, God may be pleased with the preacher’s effort, but He is definitely not glorified with the outcome. Angels rejoicing does not substitute for inactivity in the pews.
I believe the assumption has been made way too long that great sermons always translate into great application. What we fail to realize is all the decoding that must happen between the time the words leave the instructor’s mouth until the words are applied by the listener’s actions. Several steps are necessary and there are several obstructions to these steps often overlooked in the process.
Let’s briefly consider three of them.
First, is the listener spiritually prepared? A hard heart will never welcome biblical instruction (Mt. 13:19). Even if all in the audience are believers (which is in itself doubtful), unrepentant sin, disappointment with God, dislike toward the pastor are only a few spiritual pitfalls that can create an impenetrable barrier for the flow of God’s word. Simply put, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8) and will not “receive the word with great eagerness” (Ac. 17:11).
Second, is the listener distracted? Is his or her mind preoccupied with something else? A significant trial that is looming large? An exciting event planned for after church? Information overload? Physical fatigue from staying up too late the night before? Unless the preaching is met with an undivided mind, most listeners will not only fail to receive the full impact of the message, they will also lack the concentration needed to track with the preacher’s progression of thoughts. A wandering mind is a wasted mind on Sunday mornings.
Third, is the listener engaged? The average attention span for an adult in our country has dropped in the last decade, says one researcher, from 12 minutes to a staggering 8 seconds! If you are wondering, the attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds! Studies reveal that 84% of all listeners will tune out a 30-minute speech within the first 5 minutes. How many long-winded pastors are preaching to nothing but zombies just before they finally wrap it up with their closing prayer?
Furthermore, without taking notes, the average person will only retain about 10% of the sermon at best. Could you imagine teaching Calculus without your students taking notes and being held accountable through periodic examinations? It’s laughable. What teacher for that matter would merely preach for 45 minutes and permit students to “just sit there?” Can such an instructor expect anything profitable to come from their time together? At least in school you were always motivated to stay focused for fear of being called upon by the teacher! Imagine trying that one in a crowded church on Sunday morning? Hmmmm…just kidding!
If people aren’t learning is the teacher really teaching?
So, Grace Bible Church, how can we improve in this area? Here you go:
- Come spiritually prepared. Arrive prayed up and slept up and fed up (well, not the best choice of words on that last one – eat a healthy breakfast!).
- Take notes which will not only help you stay engaged, but also assist you in reviewing the material. Minimize as many personal distractions as possible.
- Take advantage of the variety of ways we offer to hear God’s word (discussions, small groups, gender separated ministries, etc.).
- Overall, make an effort to really learn the material – almost as if God will be giving you test over the information just presented! Hey, He is! He will be holding you accountable for what you hear when you are here!
All teachers of God’s word have a tremendous responsibility upon them (Jas. 3:1). Thankfully many churches are beginning to go in the right direction in this area. However, in order for the ultimate goal to be reached, we need to sound the clarion call for reformation among the listeners of God’s word. Accountability and responsibility must be put on them as well!
Placing a high value on the Scriptures means much more than showing up and enduring a sermon. It’s also means a lot more than having head knowledge. It means really learning the word (which takes effort) and then permitting that word to transform your life (which takes courage). We may not give written tests, but evidence that we are really learning is demonstrated by objective grace-driven change that progressively transforms God’s people into the image of His battle-tested Son.
Thanks for reading!