This Sunday we will gather together at Village to sing, pray and read Scripture together. And after that, a pastor will get up and begin preaching. For some of you, this may be the highlight of the morning; for others it may be the most difficult part. After all, where else in our lives do we sit there and listen to some guy talk for 35 minutes?
But like every part of the service, the sermon is designed for your good. And when you know something about why we preach, how we preach, and what you should expect from a sermon, you can do your part.
After all, for a sermon to work well, it requires two things: the preacher to preach well, and the listener to listen actively.
First off, let’s unpack why we preach and how a sermon is set up.
Why Do We Preach?
Simply put, we preach because we believe that the Scriptures are God’s words. And since God has spoken, we speak. We have been entrusted with this precious deposit of truth (2 Tim. 1:14), and as pastors, we have laid upon us this weighty calling - to teach the people of God (1 Tim. 4:5-16; 2 Tim. 4:1-2). And so, treasuring God’s word, and knowing that “the unfolding of your words gives light” (Psa. 119:130), we climb into the pulpit each week, open our Bibles where we left off, and preach through the next text.
“Now preacher,” you may object, “I can read the Bible for myself.” And this is true. We hold to the great Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, knowing that the Scriptures are clear and sufficient for all of life. And we believe that treasures of the Scriptures are for the everyman, needing no scholar, teacher or interpreter to mediate the truth of God’s word.
All the same, as preachers, we spend considerable time in the text each week, thinking deeply about what the text is saying, what it means in our context, and how to apply it to everyday life. You may read the text and discover everything we say on a Sunday morning. But the beauty of preaching is that the preacher will often see things you may miss. It is, in other words, an opportunity to learn even more.
Not only this, but the Sunday morning sermon is an opportunity for the church to hear the same word, together. We all should be engaged in disciplined spiritual rhythms, learning on our own. But here, we learn together, listening to the voice of God speak to us in community, shaping the heart of our local church. What a gift to have this common word: to process together, wrestle with together and glory in together!
How Do We Preach?
That said, let’s consider how a sermon is constructed. I find it helpful, when reading a book, to look at the table of contents. If I am reading some heady writer, it can be helpful to read a summary of the author’s argument before diving in. The same is true with a sermon. Each sermon (at least those at Village) has a similar skeletal structure. And when you know the structure, it’s like having a road map.
Each of our sermons are driven by a “big idea,” a succinct summary of what the passage is saying to you, the hearers. This big idea is not just our opinion; it’s our best effort at presenting the Scriptural passage in concentrate.
The outline is the skeleton that frames the sermon itself. The outline is meant to help walk you, the listener, through the big idea along a logical and clear pathway. Our intention is always to anchor the outline in the text, so that it gives not just information, but acts as mile markers along the journey. I like to use three points, because hey, there’s something easy about triads. But depending on what the text is saying, we may have two points, or maybe even seven.
We always aim to bring the text home in some practical way. Sometimes the application is intentionally broad, targeting your heart; other times we give concrete examples of how this might play out in your workplace, home, etc.
The conclusion is the place where we tie up the loose ends, and try to remind you, O listener, where we’ve been, and why this matters. It’s also the place where you should be thinking about the big question: What must I do now?
For a sermon to be effective, it must be communicated clearly and faithfully by the preacher. But it’s not all up to the preacher. It is a labor of love, offered to you, the listener. But if the listener is not prepared to receive that gift, it becomes simply words broadcast into the ether. So what can you to do listen well?
For some of us, simply making it to church is a weekly accomplishment. Whether because we’re managing a handful of little ones, because our bed was soooo warm, or because of the enormous effort it takes us to battle the clouding depression or anxiety leftover from the week behind us - it’s all we can do to just walk through those double doors.
Here’s the beauty of gathering with the saints on Sunday: we don’t have to have our act together. In fact, Sunday morning can be a sweet point of alignment in which we remind our hearts of the truth, wrench our souls from the doubts and worries of the week, and anchor them to our Savior.
But this alignment can start much earlier than 10am on Sunday. If we view Sunday morning as the capstone of the week, rather than one event among many, it changes how we orient our hearts. The Sunday morning gathering is always better when we have been feasting on the word throughout the week; when we have been communing with God in prayer; when we have been eager to hear the voices of our brothers and sisters singing with one voice — in defiance of the lies of the darkness.
Of course there are weeks when the chaos and struggle follows us right up to the pew we collapse into. But when we can prepare, we are able to quiet our hearts and situate ourselves to receive the gift of God’s words.
So here you are, ready or not, and the sermon kicks off. The next step is to listen actively. By this I mean, listen with your eyes, with your hands and with your heart.
Listen with your eyes by keeping your Bible open in front of you while the preacher preaches. You need to see what he is seeing, and you need see what he is explaining. The last thing in the world you want is to just hear a preacher babbling on. That’s no good to anyone. Preachers at Village are laboring to unpack, unfold, explain, illustrate and apply God’s words to you. So follow along!
Listen with your hands by taking notes. Not everyone is the note-taking type. And that’s OK. But keeping track of the argument by taking notes of main points, key phrases, interesting ideas, or convicting realities can help you internalize the message, and better remember it later.
Finally, listen with your heart by constantly asking, “What does this look like for my life?” If the preacher is doing his job, points of application won’t be far behind. The best kinds of sermons are the ones in which you, the listener, are constantly in dialogue with God Himself, asking Him to teach you, shape you, and convict you through this encounter with His truth.
As the sermon wraps up, you’re no doubt thinking,“What’s next?” in your day. You know what I mean: the game, lunch with your friends, that nap… But fight for 60 seconds of reflection before you move on. Ask yourself, “What must I do now?” Now I don’t necessarily mean ask yourself what the preacher wants of you, though his application may line up with your experience. Rather, having just heard from God through His word, what must you do, now that He has spoken?
Remember, we are called to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers (James 1:22ff). Hearing God’s word is a serious matter: He holds us accountable to what we know. Therefore, as a disciple of Jesus, and as one who is reconciled to the living God as His child, what must you now do?
Write it down, text it to a trusted friend, set a reminder on your phone. But don’t leave without making a decision.
The potential for a boring sermon is always there. I have days where I fear I’m putting you all to sleep. But here’s my promise: I’ll do my best to put in the time and effort to give God’s word the clarity, interest and passion it deserves on my end. And you do your best to receive it with all the attention, eagerness and humility that God’s word requires.
Imagine what might happen as we hear and obey together.