Sometimes the last thing you want to be doing is listening to a sermon. It might simply be that you are exhausted and too tired to take in what is being said, sometimes it’s because what is being said is too painful, too close to the bone, sometimes it’s the other extreme, what is being said just doesn’t seem relevant. Sometimes it’s nothing to do with the content but about how we react to the preacher themselves. Here are some thoughts about those situations.
I’m too tired
We’ve all been there whether through work or family pressures or health. We’ve barely been able to keep our eyes open during the talk. Even the apostle Paul had someone fall asleep when he was preaching. What do I do? Well, the first thing is don’t feel guilty, the sermon is not meant to be a test of our mental and physical stamina. I’m not of course thinking here of people who are being irresponsible, staying up needlessly late, failing to say no etc but for those who are genuinely at a stage in life when exhaustion is the unavoidable reality.
It may be that the best thing to do is not to sit in for the sermon, go home and get some rest, step outside for a breather, take the morning off. This should not be a regular habit and if we cannot make a specific service then we still need to use other opportunities to meet with God’s people. That might mean choosing to attend at a different time. At Bearwood Chapel, we host a number of weekend congregations. The reason we do this is similar to church planting. New churches are often planted to meet a geographical need, we provide somewhere for believers in a locality to meet so that distance is not a barrier. We planted congregations that share geographical space because we realised that sometimes the barrier is not distance but time. For some people 9:30 on a Sunday morning is the best time to meet for others, it’s 6pm in the evening. Some people choose specifically to come at night because they struggle with mornings, others are fading by the evening and so mornings are better.
You may already be in the service and not able to get out very easily. So what do you do then? Again, not feeling guilty when you don’t take things in is important. However, I wouldn’t underestimate the hidden benefits of simply being there and relaxing in an environment where God’s Word is being proclaimed. Don’t be surprised if later on you find out that you’ve picked something up without realising it.
This makes it all the more important that you follow up on the sermon. Don’t just simply sleep through it. If the sermon was recorded, get the MP3 and listen again at a time when you are more alert, get the notes from the preacher so you can read them, ask if you can talk about the message with him. Why not discuss the sermon with others? Some of our Home Groups pick up on the Sunday teaching to enable people who were there to reinforce what they’ve learnt and for those who missed it to catch up.
The Message is too close to the bone
A sermon that touches on marriage and divorce, bereavement, same sex attraction, singleness or childlessness etc might be particularly painful to sit through if you’ve recent experience of one of those things. Sometimes, something can hit us hard without warning, it raises issues and feelings that we thought were dealt with long ago or at least buried somewhere deep.
When I get the chance, I try where possible to talk with people about what might be affected before it comes up. I don’t always manage to do this though but we do publish our sermon series upfront. I also try to share the detail of potentially sensitive sermons with our leadership team in advance.
However, the aim of warning and preparing people is not so they can avoid the sermon. We automatically assume that painful feelings are to be avoided but actually it si these very things that God uses to work in our lives. So, don’t run away from painful emotions. Also, don’t be embarrassed. You should not need to put on a mask in church. Church should be a safe place for people to respond emotionally.
Be aware that you may find it harder to process things intellectually but sitting and listening is not just an intellectual process. One vital thing you are doing here is making a statement that you are obedient to God and willing to sit under His Word. This is important in and of itself.
Find a good, supportive friend to sit with during the service and to pray with before and after.
Remember that the preacher is not preaching to get at you. This is why expository preaching is so vital. The preacher hasn’t carefully chosen a topic with you in mind. God’s Word has determined the agenda.
The message does not seem specifically relevant to me
Whilst some messages seem too close for comfort, others can be at the other extreme. There does not seem to be an application that s directly relevant to me. This could be because there doesn’t seem to be any application at all and the preacher seems to be simply explaining the passage without telling me what to do about, the preacher is only giving general principles not specific application or because application appears to be for others not me.
We have already talked a little about what to do in these situations (see previous posts). Of course, there is no excuse for us preachers to fail to make relevant application but hearers can still do something about it. First of all, whilst this does not get the preacher off the hook, why not work through the implications of what he has said and discover for yourself how those principles apply to your own life? Secondly, go and ask the preacher. Talk to him about your own situation and ask him to help you apply what he has said to it. A good preacher should be only too willing to do this. Thirdly, as we have seen before, you can take on the role of “over-hearer.” Listen to how the application works to others and then by way of analogy think through the implications for yourself.
What do I mean by this? Well take the example of Paul’s instructions to slaves and owners in Ephesians 6. Paul makes his direct application to slaves, they are to obey their owners. He gives reasons for this. They are to remember that first and foremost they serve the Lord. So even when they have a bad master who does not care for them or reward them, God sees their good work and he will reward them. They will be paid! Now most of us do not find ourselves in slave-owner relationships so we often (correctly in my view) see something analogous here with workplace relationships (it isn’t a direct read across) but we can learn about faithfulness in the workplace, respect for those in authority over us and a commitment to good work. We do these things because we serve a higher master and we know that he will reward us. But some of us are not in paid employment. Even still, there is work we have to do for others and people in authority that we should submit to. The teenager at school still has to work hard and do what her teacher asks her to do (and maybe sometimes it feels a bit like slave labour to them!). They work hard, not just because they benefit from the end exams but because even as they write an essay or study for an exam, they are working for God’s glory.
Sometimes the application does not seem immediately relevant. For example why would I want to listen to a sermon on old age and dying well when I am in the prime of life? Well whilst the challenges of old age may seem a long way off, it is actually good to pay attention to teaching on this now. That way I store up the lessons so that I can apply them later on in life. We live in an instant culture and we so desperately want to know what immediate relevance something has but sometimes the application is a long term investment. We often find that the crisis point where we need to hear God’s truth is often the last place where we are able to grasp it for the first time. But when we have heard something in the past and committed it to memory, then God brings it to mind at the point we need it.
The preacher does not agree with me
It may be a matter of style, we tune into different styles and personalities. So what do I do when the preacher’s tone of voice, pace, mannerisms, choice of vocabulary cause disengagement or distraction? Worse still, sometimes there’s a personality clash or sometimes a breakdown in relationship that causes me to switch off from what they are saying. It could be that I’ve had a disagreement with them, maybe they’ve had strong words with me, maybe I’ve been offended by something they’ve said or done. It may even be that something that say in the sermon itself puts me off, a badly judged joke, a controversial political or theological point of view, an insensitive application. Preachers are human just like us, sometimes they get things wrong.
Remember that the preacher is family. Pray for them. Ask God to encourage them and to use them to speak to you. Remember that God could even use a donkey to speak to someone. God can use this man for all his faults to speak to you. It may be that you need to get right with them. Go and get reconciled, deal with the real underlying issue.
Be ready to be surprised as you discover over time that you have learnt to tune into their style and not to be distracted by their mannerisms. Trust God to speak through the preaching of His word to you.