Calvin once wrote: “When a man has climbed up into the pulpit… it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.”Paul says in I Thessalonians 2:13: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thes 2:13)
The Word of God preached is a necessary part of worship. It is the counsel of God to the people of God. The sermon is a time for teaching, exhorting, and bringing the Word of God to bear upon the life of the people. This is the pastoral duty as he stands before you. The pastor preaches as one following the apostolic train.
But how do you as a parishioner respond to the preached Word? Preparation is key. People need to be trained to take advantage of this profound means of grace. The Word is a two-edged sword. It is God’s divine surgery on the Lord’s Day. It is crucial to realize as God’s servant prepares to deliver God’s word to you that your expectation is not one of a judge or critic, though at times you may have your doubts about a particular interpretation, but that is not your duty when listening to the Word preached. Your duty is to trust the Word preached to mold your very being; to humble your very spirit, and to change your very life. If you are in doubt that this is happening in the preached Word, you may need to consider whether another Church is more faithful to this sacred duty or whether–and this is likely–you have hardened your heart to the ministry of the Gospel. In other words, if everyone around you affirms that God’s word is being delivered faithfully and you are the only one who sees differently, perhaps the problem is not with the ministry of the Word, but with your heart.
But though the preached Word plays a fundamental role in the life of the Church and worship, it’s important to avoid a particular kind of error that sometimes plagues certain Reformed churches. Our intellectual heritage is largely a “Word-oriented” heritage. In light of this, sometimes we think of the sermon as the climax of the service, so that everything before and after do not carry the same weight. We have a tendency to view preaching as the only indispensable part of the service, but we should not think in this manner. The sermon is not meant to be primarily a time for great detailed word studies or to hear the latest controversy, or to hear an exhaustive treatment of a passage. If you want a classroom atmosphere, this is not it! Worship is not an extended classroom time; worship is the word of God from heaven to you! This is the gathering of the army of God. As an army, you will begin the service hearing God’s call, and you will sing God’s word in psalms and hymns, and you will eat at Christ’s table, and you will leave with a benediction from God’s word. All these areas are as important to worship as the sermon. Each has its own level of importance. I want you to look at the sermon as a time for an extended hearing of God’s word, but the Word of God is also present from beginning to middle and from middle to end. If you have been inattentive throughout the whole service waiting simply for the preaching, then you have failed to prepare yourself for the preaching. The whole service of God is the service to God’s people. If only a portion interests you, then you have failed the task of responding properly to the Word of God.
The over-emphasis on preaching has created a type of elite Christianity where the newly converted, divorced mother of three feels inferior because of her inability to keep up with detailed Greek exegesis or lengthy treatments on cerebral subjects. These topics do have a place, but worship is not that place. Fancy terminologies may fulfill the appetite of hungry theologians, but may leave the depressed parishioner–who desperately needs hope– empty.
So, qualifications aside, the sermon, or the preached Word, is a necessary part of worship. It ought not to be the center focus of worship, but the most extended aspect of worship due to its nature. And taking that time seriously is important for those who wish to mature into a fruitful faith. Here are then some ideas for how to make that time more beneficial for you as a Christian.
First, come humbly to hear. We are not trained well in this area. Most of us are more interested in what we have to say on a particular subject. Hearing a sermon will require humility to train your ears to listen.
It will help keep your attention throughout the sermon. Parents this is especially important for little ones. Use the questions and short outline in the bulletin to interact with your children.
Second, for all the work a pastor does throughout the week in researching and putting together a manuscript, through every attempt to be precise, still sometimes he will say something that does not connect in your mind. When this happens, write it down and ask the pastor after the service. If you think it is a subject that will require more time, wait until Monday or sometime during the week. After the service, pastors are eager to greet guests or to minister to certain members, or to counsel someone. Pastors always enjoy when people interact with his sermon. Trust me!
Third, prepare yourself for the text. Read it throughout the week. Know the passage before hearing the passage explained to you. In most churches, pastors will give the congregation some idea of what text he is preaching next. If this is not a habit, ask your pastor to let you know, so you can prepare yourself and your family for the sermon. He will be appreciative of that.
Finally, I exhort you to presuppose the authority of the Word. When science speaks with authority, the Word of God is more authoritative. When there is a claim that contradicts the Scriptures, the Scriptures will never fail. The Word shall never be broken. Trust it, embrace it, and live by it and you will be blessed all your days.
- I refer to Reformed churches because this is the context I have been serving in the last 15 years (back)