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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Caffeine for Eutychus?

How to listen to a sermon and stay awake

There is peril in dozing off during a sermon. Consider the case, recorded in Acts 20:9-10, of Eutychus who did just that while Paul preached on ... and on.

A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.”

Throughout the centuries, listening to sermons has been a challenge for legions of Christians. Why is it so hard? One reason is that preachers often fail to be engaging. But another reason is that many people never are taught how to listen to a sermon. Through seminary and other resources, pastors learn how to preach—but most people in the pews never receive instruction on how to listen.

In addition, our society is full of dazzling and interactive multimedia that are far removed from the sermon’s format of one person talking with no special effects. It’s all the harder to pay attention to a sermon when we’re used to flashy CD-ROMs and DVDs. We need guidance.

Sunday morning abounds with distractions. We may be sick, hungry, tired, too hot, too cold. Sometimes our minds or hearts aren’t in the right place. We are worried, angry or in love. So it is a struggle to pay attention to anything, let alone a 15-minute monologue. There also can be distractions around us, such as a baby crying or a person with a persistent cough.

What distracts you the most? There may be a simple solution. For instance, if there is a recurring problem with small children being noisy during a service, some parishioners may be able to start a nursery. If you consistently find yourself tired on Sunday mornings, perhaps you can make changes in sleep habits or can do something during worship to help you stay awake, such as sucking on mints or sitting closer to the pulpit (it really is OK to change seats).

Of course, some distractions we just have to live with. Even so, we can still change our approach to listening to a sermon in order to tune them out.

Here are several hints for listening more effectively, even when there are distractions.

• Understand what a sermon is—and isn’t. A sermon is not entertainment. It isn’t primarily a lecture or a motivational speech. It is, first and foremost, a proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ through which we encounter God. Keeping that in mind can help us listen by sharpening our focus and expectations. As the sermon starts, think, “I’m going to listen for the proclamation of the good news, through which I will actually encounter God.”

• Listen for key elements. Keep your ears on the alert so you can follow the progression of the sermon: the Bible basis, main topic and main lesson about that topic, the sin that is revealed, the announcement of the good news of Jesus Christ—and relevance to life today.

That is, a sermon should first have significant grounding in the Bible. Second, there may be several topics, but there should be one main one that you, the listener, can summarize in a word or two and, also, one main lesson about that topic. The preacher should speak about sin, not to condemn people but to help them recognize their need for the good news of Jesus Christ. Amid all of these points, the preacher should connect all he or she says to the listeners’ life. You, and all hearers, should be able to answer the question: “What does this sermon have to do with us?”

Most good sermons do contain these elements. As you listen, try to pick these out and also consider how effectively the pastor develops them. For example, does the pastor spend enough time establishing relevance? When a pastor doesn’t, listeners often walk away from a sermon thinking that it was “nice” but not really meaningful to them today. No good sermon is a one-person effort, however, but needs listeners who don’t just sit passively. What could you do to be a more active listener?

First, reading the lessons before worship will get you ready to listen. Many parishioners find note-taking helpful. Some try guessing what point the preacher will make next as they follow along. And reviewing the sermon Sunday afternoon helps listeners “use” it throughout the week.

Some parishioners enjoy participating in a sermon discussion group that meets for 20 minutes after the service. This practice most certainly encourages people to listen more carefully.

Don’t risk falling out the window—or not hearing the good news of Jesus Christ for life today. Listening to a sermon is one way we glorify God. Worship God with your ears. And stay awake so there may be life in you.


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