I did not set out to be a preacher. Ten years ago I would have laughed out loud if someone had told me that a decade hence I would be a regular in the pulpit. As I’ve slowly acclimated to preaching, I have found myself thinking very differently about sermons. I’ve been listening to sermons all of my life, but only now do I see preaching from the other side of the pulpit, so to speak. It has been very good for me.
Today I want to share a lesson I’ve learned that applies primarily to those of us who listen to preaching (as I do, most Sundays, since I am not an every-Sunday kind of preacher). Here’s the lesson: Sermons are not for liking. Sermons are for listening, they are for discerning, they are for applying, but they are not for liking. You don’t get to like or dislike a sermon. We tend to ask questions like, “So how did you enjoy the sermon today?” It is just the wrong question to ask.
I guess that isn’t always true. If a sermon is outright unbiblical–if the preacher butchers his text, misses the point, teaches nonsense or outright error, then I guess you are well within your rights to dislike it because God dislikes it and is dishonored by it. And maybe if it is clear the preacher put little or no thought into his text, if he is delivering a sermon only out of a sense of duty or the overflow of pride, maybe then you can dislike it because, again, it dishonors God. But I suspect few of us find ourselves in that situation on a regular basis.
Back to my point: Sermons are not for liking. There are at least two reasons for this: it dishonors preaching and it dishonors the preacher.
To ask, “How did you like the sermon?” dishonors preaching. It dishonors the very form, the God-given medium. We trust that when the Word is preached, the Spirit works. He is present in the preaching, present in the speaker and in the hearer, shaping words, moulding hearts, applying truth. We preach because God tells us to and we preach trusting that God uses this form of communication instead of another form. We preach even though preaching seems so foolish. When we ask, “How did you like the sermon?” we make the sermon something we consume rather than something that consumes us. We judge it like we judge the custom-crafted latte at Starbucks or the new iDevice we saved up for.
To ask, “How did you like the sermon?” dishonors the preacher. That sermon you hear on Sunday morning may look like it just flows out of the preacher’s mouth. It may seem so easy, so natural, that you think the preacher hardly had to work at it. Yet the more effortless it appears, the more work it represents. When you see Albert Pujols swing a bat or Phil Mickelson drive a ball, you are not seeing people simply taking advantage of innate talent. You are seeing the result of practice and preparation. These are people who have dedicated thousands of hours to honing their craft; they have become so skilled that they make it appear easy. This is true of preachers as well. The sermon that is smooth and easy, that moves seamlessly from one point to the next, that delivers bang-on application–this is the sermon that displays more practice, more skill, more time in preparation. Don’t confuse hard-earned skill with easy preparation. And then there is the delivery, where a man has to stand before a hundred or two hundred or a thousand people and deliver that sermon, hoping he connects with his listeners, trusting his interpretation is sound, longing for the application to fit. It dishonors the man to then ask, “How did you like it?” Don’t like it! Instead, ponder it, meditate upon it, and apply it.
At the end of it all, “How did you enjoy the sermon?” is simply the wrong question to ask. Far better is, “What did you learn from the sermon?” or “How did the Holy Spirit speak to you through the sermon?” These are questions that elevate the form or medium far above our preferences, and call upon us to submit to the Spirit as he is present in preaching.
(Note: If you want to become a better sermon listener, here are some resources you may appreciate.)