The Listener's Responsibility
We set high expectations for our pastors. We expect that every Sunday we will sit under their teaching and learn sacred truths from their mouths. We expect that they have spent their week investigating Scripture and digging deeply into God's Word so that they can teach us something that will change our lives. We expect them to be true to Scripture, to entertain us and to make a good presentation.
While a pastor bears great responsibility in preparing for and delivering the Word of God each Sunday, the listener shares in the responsibility. The church has no place for an audience. We are all to be involved in the preaching, even as listeners.
Preparation for the worship service should begin before Sunday morning. The Bible exhorts us in many places to pray for our pastors. In Romans 15:30-32 Paul begged for the prayers of believers. "Now I beg you, brethren, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and through the love of the Spirit, that you strive together with me in prayers to God for me, that I may be delivered from those in Judea who do not believe, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, that I may come to you with joy by the will of God, and may be refreshed together with you." To the Thessalonians he writes "Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified, just as it is with you." We should be in constant prayer for our pastors, asking that God would continue to work in their hearts and illumine his words to them so they might in turn teach us. The congregation cannot grow beyond the pastor, so it is crucial that he continue to learn and grow in his faith. At the same time we should pray that the pastor would not fall to the attacks of Satan who surely seeks to ruin any fruitful ministry.
When I was a teenager, I usually tried to sit in the back rows of the sanctuary along with my other friends. We took pride in being able to be the first person to fall asleep during the service. Often we had been up well into the wee hours on the morning the night before and were looking forward to an opportunity to catch up on our sleep. And what better opportunity is there than when the pastor is speaking for thirty or forty five minutes?
One of the most important things congregation members can do is be prepared for the service. This means that we need to be well-rested and attentive rather than tired and glassy-eyed. Our minds need to be alert and both ready and able to hear the Word of God. As a child I was told that preparing for Sunday begins on Saturday night, the implication being that a good night's sleep is an important prerequisite to attending a worship service.
When we attend church we should do so with the eager expectation of hearing words that will challenge, convict and change us. We come expecting to hear Divine words. We should approach the service with these goals in mind. We should seek to allow the words of God, as summarized and explained by the pastor, to convict us of sin and shortcomings, to challenge our presuppositions and comfort zones and to begin the process of change in our lives.
Knowing that we hope to be challenged, changed and convicted during the preaching of the Word, we should be certain that we are spiritually prepared. Our hearts must not be filled with unrepentant sin. So prior to hearing the proclamation of the Word, we should take opportunity to repent of sin and to make sure we come before God with clean hands and pure hearts. We should seek the Spirit's illumination for the words we will hear. Psalm 119 models this as David prays "Deal bountifully with Your servant, That I may live and keep Your word. Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law." (verses 17 and 18) David asks the Lord to open his eyes that he might be able to truly understand and apply the words of Scripture to his heart. In the same way we should ask the Spirit to work in us so we can understand.
This seems almost too obvious, but we should make sure that we are paying attention during the service. It is easy to look around, to chat with the person next to you or to count heads. It is even easy enough to get involved in a "righteous" pursuit such as reading the Bible. But we have just one hour a week to listen to our pastor so we should listen attentively. It is not just a good idea, but is our responsibility. Listen, learn and grow. Take a pen, take your Bible and make a dedicated effort.
After the Service
Traditionally Sunday afternoons were dedicated to gathering as a family and speaking about the sermon and perhaps looking over notes that were taken. Many families would sit down together and re-read the passage of Scripture that had been exposited that very morning and would share what they had learned. This is a custom that has largely been lost, but we would benefit by its recovery.
Pray For Application
After the service, perhaps during some quiet time on Sunday afternoon, we should again pray that the Lord would help work in us what we heard in the morning. We should ask that He would allow the words to continue to convict and change us and that they would not simply fall out of our minds and be lost. In Revelation Jesus said "He who has ears, let him hear." Hearing goes beyond the ears, but into the mind, the heart and the life. Hearing involves application.
Our final responsibility is to imitate the Bereans who "received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so." (Acts 17:11). We should not blindly accept what our pastor teaches us, but compare his words to the Scripture to ensure that "these things are so." If your pastor is a godly man, he should be willing and eager to answer questions you may have, and be humble enough to accept correction when he has erred. I do not know of a pastor who would claim he has never made mistakes from the pulpit. When we do detect (or think we detect) error, we should approach the pastor humbly and prayerfully, going to him with our questions and not first to others.
While the responsibility of the preacher cannot be underestimated, the listener is also responsible before God. We are to prepare ourselves even during the week, are to listen attentively, to search the Scriptures and to apply what we have learned to our lives. I fear that far too often we expect the pastor to do the work and allow us to be the beneficiaries of his work. It is time for us to take seriously our role in the preaching of the Word of God.