We set high expectations for our pastors, and rightly so, I think. Ministers of the Word have a high calling before God to be his mouthpiece, to bring his Word to his people. We expect that every Sunday we will sit under the pastor’s teaching and learn sacred truths from his mouth. We expect that he will spend his week studying Scripture and digging deeply into God’s Word so that he can teach us something on Sunday that will change our lives. We expect him to be true to Scripture, to make a good presentation of it and to keep us engaged all the while. It is a difficult and often thankless task.
What we consider less often, I think, is that 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. We may drive home on Sunday muttering about the pastor’s lack of preparation after a less-than-engaging sermon, but how often do we drive away reflecting on our own lack of preparation? How often should we trace our lack of learning or our lack of engagement right back to our own lack of preparation?
Preparation for the worship service needs to begin before walking into church on 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. “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, … that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints…” To the Thessalonians 3:1 he writes “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored.” We should be in regular prayer for the pastor, asking that God will continue to work in his heart and illumine the Word to him so he can 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 is always opposed to any fruitful ministry and who will work diligently to disrupt it.
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 now 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. And I have come to see that this is the truth. Little wonder that Christians have often written prayers and hymns meant to be prayed and sung on Saturday night as a means of preparation. Little wonder that the Jewish Sabbath began at sundown rather than sunup! Going to bed at a reasonable hour on Saturday evening is one of the best ways you can prepare for a meaningful Sunday.
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. George Whitefield says, “Come to hear them [pastors], not out of curiosity, but from a sincere desire to know and do your duty. To enter His house merely to have our ears entertained, and not our hearts reformed, must certainly be highly displeasing to the Most High God, as well as unprofitable to ourselves.” Come eagerly, come expectantly, come excited.
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 and unconfessed sin. 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. This can be done before even leaving for church or during times of quiet preparation in the service. 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 behold wondrous things out of 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. Matthew 5:24 warns against coming to worship while harboring anger or bitterness against a brother. Again, that kind of disunity be reconciled and resolved, as far as is possible, before we come before the Lord in worship.
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 or two hours a week to listen to our pastor so we should be sure that we are making the most of the time. 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. This is a very good thing to pray for throughout the week and on Sunday morning, that God would give us both the desire and the ability to heed the Word as it is preached.
After the Service
Traditionally a portion of Sunday afternoons was dedicated to gathering as a family and speaking about the sermon and perhaps looking over notes taking during it. Many families would sit down together and re-read the passage of Scripture that had been preached on that very morning and would share what they had learned. It was an opportunity for the father to ask his children for their understanding and to help them make application. This is a custom that has largely been lost, but we would benefit, I’m sure, by its recovery.
Pray For Application
After the service, perhaps during some quiet time on Sunday afternoon, we would again do well to 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 and application usually requires dedicated though, reflection, meditation. Who knows what application of truth God will draw out of us if we spend time reflecting on what we have heard.
Our final responsibility is to imitate the Bereans of old who “received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11). We need to be sure that we do not blindly accept what the pastor teaches us, but that we diligently 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, as those who sit under the preaching of the Word, are to prepare ourselves even during the week. And on the Lord’s Day we 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 while we coast along as the beneficiaries of his hard labor. It is time for us to take seriously our role in the preaching of the Word of God. I post this article on a Tuesday. Perhaps it is worth asking: what are you doing today to gain the greatest benefit from the sermon you heard just two days ago? And what are you doing today to prepare yourself for the sermon you will hear just five short days from now?