Revive Our Hearts Podcast

The Listener's Role

Leslie Basham: Yesterday, at church were you listening with your heart? Here’s Nancy Leigh DeMoss.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: If your heart is hardened or it’s preoccupied with things of the world, the most anointed preaching is not going to make a whole lot of impact on you, if the condition of your heart isn’t right. But, if your heart is receptive, prepared, and responsive, you are going to find life, grace, and ministry from God to your heart, every time the Word of God is proclaimed.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss, author of the book, Choosing Forgiveness.

Here’s a radical idea: Your pastor isn’t solely responsible for the sermon at church. You play a part, too. Nancy is about to change the way you approach your pastor’s messages in a new series called How To Listen to a Sermon.

Nancy: Do you ever find yourself—honestly—waking up on Sunday morning and wishing you didn’t have to go to church? Do you ever find yourself having a hard time staying awake in church? Do you ever find yourself daydreaming during the message, or making a mental “to do” list while the pastor is preaching?

I’ll just raise my hand on that one; I’m guilty of that. Do you ever find yourself picking apart the message or the preacher in your mind, or not getting anything out of the sermon? Do you ever find yourself wishing your pastor would be more something—fill in the blank?

Or do you ever find yourself forgetting what the message was about before you get home from church? Can anybody relate to anything on that list? Okay, I see some nods there. Of course, we have all faced these kinds of thoughts and struggles when it comes to church and listening to preaching at church.

When we find ourselves bored or distracted through the preaching of the Word, or we feel like the messages aren’t impacting our lives, our tendency naturally is to blame—who? The preacher; the one who’s doing the preaching.

But I’ve discovered that sometimes the problem is not so much with the preacher as it is with the hearer. If we’re not benefitting from the ministry of the Word as it is publicly proclaimed in our local churches, the fault may not lie in the one proclaiming the Word. It may lie in our readiness to hear, to receive, and to respond to the Word.

The fact is that two people can listen to the very same message and one can be bored and unmoved, and the other can be convicted and his life is transformed. What makes the difference?

The difference, I believe, lies in the condition of our hearts as we’re hearing the Word proclaimed. If your heart is hardened or it’s preoccupied with things of the world, the most anointed preaching is not going to make a whole lot of impact on you if the condition of your heart isn’t right.

But, if your heart is receptive, prepared, and responsive, you are going to find life, grace, and ministry from God to your heart, every time the Word of God is proclaimed.

So over these next several days, I want to give some suggestions for how to listen to a sermon. You might title this, “How to Get the Most Out of Your Pastor’s Preaching.” Some of these are just practical suggestions that I have found helpful. They’re not all absolutes, but some of these come right out of Scripture.

As I think about the 47 years that I’ve been going to church and all the sermons I’ve heard over that time, I’ve learned some things about how to hear God’s Word in a way that really makes a difference in your life.

I want to focus in this session today on what to do before you get to church—preparing for public worship. That is so important.

There is a classic book by E.M. Bounds called, Powerful and Prayerful Pulpits that has really inspired me over the years as a communicator of truth. He talks in that book, not just about the person who’s preaching from the pulpit, but also the person who’s listening.

E.M. Bounds, who was a great classic writer on prayer, says, “Without preparation the preacher cannot preach to profit.” Now, we all would agree with that. If the preacher doesn’t prepare his messages, then his messages aren’t going to be a lot of benefit.

But E.M. Bounds goes on to say, “Without preparation the hearer cannot hear to profit. The sermon may fail because the preacher has failed in prayerful and thoughtful preparation; [but] the sermon may [also] fail because of the [lack] of thorough preparation in the pew” (p.84-86).

If your preacher doesn’t prepare his sermon, the sermon may be a dud. But the sermon may be a dud because we didn’t prepare our hearts to listen to the sermon.

John Stott says this: “We must never, therefore, let our Sundays become mere routine engagements; in that attitude of mind, we shall trifle them away by a humdrum formality. Every Sunday is meant to be a great day, [the Lord’s day,] and we should approach it expectantly, in full awareness of this.”

Before Sunday ever comes, we should be preparing and expecting God to speak to us and to work in our lives.

So what can we do to prepare before we get to church? Number one, pray for your pastor—pray for him as he prepares for Sunday. He’s thinking about his message probably most of the week. Are you thinking about him and his preparation throughout the week, or do you just get there on Sunday and you say, “I hope you have a great meal ready for me,” but you didn’t pray for his preparation?

Pray that his schedule would be free from unnecessary distractions. Pray for him; pray that God will give him understanding into the meaning of the Word. You think he just knows all this stuff? He learns it the same way you learn it—by study—by diligent study of the Word of God.

Pray that God will speak to him personally through the Word, and that he will respond in humility and obedience. Pray that God will help him to communicate the truth with clarity, freedom, passion, and power.

Gardiner Spring is a name that may not be very well-known to you, but he pastored a church for 63 years in the 1800s, during the Second Great Awakening. He wrote some wonderful things on prayer, preaching, and sermon preparation.

He says this, “If a people are looking for rich sermons from their minister . . .” Here’s a man who had preached to his congregation for 63 years. “If people are looking for rich sermons from their minister, their prayers must supply him with the needed material. If they expect powerful and successful sermons, their prayers must make him a blessing to the souls of men!”

“Would they have him come to them with a pounding heart?” Do the people want their pastor to come to them Sunday morning as he steps into the pulpit, “with a pounding heart, a burning eye, and a glowing tongue, and with sermons bathed in tears and filled with prayer?” Is that the kind of preaching you want in your pulpit? “If so, their prayers must urge him to pray, and their tears must inspire his heart.”

Do you want a pastor who preaches inspired, anointed sermons? Then pray and weep before the Lord, and ask God to give him that kind of heart and that kind of ability.

James McGready is another name you may not be familiar with. He was a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian minister in the late 1700s and the early 1800s. His chief claim to fame was that he was so ugly people stopped in the street and would say to one another, “What does he do?” Others would answer, “He’s a preacher.” Then they would react and say, “A man with a face like that must have something to say!” I mean it—that’s really what he was known for!

James McGready settled down in Logan County in Kentucky to pastor three little churches. He said in his journal that the winter of 1799 was filled with weeping and mourning with the people of God; that it was like Sodom and Gomorrah. The state of lawlessness prevailed. This was the wild, western Kentucky frontier at the time, and people were not seeking God. It was a time of lawlessness when people were running from God.

But this man was burdened; he was only supposed to pastor three little churches. He finally started something; he got his people to agree to pray for him at sunset on Saturday and at sunrise on Sunday morning. The people began to pray, to pray for their minister, to pray for him as he proclaimed the Word of God.

In the summer of 1800, God sent a great revival that swept through the entire frontier. Many historians, looking back, say it began with those people praying for God’s anointing on their pastor. As they prayed for their pastor, God was also tenderizing their hearts, preparing them to hear the preaching of the Word.

This is where you hear about the great camp meeting revivals. This is the time that you read about, during that revival a communion service where 11,000 people came. This was not in the mega church days; this was in the wild frontier days. But people came—drawn by the power of God, when God’s people started to pray for their minister.

Let me say, by the way, it’s important in our churches that we give our pastors the freedom to devote themselves, and their time to the ministry of prayer and the Word. So many pastors today don’t have the time that they need for preaching and for prayer because they’re so bogged down with administrative details and other responsibilities.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t have to do any of that, but it’s important for our churches to recognize that these men—if they’re going to prepare great meals for us spiritually—need time to cook those meals. They need time to study; they need time to prepare.

The apostles in the early church said in Acts 6, “But we will devote ourselves [as our number one primary priority to the ministry] to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (verse 4).

Don’t expect your pastor to have great messages if he has to be the CEO of your mega church or your little church. Whatever the size, your pastor needs time to prepare, and we should expect them to spend that time in prayer and study.

We need to make sure we’re praying for them as we also prepare for the weekend services. Then, as you prepare for the Lord’s Day and your weekend services at your church . . . If your pastor is preaching a series from a particular book of the Bible, take time during the week to read ahead and meditate on the text that he will be preaching from.

Right now, my pastor is preaching through the book of Romans, and he may be doing that until the Rapture. It’s taking a very long time because he’s going verse by verse through the book of Romans. But we know each Sunday where he’s going to be the next week; we know the paragraph or the passage he’ll be preaching on.

I also go to a Sunday School class in that church where the book of 2 Timothy is being taught. The book of Isaiah was being taught the last couple of years. I have found that if I will take time during the week—and I don’t want to suggest I always do this; I don’t—but it’s so helpful when I take time before the service to read through the passage that’s going to be taught. It is good to meditate on it, to ask God to speak to me before I even hear the message.

Then as you prepare your heart for public worship, before you get to church . . . Let me talk for a few moments here about Saturday evenings. Those of you—which would be most of us—who worship on Sunday . . . If your time of worship is another time, then just back this up. I think it’s so important that we prepare for public worship the night before.

That means, if Saturday night is the night before (for you), let me suggest that you turn off the TV. Now, I’m not giving this as an absolute, but I think it’s also valuable to limit social activities, to limit the kinds of activities that we do on Saturday evening. I’m not suggesting you be legalistic about this or that I never have fun on a Saturday evening, but I am saying if you want your heart to be prepared for the Lord’s Day, then you need to be doing things that will cultivate your appetite.

You tell your kids at 5:00 in the evening, “You can’t have candy or ice cream.” Why? “Because it will spoil your appetite for dinner.” If you want to have a good appetite on the Lord’s Day—on Sunday morning—then don’t be spoiling your appetite the night before with things that are going to take away your hunger for God’s Word.

I find it so helpful if I will spend time on Saturday evening reading the Scripture, meditating on the Scripture, asking God to prepare my heart for the preaching of His Word.

Pastor John Piper has written on this subject, and he too has suggested turning off the TV may be one of the best ways to prepare your heart for worship and the Word. I’m telling you, you can’t be watching some of these late night Saturday night programs and laughing at the things the world thinks are funny then expect to come on Sunday morning—you or your kids—and have your heart eager to jump into Romans chapter 9—some heavy, difficult passage of truth—if you haven’t been preparing your heart.

John Piper says, “It astonishes me how many Christians watch the same banal, empty, silly, trivial, titillating, suggestive, immodest TV shows that most unbelievers watch—and then wonder why their spiritual lives are weak and their worship experience is shallow with no intensity.”

He says, “If you really want to hear the Word of God the way He means to be heard in truth and joy and power, turn off the television on Saturday night and read something true and great and beautiful and pure and honorable and excellent and worthy of praise.” Which he’s quoting there from Philippians chapter 4, verse 8.

He says, “Then watch your heart un-shrivel and watch it begin to hunger for the Word of God.” There’s a lot of truth in that; again, I want to be careful. Some of you will hear this and will go home and tell your husband or your kids, “No more TV on Saturday nights.” Maybe your husband is not ready for you to make that decision or your kids aren’t ready for you to make that decision.

You may not be able to control this for the other people around you. Don’t be a stick in the mud about it; don’t be self-righteous about it; don’t be legalistic about it. By acting that way, you will never cultivate an appetite for righteousness in your family members. But insofar as it’s possible—as you can do it without creating offense—let me encourage you to set aside the night before public worship in some way for seeking the Lord.

I don’t want you to get the impression that I spend all my Saturday evenings just reading my Bible and praying and preparing for Sunday. But I’m conscious that I’m heading into the Lord’s Day. If I do go out or I have social activities—I don’t do that a lot on Saturday nights—but, if I do, I’m conscious that I don’t want to be out late or later than necessary. I want to be focusing my heart and my mind—preparing.

If I just drop into the Sunday morning worship service cold, that’s how my heart is going to be—cold, unresponsive. Then I’m going to say, “This preacher—I just don’t get anything out of him.” Well, it may be that my heart just wasn’t prepared. So prepare on Saturday nights.

Then, prepare your heart through whatever means. Ask God to prepare your heart for the preaching of the Word.

Do you remember the story in Luke chapter 8; the parable that Jesus told about the sower who went out and sowed seed? It fell on four different types of ground. Some of the ground was hard and the seed couldn’t penetrate the surface, so it didn’t take root. The birds came and ate it and it was taken away.

Some of the seed fell on the ground that was rocky, so it went into the ground and it took root, but the roots were shallow because it was rocky soil. At first it looked like it was a flourishing plant, but then testing came and the sun came out; the heat came out. Because it didn’t have a deep root, it didn’t last.

Then some of the seed fell on ground that was thorny, and the thorns choked out the seeds so it couldn’t really become fruitful.

Only one ground was the good ground. The seed fell on the good ground, and when it did, it took root and it produced fruit (verses 4-8, paraphrased).

When Jesus was talking about these four soils, He was talking about the condition of our hearts; our readiness to receive the Word of God. The condition of your heart is seen in how you respond when the Word is proclaimed.

The pastor’s heart may be prepared, but if your heart isn’t prepared—if it’s stony soil or thorny soil or hard soil—it doesn’t matter how great the message is; it isn’t going to take root, and it’s not going to produce fruit.

The seed of the Word needs receptive, fertile, prepared soil. How do you do that? One thing I’d suggest is that in preparation for the Lord’s Day, you make sure you have put away all known sin; that you have repented of anything God has shown you.

We should be doing that perpetually; we shouldn’t wait for Saturday night to take a bath spiritually. But as you prepare for worship say, “Lord, is there anything that could be standing between You and me that would cause my heart not to be able to receive this Word?”

Maybe pray the prayer in Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (verses 23-24).

I think of that passage in James 1 that says, “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness.” Get rid of it; deal with all known sin. “And receive with meekness,” or as the NIV says, “[Humbly accept] the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (verse 21). Before you can receive the Word of God, you’ve got to put away the things . . . Get rid of the things that are standing in the way of the Word of God in your life.

So as you prepare your heart, put away all known sin and then ask God to give you a sense of anticipation, expectation, and anticipation. Come to church asking God to meet with you and expecting to hear from God, and expecting to be different when you leave than you were when you arrived.

This, I think, is one of the key things in my own life that has made my church experience such a blessing over the years. Many times, as I’m en route to church, I’m praying and I’m saying, “Lord, please speak to me today.” Not just praying for the minister, not just praying for other people to hear, but praying for my own heart and expecting—anticipating.

I go to church—I can tell you this truthfully—almost always expecting that God is going to speak to me. That’s no small thing to me: that God, the God of the universe, would speak to me. I go asking Him to do that.

Now I expect that in my quiet time, my personal time with the Lord. But in the collective, corporate worship of God’s people, I expect God to meet with me and to meet with us. I almost never go away disappointed.

I’ve heard some less-than-stellar preaching over the years, and you probably have too. I’ve done some less-than-stellar teaching of the Word over the years, so I’m kind of sympathetic toward that. But I’ve been in different churches—big churches, small churches—I’ve been in churches in other parts of the world. I’ve been in churches where pastors preached and didn’t have a whole lot of training. I’ve heard some pastors who could really put you to sleep.

But I want to tell you, there is hardly a sermon I ever hear where God does not minister to my heart. I mean, if the man just opens the Bible and reads it, that’s God speaking. I go with this sense of expectation, anticipation; asking God to speak. I want to tell you, I am virtually never disappointed.

Now having said that, not every meal is an equally great feast, any more than every meal that you fix at your house is an equally great feast. But I get fed; I get nourished, and God speaks to me. I think part of it is I try before I get to public worship to prepare my heart, to go in a spirit of anticipation and expectation. “Lord, speak to me; I’m listening.”

When I come in that heart attitude, He really does speak. I want to encourage you—over these next days, between now and the next Lord’s Day service—to be praying for your pastor, for the one who will proclaim the Word to you, and to preparing your heart and asking God to speak to you.

Lord, I thank You for our pastors, for these men who are faithful in the pulpit to proclaim Your Word; men who are studying Your Word right now, today, so they can preach it to us this coming Lord’s Day. I pray Your blessing on them; I pray Your blessing on my pastor as he prepares to preach Your Word.

I pray Your blessing on my Sunday School teacher. I pray Your blessing on men of God in pulpits across this land that they will be faithful students and men of the Word; that You will anoint them; that You will speak to them before they speak to us.

I pray, Lord, that You will give us once again, in our land, pulpits that are aflame with righteousness and give us praying people. Just think, O Lord, if we were to start praying for our pastors Saturday night at sundown, and Sunday morning at sunrise. If millions of your people across the country would start praying that way, praying for our pastors, praying for our churches. We might just be blessed to see the revival that I believe You want to send to our land.

Lord, we pray for You to come and visit—to come and meet with us. We ask You to bless the public preaching of Your Word, the public worship of Your people, for the edification of Your people and the expansion of Your kingdom. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

Leslie: I think a lot of us are going to get a lot more out of the sermon next Sunday after hearing Nancy Leigh DeMoss. She’s been challenging you to rethink your role in a church service. Today’s message kicks off a new series called How to Listen to a Sermon.

Nancy has provided some thought-provoking questions today, which I hope you’ll share with a friend. You can visit www.ReviveOurHearts.com to email them a free transcript. This series is especially relevant during the month of October, which has been designated Pastor’s Appreciation Month.

During this time we want to help you give your pastor a new level of attention during sermons. We want to give your pastor’s wife a special gift set. It includes Nancy’s new book, Choosing Forgiveness, and a lot of other special gifts. We even provide a color coordinated gift bag, tissue paper, and card.

You can find more information on the Pastor’s Wife Gift Set at ReviveOurHearts.com. While you’re at our website, would you sign up for the Revive Our Hearts Daily Connection? It’s a daily summary of the program delivered to your inbox.

Every day you’ll get key quotes from Nancy’s teaching. If you want to hear more, you can click on one of the links to listen to a message or read a transcript. You can also easily click to find resources or free downloads on that day’s topic. Why don’t you give it a try by visiting ReviveOurHearts.com?

Tomorrow, Nancy gets practical. You’ll get some concrete steps on how to get more out of a sermon. Please be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

Joshua Harris. Stop Dating the Church: Fall in Love with the Family of God. Multnomah Press, 2004.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.

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