He who has ears to hear…

He who has ears to hear…

Mar 22, 2013

He who has ears to hear…

Overcoming bad habits to really listen to a sermon

by Kevin Butler


To many an unbeliever, preaching has been viewed as “the fine art of talking in someone else’s sleep.”

Sadly, a number of Christians regard the sermon as a “necessary evil” for attending church services.


Whose fault is this? It’s easy to blame the pastor, or “not being that interested” in the topic. Yet communication—and that’s what preaching is—is a two-way street. The congregation needs to cooperate with the preacher if the proclamation of the Word is to be of any benefit.

Listen to these words from Proverbs: “My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” (Prov. 2:1-5)


While the majority of us were born hearing, we all need to learn to really listen. One study done years ago showed that during a 10-minute talk, the hearers operated at a 28% efficiency. So it follows that the longer the talk, the less we understand.


Open my ears, Lord

Bad habits can certainly get in the way of profitable listening.

These suggestions appeared in the Sabbath Recorder back in the 80s, taken from Denver Seminary’s quarterly magazine. Since there are many more media distractions these days, I think these suggestions are even more applicable today!


1. Don’t assume that the subject is dull

When the pastor announces his topic, avoid the temptation to decide that you’ve “heard it all before” or that this couldn’t possibly apply to your life. Even after hearing a dozen sermons on a subject, good listeners believe that they can learn something from everyone.

If you don’t acquire new information, you can at least get a different point of view or fresh illustration. Something useful will come to you when you incline your ear to wisdom.


2 . Don’t criticize the speaker before hearing him out

So many incidental things—like the person’s clothes or posture or use of English—may tempt you not to pay attention. While every speaker has their faults, good listeners know that they can waste valuable time unless they ignore the faults and concentrate on what the pastor has to say.


3. Don’t let your prejudices close your mind

Suppose the preacher tackles a subject that you feel strongly about, and then takes an opposite point of view? You may react by your emotions and simply “turn off” the speaker in your brain. What if the pastor agrees with your position? You can be tempted to “take it all in”—truths, half-truths and fiction—without checking it against the Word. Effective listeners refuse to argue or agree with the speaker until they understand the position and allow him to state his case.


4. Don’t “fake” attention

Experienced church-goers know how to assume the “sanctuary pose” where they gaze at the preacher with their eyes, but wander off inside their heads. (Or these days on their smart phones.)

Skilled listeners battle any boredom by asking, “What is the pastor talking about?” “What major points is he trying to get across?” “Has he proved his case?”


 5. Don’t waste the advantage that thought has over speech

An expert in listening concluded that we think four or five times faster than we can talk. If a preacher delivers 120 words a minute, the congregation thinks at about 500 words per minute. That difference tempts us to “wander off” onto mental side trails. We think about the football game and then come back to the speaker; we wander off to think about getting the car fixed, then come back to the speaker; think about lunch, and back to the speaker.

During one of those excursions, something important can get by. A listener can decide too quickly that a topic is too complex and will quit, because not thinking is easier than thinking.


0413 p05 open mouth CLR


That gap between speech-speed and thought-speed offers us an opportunity for profitable listening. Effective listeners practice three skills as they listen to a sermon.

First, they guess at the next point. If they are listening closely, their guess will probably be right and the speaker’s point will stick in their mind. If they are wrong, they figure out why. Either way, they are more likely to remember a point when they guess than if they hadn’t guessed at all.

Second, good listeners challenge the supporting evidence. They try to identify the proofs a speaker offers for his conclusions and evaluate whether or not the arguments are sound.

Third, effective listeners summarize the sermon. They take the time to ask, “What have we accomplished so far?” This takes only seconds and can be done as the pastor moves from one idea to the next or pauses between points.

If you make three or four summaries throughout the sermon, you’ll remember the essential points. Writing down the outline also helps to summarize and review.


All of us can grow spiritually if we learn to listen to biblical messages. Listening enables us to learn, and learning enables us to grow.

Clip to Evernote