As you saunter into church this Lord’s Day, please do not view yourself as a passive participant in God’s worship just because you are a passive recipient of God’s grace. In today’s church, too often have we viewed worship services as a spectator’s pastime. A highly choreographed worship band sings us songs while some poor Quasimodo operates the light show from the rafters, and we stand lip syncing the words with maybe a little volume coming out during the choruses. Some guy strums a guitar while one of the worship back-up girls steps forward to pray a prayer with the words “Father God” said fifty-five times. Little sermonettes are given between songs while instruments are changed and sheet music arranged, explaining why this song means what it means or why it was written and how much the CDs are in the back. And then, a guy gets up to talk about how your life can be better if you would do such-and-such and figure out your purpose.
Such is the evangelical church in America, exceptions notwithstanding.
But even in churches where that big-box chicanery is not the norm, there’s something a tad off when it comes to congregation participation. The music might be brought by Bitter Blue Betty on the organ and a choir might sing along, and a spirit-filled congregation might sing along with the arias and refrains of Isaac Watts (who I’m pretty sure is the Hymnist Emeritus of the Cherubim in Heaven). The prayers might be liturgically involved, and the congregation might pray together in small groups or pray along during the corporate gathering. But still, there might be a problem in Zion.
When it comes time for the preacher to preach, all too often the congregation sits down, kicks their proverbial feet up (pews don’t recline, last I checked) and considers their job finished. Now the performer (also known as the pastor) stands before the congregation and performs an oratory – a consecrated monologue known as a “sermon” – and the crowd listens (or doesn’t), and then goes home. Too often, worship becomes a play of parts, a grand farce, and once the actor’s role is fulfilled, they phase out until it’s time to say amen and go take the casserole out of the oven.
Might the story of Eutychus remind us that falling asleep during the sermon is not recommended, and the chance of divine healing with no Apostles around to exercise their Sign Gifts is exceedingly unlikely. While we joke about the snorers in church (we all have them), the reality is that listening to the sermon – and how one listens to the sermon – is as high an act of worship as the preaching itself.
I am under the impression that there is no higher act of worship than Scriptural exposition, except for perhaps the Supper of the Lord. However, that act of Scriptural Exposition, also known as “preaching,” is not just an act of worship on behalf of the preacher. The listener also takes part in that beautiful spoken symphony of praise to God, and their hearing as well as his speaking is carried to the heavens, wafting before the anthropomorphic nostrils of God like incense from his holy altar.
The Prince of Preachers, our beloved Spurgeon, agrees with me.
“Moreover, if the observation be meant to imply that the hearing of sermons is not worshiping God, it is founded on a gross mistake, for rightly to listen to the gospel is one of the noblest parts of the adoration of the Most High. It is a mental exercise, when rightly performed, in which all the faculties of the spiritual man are called into devotional action.
Reverently hearing the Word exercises our humility, instructs our faith, irradiates us with joy, inflames us with love, inspires us with zeal, and lifts us up towards heaven.”
I read this first in Lectures to My Students, which is a candid look at the wisdomisms (new word, don’t care) of Spurgeon toward his pupils. In a school for preachers, Spurgeon wanted to instill in them the prioritized focus of listening to the sermon as an act of worship in and of itself.
Spurgeon says that listening to the sermon…
- Is a mental exercise
- Uses all the faculties of man in worship
- Produces in us humility, faith, joy, love, zeal and
- Brings us closer to God
If you happen to have a Reformed understanding of the Means of Grace, then you have no problem with accepting the reality that listening to the sermon is an efficacious act of worship in which the giver (of attentiveness) is simultaneousy the recipient of grace for their lives.
I have been a pastor for more than 15 years, and I feel no hesitancy whatsoever to reveal that the regular shut-eyes during the Lord’s Day service – those perpetually falling asleep as though they made a habit of counting the sheep of God’s pasture as a means to doze off – are by and large the most ignorant and unspiritual of all the congregation. While one may suffer from an occasional hard night, and some faithful brothers may regularly work all night long and drag themselves into the sanctuary out of sheer force of will, those with no excuse in catnapping while the oracles of God are being delivered might find themselves one day waking up where there is no rest.
Spiritual things are spiritually discerned, according to 1 Corinthians 2:14. One might add, without being so bold or claiming the prophetic gift, that spiritual things are interesting to the spiritual. While listening to the preacher may rise up from within you a rebellion of your flesh to distract you with all kinds of thoughts and amusements, the disciple will listen as though their life depended upon it and will cancel out that little devil upon their shoulder asking them what ballgame they will watch later.
Preaching is supernatural. It is the foolishness that God has chosen to do His work (1 Corinthians 1:21). Preaching the Scripture is what the Holy Spirit uses to make people born again (Romans 10:14-17). When the Words of God (via Scripture, not sermon manuscript) exits the preacher’s mouth, the congregation should stand in awe that it is entering into the ears of the listeners and immediately beginning to accomplish God’s purposes (Isaiah 55:11).
That’s downright supernatural. People should be in awe of what God is doing through preaching, and if they are hard-hearted enough not to receive it, they should at least be curious enough to perceive it in others and sit in awe of it.
I’ll always remember a man who fell asleep in nearly every Bible study and sermon I ever did tell me that my sermons were not meeting his spiritual needs. The accusation was so preposterous, it was one of those rare occasions I took no offense at the insult toward my calling and craft. Likewise, I wouldn’t expect a comatose man to laugh at my jokes or a corpse to take my advice, no matter how stirring it might be. Dead men aren’t roused by Scripture, and the spiritually sick are not helped unless they swallow the divine elixir of Holy Writ. While there’s no reason to be a prosaic, boring sack of monotone drabness as many preachers are, but the fact is the Spirit even accomplishes his work in men who lack personality and smoke machines. In fact, after 35 years of sitting in church, twenty of it under the teaching of other men, I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit is well-pleased to pick unimpressive men through which to do his work, like choosing Gideon who the angel patronizingly called a “mighty man of valor.” God often picks unimpressive men and calls them “pastor” and takes the uncharismatic man and in His divine irony, declares him a leader. Spiritual food serves to satisfy the spiritual man, regardless of whether it is served on a palate of silver or one of gopherwood. Here are some pieces of advice for how you can worship God in your listening:
Listen to the sermon having first prepared your heart with confession of your pride and willful sins.
Pray that God would illumine your mind to understand the scriptures given.
Listen intently, not assuming that you have already heard it all before.
Listen as though it is the first time you have ever heard the Gospel, that you might not be hardened to the joys of your salvation.
Listen for the softened and quieted nuance of the preacher’s words and wit, for it’s often in the over-looked phrases that the deep truths can be found.
Realize that your pastor may not be John MacArthur or Paul Washer, and even though many have preached the Gospel better, no one has preached a better Gospel.
Think about that last one again if you need to.
Take notes. Your pastor spent hours preparing this meal. Take it in, savor it, and take some home in a doggy bag for later.
As Spurgeon would tell us, to listen to a sermon is a high and holy act of worship. Please take part in it this Sunday, and listen with all your might, and do so for the glory of God.