But what exactly is involved in sermon reception, and what is the responsibility of the listeners? Most Presbyterians think they know what the pastors are supposed to do (see W-2.2007 for an exact definition.) But what is required of those sitting in the pews each week? In the Directory for Worship we are told that “listening to the reading of Scripture requires expectation and concentration” (W-2.2006). What are some useful criteria for hearing and responding to a sermon?
Perhaps the best place to start is to define what a good sermon is not. It may be irrelevant, for example, that a sermon is entertaining if it does not reach the hearts and lives of the hearers and has no spiritual depth. It may not matter how short and easily digestible it is if it contains no discernible Word from the Lord. It may be inconsequential that the preacher is a great storyteller or a media expert if the message is long on anecdotes and images and short on theology.
When you are listening, consider the following checklist.
» Is the sermon based on Scripture, or is it a group of stories looking for a Bible text to authenticate a previously conceived message? Does the sermon take Reformed principles of reading the Bible seriously? Is it based on careful exegesis that reflects the latest and best analysis of the biblical text? Does the preacher know what the text means in its own historical and literary contexts, or is it cloaked with generalities like “The Bible says,” or “Scripture claims that,” etc.? Does it reflect the assertion in the Confession of 1967 that the Bible is not a witness among many but “the witness without parallel” (C-9.27)?
» Is the sermon portable? Will you talk about it on the way, at the dinner table, at work, in the kitchen, at school, in the gym or on vacation? Does it touch your lives directly or does it seem abstruse, impractical or banal? Will it satisfy the longing expressed in Jeremiah 37:17, “Is there any word from the Lord?” Does it address the critical question, “What is God saying to us today through this Scripture?”
» Does the sermon challenge you to use the best gifts that God is giving you; does it contain any summons to obedience; does it bring what the author of Hebrews calls “exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22) , i.e., a demand for spiritual and moral excellence? Does it call you to confess what you have done or have left undone; does it urge you to turn around and change your ways?
» One final criterion for a good sermon is one that my mother insisted on as a Presbyterian elder and one I have attempted to remember in all my years of preaching: “Does the sermon have Jesus Christ at center?” In 1982 the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church adopted a statement that put it succinctly, saying that a primary guideline for hearing God’s Word is that we remember that Jesus Christ is the center of Scripture and that all interpretations of it should be in accord with his twofold rule of love, loving God and loving neighbor (Biblical Authority and Interpretation, Office of Theology and Worship, 1998, 60-61).
What do you hear when you listen to a sermon? Are you prepared to take it seriously and discuss it critically with other members? If someone asks for your opinion (it might even be the pastor), do you have the tools to offer thoughtful and critical feedback based on Reformed principles of preaching and listening?