When your pastor stands up to begin his sermon on Sunday, do you struggle to pay attention? Are you focused and alert for the first five minutes, and then you find yourself planning your to do list for the week or wondering what you are going to eat for lunch?
It happens to all of us, and I wanted to give you five quick tips for staying engaged, attentive, and actually remembering what the sermon was about!
Here are five suggestions for getting the most out of a sermon:
- Reading the Bible text before the sermon.
- Doodling your sermon notes.
- Writing down questions to discuss with your family/children/community group.
- Praying through the sermon.
- Supplementing your Bible reading with commentary.
Those are the broad suggestions; now, let’s dig a little deeper. But before we do, here’s a video I made explaining some of the thought processes around this post. I hope it’s helpful!
Tip 1: Read the Bible Text Before Sunday.
Many pastors set up their sermon series by preaching through a book of the Bible at a time. We call this exegesis. A pastor who preaches exegetically simply goes methodically through the book in question, analyzing and interpreting the Biblical text as well as applying the text in question to the current culture.
Exegesis literally means “to draw out”; the pastor is drawing out the meaning of the text. If your pastor is preaching through a book of the Bible systematically, try reading ahead in the book and drawing your own conclusions before you show up for church on Sunday.
Your preparation work will
- Make you familiar with the text
- Increase your interest in the text
- Expand your awareness of further application of the Scripture passage.
For example, our pastor (who also happens to be my husband) is preaching through 1 John right now. Based on what he covered last week, I can read the next part of the chapter as part of my morning devotional time and meditate on what I learn, maybe jotting down a few notes and anything I find confusing or would like to learn more about.
The preparatory work I put in throughout the week means that on Sunday, I am already familiar with the text and have also drawn my own conclusions about how to apply what I’ve learned to my own life or the culture at large. This awareness and familiarity puts me in a frame of mind that wants to listen and wants to engage in understanding.
If I found a part of the Scripture passage confusing, I will be curious to know how my pastor might explain it or grapple with that same verse or verses.
This “prep work” can really make a huge difference in how you approach the Sunday sermon on a weekly basis and make that sermon so much more applicable and interesting. Some pastors will even tell you exactly what the passage will be for the sermon ahead, but not everyone does.
Another way to go about this is to come at it from the opposite direction; instead of reading ahead, go back and re-read the Bible passage from the previous Sunday’s sermon, expanding upon and worshiping God through what you’ve already learned or been exposed to from your pastor’s sermon.
I prefer the first method of reading ahead in preparation, but this might not be possible if you don’t know what’s coming.
If your pastor is preaching topically (that is, on a topic such as relationships, parenting or stewardship), there may be no way to know what Bible portions he will use as his basis for the sermon. In this case, a post-Sunday analysis will be the way to move forward and will still expand and enhance your Sunday worship experience as you come each week with more knowledge and appreciation of the subject at hand.
Resource: Crossway Publishers put out a Scripture Journal for each book of the Bible. The Journal has the Bible text on the left side of the page, and a blank, lined page on the right side for notes. This may be a perfect way to keep all of your thoughts and notes in one space (if you don’t want to mark up your Bible and would like to keep the Bible text and notes together). My husband is a big fan of these journals, and while I really like the concept, I just wish they had more space for notes and meditation. I’d be glad to have two pages for notes for every one page of text.
Tip 2: Doodle Your Sermon Notes
This tip is for all of the creatives out there who find themselves drawing mountain scenes or pictures of your dog or something similar during the sermon note.
Staying busy with your hands is actually a great way to keep your mind engaged and attentive, except when it isn’t. You may get so busy trying to shade in your mountain vista that your mind wanders instead of focusing.
How about trying to do some creative lettering or illustrating of the major themes you hear in the sermon? There are some really amazing examples of this technique on Pinterest or just Google “sermon note doodles” to find some inspiration and guidance.If you want to watch a YouTube video that details this process, I heartily recommend Krystal Whitten’s video.
It’s also fun to follow her on Instagram also. She does some beautiful lettering; don’t let yourself get discouraged if your sermon notes don’t come out as beautifully as hers. Mine never does either!
But this is still a good, stretching mental exercise and way to work your brain and stay engaged during a Sunday sermon.
You could also recommend trying this method to your children if they accompany you to Sunday worship. Sometimes that sermon time can be really difficult for little ones, and this is a great way for them to pay attention. They can draw pictures or write one of two words based on their ages and abilities. This would be a great jumping off point for discussion later in the week as they show you their pictures or notes and you talk about what they learned from the sermon.
Tip 3: Write down Discussion Questions
If you are not a big note taker, you can streamline note taking and create some talking points for your family, friends or small group by writing down questions that came to mind while listening to the sermon.
These questions can be about a tricky or obscure Scripture passage or they can be basic comprehension and application questions.
If coming up with your own questions seems difficult, here’s another suggestion:
Dr. Tim Keller, author and pastor) created a list of questions to ask when going through a Bible passage. Try asking those questions during each sermon and listening for the answers.
Here are the five questions:
- [Based on this text], how can I praise [God]?
- How can I confess my sins on the basis of this text?
- If this is really true, what wrong behavior, what harmful emotions or false attitudes result in me when I forget this? Every problem is because you have forgotten something. What problems are you facing?
- What should I be aspiring to on the basis of this text?
- Why is God telling me this today?
Listening with intent to answer a question or facilitate discussion really helps to keep our minds engaged and focused.
Tip 4: Pray Through the Sermon
Praying while listening is another great way to interact mentally while your pastor is preaching.
As he preaches, do you become aware of
- Sins you need to confess?
- Aspects of God’s nature for which you want to praise Him?
- Ways that you want to grow and be nurtured as a believer?
- Blessings for which you want to give thanks to God?
Even as you listen to a sermon, you can converse with God about these things as they come to mind.
If you’re having a hard time staying awake and alert, pray about that too!
That silent conversation can take place in conjunction with listening to a sermon and may also increase your awareness of your dependence on God and his power to sustain you.
Tip 5: Supplement Your Bible Reading with Commentary, Related Books and other Sermons
One way you can prompt a deeper understanding and engagement with the weekly sermon is to expand your knowledge with commentaries.
Commentaries are books written by Biblical scholars which literally “comment” on a book of the Bible, verse by verse. The introduction of the commentary will often give an overview of the book and help you understand more about its original recipients and their world.
Commentaries range in price considerably, but I have been able to borrow commentaries online through the Hoopla app; I recommend trying Hoopla or your local library unless you’d really like to purchase a commentary.
Two warnings as you reach for any commentary:
- Commentaries are written by people. Even though these people are scholars and very knowledgeable, they don’t know everything. At the end of the day, they are giving you their opinion and nothing more. Bear that in mind if you’re tempted to place their interpretations of Scripture more highly than they ought to be.
- Not all commentaries are equal. Some are more “lay-people” friendly than others; some are quite academic and may add to confusion instead of relieving it. Ask your pastor if he could recommend a good commentary or two; most are happy to oblige.
If the sermon series is topical, ask your pastor if he could recommend a book on the subject.
If reading is not your thing, you could listen to a sermon series or podcast on the subject. Again, because we’re all human and coming at a topic from a lot of different angles, this may bring up more questions than clarity.
It’s good for your brain to wrestle with differing opinions, and helpful for you to go back to Scripture and say, “This is what Rev. So-and-so says, now what does the Bible say about this?” I’d also encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you venture out into the often murky waters of human analysis.
If you really get in a quandary about something, continue to pray and ask your pastor about your question.
I remember when I was in college, I wrote a letter to my pastor (location and shyness kept me from asking him in person) asking him a question about the morality of capital punishment. He wrote back and included a transcript of a sermon as well as some key Bible passages to consult. It was helpful and encouraging to know he cared and took my concerns seriously.
Some Final Thoughts:
I hope you don’t read this post and say to yourself, “Well, I can never do any of those. I guess I’m just stuck with letting my mind wander for half an hour each Sunday.”
I absolutely agree that it is a battle to stay focused and engaged when the sermon starts. But I’m not here to shame you! By no means! If I didn’t struggle myself, I would not have written this post!
My goal is for you to say, “Paying attention during the sermon can be hard, but it is absolutely worth the effort.”
The other important thing to remember is that you are not alone!
Remember Tip 4 (Pray Through the Sermon)?
When we call out to God in our frustration and overwhelm, we aren’t just speaking words into the air.
God hears us, and He has promised to never leave us or forsake us. Praying that the Holy Spirit will be powerful and present as you listen to the sermon is a prayer that delights your Heavenly Father. He does not grow weary, and His steadfast love is always showered down on us, His beloved children.
My encouragement to you (and to me) is to Keep Up the Good Fight!
Evil would love to win the day, but there’s a reason we are called in Ephesians 5 to put on the whole armor of God so that we can withstand the attacks of the Evil One. We stand and fight instead of giving up!
It may seem silly to get so worked up about whether you pay attention during a sermon or not, but every time God’s Word is opened and proclaimed, we are encouraged and strengthened. And if we don’t even try to pay attention, we lose the opportunity to grow in our faith.
So yes, we acknowledge our weakness, but we also acknowledge our determination to trust and obey God, and to pay attention every time His Word is proclaimed!
Blessings to you, Friend, as we join together in this endeavor.