All congregations despair of the preacher not showing up at the church service, and all preachers despair of ever having to preach to empty pews. Preaching is a two-way business. It requires faithful preaching and faithful hearing. Nothing will kill the joy within a preacher’s soul more than careless hearers of God’s holy Word.
Blessed are the people who sit under a sound ministry, and happy is the preacher who finds his congregation keen to hear God’s message for their souls. Not every preacher has that. Some people have no ear to hear God’s Word with earnestness. Restlessness is often observable.
We need to remember that the preaching and the hearing of God’s Word in the congregation is a sacred act. There is a mystery to preaching. It is more than the communication of man with man. It is the Spirit of God speaking to hearts through the Scriptures as expounded by God’s man behind the pulpit. In God’s purpose to edify His people, preaching is the highest form of worship. In question 160, The Larger Catechism addresses the importance of hearing God’s Word aright:
What is required of those that hear the Word preached?
“It is required of those that hear the Word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.”
God commands His people to gather together on the Lord’s day. He also commands that His Word be preached to the congregation, and He promises His gracious presence to minister by His Spirit. The hearer, therefore, must be attentive to the preaching with a sense of expectation that God will meet with his or her soul through the ministry of the Scriptures.
The hearer should spend time in prayer seeking God’s face for His blessing upon this chief means of grace. Pray for the preacher to be divinely guided in the selection of the Scriptures for that particular service. Ask God to enable him to expound the Lord’s Word faithfully and to apply it to hearts wisely. When you pray for the ministry of the Word in these ways, you may expect to be stirred by the Spirit of God to hear what He should say to your soul. You will listen for God’s voice beyond the preacher’s voice.
It is part of the mystery of preaching that in a large, or small, congregation the Spirit of God ministers to each heart in ways that the preacher could never foresee, nor fathom. It is not that the Scripture has more than one sense, but it has many uses, and it has an unlimited number of applications when preached to a mixed audience – hence the mystery of preaching. It is proper, therefore, for the individual believer to pray earnestly that God, by His Spirit, will prepare his heart so he may hear what God would say to His soul.
During the sermon, use the eye-gate. Follow the Scripture reading in your Bible. Let the sound of the words being read be matched with the written word before you. By doing so, it will have double the effect. Keep your Bible open during the preaching. Follow the references cited by the preacher. It will create an interaction in your mind and heart as you hear and read; read and hear.
As much as possible, develop good eye contact with the preacher. He needs to see your eyes to preach to you. When heads are constantly looking downwards or turned elsewhere, it hinders the preacher in his delivery. Should everyone turn away their eyes from the preacher, his work would be nigh impossible. Good eye contact will help him to preach, and it will assist you to hear. Sit where you will see the minister’s face and develop a rapport with him. Children should learn this important lesson. Too often little children are lost in the back seats of the church sanctuary with “big” people blocking out their view. Teachers know that in children’s meetings, where eyes are on the speaker, there is better attention in otherwise easily distracted children. Preaching is more than the sound of words. It is eyes, faces, and hearts engaged. The whole person is preaching, and the whole person should be listening.
What shall I say about the “nuisance” things that hinder the enjoyment of preaching? Cell phones, crying babies, banging doors, candy wrappers, stomping feet with in-and-out traffic. These are all detractors from the hearing of the Lord’s Word. Preachers depend on good ushers to minimize these things. Set good habits within the congregation and let your determination to profit from preaching demonstrate the value you place on the hearing of God’s Word to your soul.
In the book of Hebrews, we are commanded to receive the Word with faith, for it is the chief means to receive God’s blessing from His Word. “For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Hebrews 4:2). The word “mixed” bears the idea of the need to thoroughly digest food so that the nutrients reach the whole body through the blood system. Faith enables you to hear God’s Word as a personal word to your heart and then as you receive the Lord’s Word, it works to nourish your soul. You need to hear it, believe it, and then obey it.