With most of our churches going online instead of being able to gather as congregations, Christians must avail themselves of all the means possible to sustain their faith in Christ. The means that the Lord has chiefly promised to bless is the preaching of his Word (See Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 155). However, there is a difference between being present for and sitting under the preaching of God’s Word, and “tuning in.” When one is worshipping physically at a church service, nonverbal cues are present which place the reading and preaching of the Scriptures in its proper place. One cannot turn the preacher off or push the mute button while worshipping in person.
So, the act of hearing a sermon changes when it takes place through media, rather than in person. How can you get the most out of a sermon when all you can do is “tune in?”
First, pray. Pray that God would give the minister grace to open the Scriptures, to explain them, and to apply them. This is not something to take for granted. While a minister can study the text and read some commentaries to confirm what a passage of Scripture means, the key is to apply the Word of God to the hearers in his particular congregation. Every congregation is different, and filled with all kinds of people. There are people who have not received Christ yet. There are people on the fringes who may be in doubt about their faith, or overconfident in their faith. There are sincere Christians who struggle with assurance of salvation. There are backsliding Christians who need to be reclaimed. There are children who are being raised in Godly homes, but are growing in capacity to understand the Word. And there are Christians who are abiding in Christ who need to be comforted.
In preaching, the heart is the target. The minister addresses the mind, but in this case, the mind is the gateway to the heart. The goal is not information delivery, but transformation. So, pray for the act of preaching itself, and for the hearers, that the Lord would open hearts and minds, and accomplish the work for which the Word of Christ is preached.
Second, prepare yourself physically. While it’s tempting to sleep in and go through the exercises of worship while having your first cup of coffee in your pajamas, this is not conducive to receiving all the grace that the Lord has for us. I have found it helpful, as much as possible, to go through the normal routine of any other Lord’s Day. I’m not advocating for you to put on a suit and tie, or a dress and heels, but get dressed.
Third, if your congregation distributes the order of worship in advance, study the order of worship. Read the readings. Look up the hymns and psalms. In a well-planned service, the readings and the music selection will provide cues as to what to listen for in the sermon.
Fourth, whether your whole service is broadcast, or your order of worship is distributed and your church has a recorded sermon, go through the exercises of worship. Worship and preaching are a seamless garment. Pray the prayers, sing the hymns, do the readings, and go through the postures of a normal service in your congregation. This is important for engaging yourself. Merely watching the service on TV is a good way not to get much out of it.
Fifth, prepare yourself mentally for the sermon. Our congregation distributes sermon notes in advance of the service. Go through the sermon notes. Read a selection of a commentary on the sermon – not a technical commentary but one that will “prime the pump.” I’m proposing something that will take 5-10 minutes, not studying the passage as if you are going to preach the sermon. For any passage in the Bible, I would recommend Matthew Henry For the gospels, I recommend J. C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. Our pastor is preaching on the Beatitudes right now, so I would recommend Thomas Watson’s The Beatitudes. This is not so that you can “correct the preacher” or “see what he leaves out.” The depths of Scripture are infinite. Not everything can be said in a single sermon. Ministers must choose carefully what to preach in a sermon, and what ought to be said on another Lord’s Day. Part of praying for the sermon is that the minister would have a sense of what the congregation needs most from the portion of Scripture he preaches, right here and right now.
Sixth, listen carefully to the sermon. Turn your phone off. Hide the remote control. Make sure there are no distractions. If it helps you, take notes. If you have children with you, help them to understand. But above all, engage yourself in the sermon.
Seventh, meditate on and review the sermon after you have heard it. Preaching is meant to edify you throughout the week. The effectiveness of a sermon is not tied to the moment of preaching. God can continue to use it throughout the week for comfort, encouragement, exhortation, and rebuke. Meditating on and reviewing the sermon is one of the means that God uses to continue to benefit his people after the sermon is preached.
Eighth, pray for the fruit of the preached Word. Since the benefit of preaching is not tied to the moment of the sermon, pray specifically that the Lord would use the sermon in the lives of his people, and namely, that the application of the message to the conscience would bear much fruit.
As far as my personal preference, if your congregation only records an audio sermon, or the best that you can do with limited bandwidth is to listen to your pastor on Sermon audio, I don’t think anything is lost compared to video. The worship experience is probably better on video, but as for the sermon itself, audio is just fine.
Even if you adopt only a few of these suggestions, it will be time well spent and enable you to get more out of the preached Word.