Cromey Online

The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

How to Listen to a Sermon - Take Notes

When sermon times comes at worship, do we look forward to it, dread it or are hopeful for insight or understanding of what the scriptures mean? Most of us have not thought about how we listen. We can ready ourselves to listen and really understand with our minds and hearts what the preacher is saying.

I have been retired for six years and have listened to many sermons during that time. In order to focus on what is said from the pulpit I take notes. In high school, college we deepened our learning by taking notes. I start by noting the time the sermon starts and when it ends.

I listen for the Biblical text. It does not always have to start the sermon. It may come in the middle or at the end. I try to understand the Biblical passages mentioned. Often more than one Biblical reference is confusing to me and makes my mind wander.

At first I jot down everything I hear, summarizing in a few words what the preacher is saying. I look for what the preacher is searching to say, the theme or the main idea.

I listen for stories. Jesus was an artist, a storyteller of immense talent. The stories are what most of us remember from a sermon.

I like stories from the preacher’s own life, foibles, triumphs, failures and successes. They make me feel connected to the humanity of the preacher. In high school our athletic teams mostly lost our games to other schools. The reality and sad humor of those events made me grow and learn something of the way real life is. People often remarked how much my sport stories meant to them.

A friend wrote. “The other day at the cathedral for ordinations, the preacher told the ubiquitous Native American tale. I had already zoned out and was fidgety. It was only when she began to recount personal stories of her relationship knowing the ordinand that it became interesting and I became engaged in the sermon. I really didn't know the ordinand, but by her telling of personal stories, I felt more a colleague than before.”

I write in my notes when I hear the preacher related the sermon or Biblical passage to something going on in my personal, social or political life. Can we love a terrorist, the members of the political party to which I do not belong, or the sixteen-year-old boy who murders his father, mother and two brothers with a pistol?

I note when my mind wanders. I ask myself, “What happened?” When I return to listening closely the preacher has become vague, is not being specific and concrete. She or he is examining a concept, idea or abstraction like the Trinity, Incarnation, or the details of the real presence. These important issues are best handled in discussion groups. We listeners can learn from their mention from the pulpit but it takes real work to pay attention to abstractions for very long.

At the sermons conclusion I take a moment with this checklist.

Was there a clear theme that was stated and illustrated?
Did the stories relate to the theme?
What did I learn from this sermon?
How does this text relate to anything in our lives today?
Did the sermon move me to be a better follower of Jesus?
Was I moved to any action by the preacher’s words?

I will bet that a preacher who looks up and sees the congregation taking notes will become a better and more careful preacher.

Taking notes will make the listener a more attentive participant in the preaching enterprise.


Notes for fun and reflection::
Some practical considerations:
Put in your hearing aid
Take your ipod out of your ears
Pretend you are interested
Act as if you care
Don't bang your head on the pew in front if you nod off
Sit on the bulletin unless you are using it to take notes.
Go to the bathroom before the sermon starts
Take the gum out of your mouth
Put your purse on the floor
Do not comb your hair during the sermon, no flossing either.
Take your eyes off the stained glass windows, they have been their for one hundred and eighty-five years.
Oh yes, I almost forgot. Listen to the words.


Dr.King gave the best advice I have ever heard about preaching. He
said: "Make them laugh, make them cry, and then tell them what you want them
to do."


When I was a new, young priest I was gratified to see a young girl in
the congregation carefully taking notes during my sermon. When I
complimented her after the service about listening so carefully, she
told me she was keeping track of whether I used every letter of the
alphabet in my sermon!!!

“No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms and untruisms and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanor as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips.”

-Anthony Trollope in Barchester Towers,

From a Lutheran Pastor friend:

I think it would be “spicier” (is that a word?) if you inserted some things like: When to tune out from a sermon that isn’t making it, isn’t proclamation. What is the preacher sharing of their own faith experience? Mentioning some strategies of benign sabotage (nodding off to sleep while the sermon is going on, looking the homilist in the Adam’s apple or neck when things are going astray, strategic yawns or coughs). All of which switch to rapt attention when the preacher gets back on track. Too many preachers use a sermon to teach rather than to proclaim. The Gospel is about proclamation, not education (which only happens as a by product of the former.

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