Every pastor wants to preach inspiring and biblical sermons. Nonetheless, I will never forget a professor who told one of my fellow classmates in homiletics class that if he was a member in his church, he would just stop going. My friend, traumatized, almost gave up his “call” to serve in pastoral ministry. Now, almost fifteen years later, he is one of the more successful pastors from our ministerial class. While he would no doubt tell you himself that he still does not consider his preaching finesse as his greatest strength, at his ordination I heard church members testify to the effectiveness of his simple yet biblical sermons. His preaching had made an impact.

Now, after five years of pastoral ministry, my role has been reversed from preacher to listener. Although I still preach, most of the time I find myself in the pew. Sometimes the quality of sermons varies dramatically. In addition, we serve in an Asian context, and I furthermore observe how different cultures think and therefore construct sermons in different ways.1 Yet regardless of cultural circumstances, all cultures recognize the essential need of listening to the sermon. Whereas many articles tell pastors how to improve their preaching, this article focuses on the even more essential art of how to listen. 2


Communication is a two-way process. At its most basic sense it requires a minimum of two people: a person who sends a message and then a recipient. James Borg argues that human communication consists of only 7 percent words. All the rest is from body language and paralinguistic clues such as tone and inflection.3 Another researcher, Albert Mehrabian, argues that 35 percent of communication occurs face-to-face whereas the rest comes from non-verbal communication.4 Both studies point to the fact that words are merely just a small portion of the communication process.

I once thought that I was a good listener—until I began to practice what I thought were my skills in a college class on interpersonal communications. I was quickly disabused of such a notion. On another occasion I gave a series of sermons about marriage and the family in which I made a similar point by asking: “how many of you have a perfect marriage?” Incredulously, one naïve man raised his hand. “Get that arm down,” his wife exclaimed as she yanked his arm back down. Everyone in the audience chuckled. The reality is that it is human nature to think that we are better listeners than we actually are. I therefore propose four steps to becoming a better listener, which should benefit not only our relationships in general, but also your ability to listen more effectively on Sabbath morning.

(1) Intentionality. Good listeners are deliberate about the listening process beginning with a positive mental attitude. Such a person is a learner and begins with an attitude of humility to ask God, what does He have for him or her to learn today?

(2) Body Language. Sit up straight and be ready to listen. I find that just my very posture says a lot about how I feel about the worship experience. It furthermore allows me to concentrate when I am poised in a position ready to listen.

(3) Use Lag Time Effectively. Various people have different levels of comprehension. Some speakers are faster than others. Generally I find that my mind can race faster than the speaker so I choose to take notes during the sermon. This helps me to concentrate on the main point of the message.

(4) Minimize Distractions. When my wife and I go on a date, we turn our cell phones off so we can focus on each other. The same thing is true when we worship. While some people I realize—such as physicians who need to remain “on call”—generally I find that more often than not most people begin to text or surf the web. Just like on a date—it takes a choice. Choose to turn technology off unless it is being intentionally used to facilitate Bible study or sermon notes. For me, since I find it easy to let my mind wander, I prefer the primitive method of bringing just my Bible and a pad of paper to church.

Spiritual Discernment

A fascinating “testimony” by Ellen G. White concerns a group of church members who dissected and criticized their pastor’s sermons.5 Mrs. White, on the one hand, could be very direct in telling would-be ministers that they did not have the basic ability to communicate in the pulpit and should therefore refrain from the ministry.6 On the other hand, she was abundantly clear that it was not the finesse or polish of the minister that made preaching effective. She rebuked church members because of their critical attitude. It was such an attitude that prevented them from gaining a spiritual blessing each week in church.

In today’s consumer culture, with media so readily available, this ability to criticize ministers has led to a type of homiletical pornography. As I visited homes, I remember several church members who asked me why I couldn’t preach like their particular favorite minister on television. While I frequently enjoyed sermons from the same ministers, I think that such an attitude belies a troubling problem: a tendency to evaluate the effectiveness of a pastor by how a particular person or style of preaching makes them feel. “If the preaching is of an emotional character,” observed Ellen G. White, “it will affect the feelings, but not the heart and conscience.”7

Truly effective preaching is therefore about a transformative experience for both preacher and listener. Whereas there is plenty of advice to encourage pastors to improve their sermons (as they should), I believe that as church members we have a sacred responsibility to listen. No matter how flawed the messenger, there must be a spiritual discernment to recognize God’s leading through the spoken Word. Even the most flawed messenger, if he or she expresses their convictions from the Word of God, has an important message. As listeners we have a sacred responsibility to open our hearts and minds. Spiritual conviction must transcend a consumer culture. After all, “spiritual realities . . . are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:13-14).

1 Richard Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why (Free Press, 2004).

2 I am indebted to Derek Morris who focused in his D.Min. dissertation on the value of incorporating sermon feedback from listeners for ministers to improve their preaching effectiveness. Whereas he focuses on the value to ministers, this article focuses on the perspective for those who remain in the pew. See Derek Morris, “Listening to the Listener: Audience Feedback as a Resource for Relevant Biblical Preaching,” D.Min. diss., Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 1998.

3 James Borg, Body Language: 7 Easy Lessons to Master the Silent Language (Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press, 2010), pg. 16-18.

4 Albert Mehrabian, Nonverbal Communication (Chicago, IL: Aldine Transaction, 2007), pg. 185.

5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1948), vol. 5, pg. 298-302.

6 “You will never be called to preach,” she wrote to one such aspiring minister. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1948), vol. 4, pg. 131.

7 Ibid., vol. 5, pg. 301.

Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D. is assistant professor, historical/ theological studies at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Philippines.