It is the centerpiece of most Sunday church offerings. After the announcements have been made and the opening songs have been sung, attention is turned to the platform—to the podium or the chair or the video screen—and someone preaches.
That is how it should be. The New Testament gives a clear call for the ministry of the Word to be at the center of the life of the community of faith.
Luke’s description of life in the early church highlights this.
[The disciples] were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship . . . (Acts 2:42).
The [apostles] . . . said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God . . . we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2–4).
But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching . . . the word of the Lord (Acts 15:35).
Paul’s instructions for the leaders of the local church also underscore the primacy of the ministry of the Word in the local church.
[Timothy], give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching (1 Timothy 4:13).
The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17).
So we are on safe ground if we recognize the place of priority given to the ministry of the Word when believers gather. But how should we respond to that ongoing ministry?
Sitting in the sanctuary or worship center, listening to the message, what should your response be? Recognizing that the Lord graciously provides Spirit-gifted teachers and preachers, what should our attitude be as we sit and listen?
Imagine what it would be like to have the apostle Paul show up on a given Sunday. You know it’s him. (He looks like the pictures you’ve seen in that reference book you have on the bookshelf at home.) He’s introduced; he steps up to the podium and begins to teach. Turning to passages in the Old Testament, he explains what they mean, linking the thoughts to the words of Jesus and to a few phrases from letters he has written. How would you respond?
After getting over your initial awe at being able to sit and listen to the great apostle, it makes sense to take to heart (and mind) what Luke reported about what happened at one of Paul’s preaching events.
The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men. (Acts 17:10–12)
What characterized their commendable listening? Luke touched on a few things.
They received the word with great eagerness. They “received” the word Paul shared. That’s fairly straightforward. As Paul spoke, they gave him their attention. But they did this with “great eagerness.” Theirs was not a dispassionate “I guess I’ll listen since I have nothing else to do but to sit here” kind of attentiveness. (Cell phones were turned off; Twitter disconnected.) They gave attention to what Paul said with a heart-felt and willing readiness to learn.
Examining the Scriptures daily. In one sense, the listening didn’t stop when Paul stopped speaking. The listening began when he talked, but the learning and processing what he said didn’t end there. Luke mentions their “examining” the Scriptures with the same word he uses to speak about those on trial (e.g., Acts 4:9; 12:19; 28:18). This was no casual reflecting on what they heard; this was a purposeful, studious, and thoughtful pursuit. These listeners took it upon themselves to not merely note the words Paul had shared (and jot down a good turn of a phrase or two), but to respond to what they heard by giving themselves to a close scrutinizing of the text of Scripture for days afterward.
To see whether these things were true. Idle curiosity did not drive them to this kind of attentiveness. They were on a hunt for truth. They were looking to assess, for themselves, whether what they heard from the apostle Paul did, in fact, square with Scripture. Apparently, it wasn’t enough for them to know the message came from Paul; they weren’t simply captivated by his style and learned communication. These hearers wanted to know the truth. And although they listened to Paul’s words, that wasn’t enough. They were going to assess, for themselves, whether what they heard from Paul was truly Biblical.
What can we learn from Luke’s exemplary listeners about becoming good listeners to a Sunday message?
Come willing to listen. Plan to be in a state of mind and heart to learn. That might include arriving on time, having had enough sleep, with distractions turned off, and with the Bible in hand. Don’t start with a critical attitude, but come intending to listen well.
Pay attention to the message. Don’t let yourself get distracted by the children talking (or running around) behind you. Look at the teacher and look at the text. Make notes if you need to. Write questions to yourself.
Don’t settle for bump and run listening. “Ok, I got the main point. That made sense—I guess.” Think for yourself, connect passages, read the context. And keep at it for a day or two or three.
Decide for yourself what parts of what you heard align with what you find in Scripture. Yes, there are gifted teachers in the body of Christ—and we should acknowledge that and benefit from their ministry. But even those with a clear prophetic gift don’t speak infallibly (see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:19–22). The most gifted teacher (even the apostle Paul) should have his words evaluated by his hearers through an honest personal search of Scripture.
Believe what you have come to see as true. Give yourself to the truth; embrace it, live it out, share it, reflect on. The ministry of the Word is not merely to give us something to do for an hour on Sunday morning; life change awaits as we learn to listen well (2 Timothy 3:16–17).