Every pastor receives the question from distraught parents: How can I train my children to listen to sermons?
In answering this question, I need to stress that everything I’m about to say is dependent on the Holy Spirit’s blessing. If you do everything I’m suggesting in this article, your children will not automatically listen well to sermons without the Spirit’s benediction. In all our endeavors as parents, no matter what sphere of parenting we have in mind, we need to remember, “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it” (Ps. 127:1, King James Version). All our efforts, therefore, must be salted with earnest prayer as we labor to pull down the benediction of our heavenly Father upon our family and homes.
In conjunction with Luke 8:18, “Take heed therefore how ye hear,” I will offer some Reformed and Puritan teachings along with my own observations on listening to God’s Word, dividing the subject into three thoughts: how to prepare our families for the preached Word, how to receive the preached Word, and how to practice the preached Word. While studying each point, we should ask ourselves: Is my family really hearing the Word of God? Are we good listeners of the proclaimed gospel at church? Am I teaching my children how to be good listeners?
Preparing for the Preached Word
1 Before coming to God’s house to hear his Word, prepare yourself and your family with prayer. As the Puritans were fond of saying, we should dress our bodies for worship and our souls with prayer.
Pray for the conversion of sinners, the edification of saints, and the glorification of God’s triune name. Pray for children, teenagers, and the elderly. Pray for listening ears and understanding hearts. Pray for yourself and your family, saying, “Lord, how real the danger is that we will not hear well! Of four kinds of hearers in the parable of the sower, only one kind heard properly. Help us, Lord, to concentrate fully on thy Word as it comes to us, so that we may not hear the Word and yet perish. Let thy Word have free course in our hearts. Let it be accompanied with light, power, and grace.”
Pray that you and your children will come to God’s house as needy sinners, purging your hearts of carnal lusts and clinging to Christ for the cleansing power of his blood. Pray for the sanctifying presence of God in Christ, for true communion with him in mind and soul.
Pray that your minister will receive the energy of the Holy Spirit, so that he will open his mouth boldly to make known the mysteries of the gospel (see Eph. 6:19). Pray for an outpouring of the Spirit’s convicting, quickening, humbling, and comforting power to work through God’s ordinances in the fulfillment of his promises, so as to impact your entire family for good (Prov. 1:23).
2 Stress with your dear ones the need for every family member to come with a hearty appetite for the Word. A good appetite promotes good digestion and growth. Peter encouraged spiritual appetite, saying, “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby” (1 Pet. 2:2). Likewise, Solomon advised, “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to offer the sacrifice of fools” (Eccl. 5:1).
A good appetite for the Word means having a tender, teachable heart (2 Chron. 13:7) that asks, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6). It is foolish to expect a blessing if we come as families to worship with hardened, unprepared, or worldly-minded hearts.1
If possible, try to follow the advice of the Puritans who said that preparation for worship should start on Saturday evening. Just as they baked bread on Saturday evening so it would be warm on Sunday morning, so your family would profit if you would study the Word on Saturday evenings a bit longer and more in depth than your normal family worship, thereby warming their hearts for worship on Sunday.
If you know the passage that will be preached on the Sabbath, spend some time studying it on Saturday night with your family. Make sure that you and your children get enough sleep on Saturday night. Then get up early on Sunday morning to prepare for worship without rushing.
3 Discipline yourself and encourage your children to meditate on the importance of the preached Word as you enter God’s house. The high and holy triune God of heaven and earth is meeting with you and your family to speak directly to you. Thomas Boston wrote, “The voice is on earth, [but] the speaker is in heaven” (Acts 10:33).2 What an awe-inspiring thought! Since the gospel is the Word of God, not the word of man, come to church looking for God. Though you should deeply appreciate your minister’s efforts to faithfully bring you the Word of God, pray together with your family that you see “no man, save Jesus only” (Matt. 17:8). Teach your children that ministers are God’s ambassadors, bringing you the Word of God (2 Cor. 5:20; Heb. 13:7). Say to your children, “Do not focus on the minister but on the Word of God he brings, remembering that one day you will give an account before God of every sermon that he has brought to you.”
Teach your children that every sermon counts for eternity. Salvation comes through faith, and faith comes through hearing God’s Word (Rom. 10:13–16). So every sermon is a matter of life and death (Deut. 32:47; 2 Cor. 2:15–16). The preached gospel will either lift us up to heaven or cast us down to hell. It will advance our salvation or aggravate our condemnation. It will draw us with the cords of love or leave us in the snares of unbelief. It will soften or harden us (Matt. 13:14–15), enlighten or darken our eyes (Rom. 11:10), open our heart to Christ or shut it against him. “The nearer to heaven any are lifted up by gospel preaching, the lower will they sink into hell if they heed it not,” wrote David Clarkson.3 “Take heed, therefore, how ye hear!”
Furthermore, teach your children that every Sabbath they are receiving spiritual food and supplies for the coming week. The Puritans called the Sabbath “the market day of the soul.”4 As the Puritans went to market each week to stock up on supplies, so we stock up on our spiritual goods for the week by listening to sermons, then meditating on them throughout the week to come. All of that must be reinforced with daily devotions and Christian living.
4 Remind your family periodically that as they enter the house of God they are entering a battleground. Here’s how to talk to your children: “Dear children, many enemies will oppose your listening. Internally, you may be distracted by worldly cares and employments, lusts of the flesh, cold hearts, and critical spirits. Externally, you may be distracted by the temperature or weather, behavior or the dress of others, noises, or people moving about. Satan opposes your listening to God’s Word with might and main, knowing that if you truly hear it, he will lose you. So Satan tries to disturb you before the sermon begins, distracts you during the sermon, and dismisses the sermon from your mind as soon as it is finished. Like a bird plucking away newly sown seed, Satan attempts to snatch the Word from your mind and heart so that it cannot take root. When you are tempted during worship by Satan, follow the advice of Samuel Annesley who encourages you to rebuke him, saying, ‘Be gone, Satan! I will parley no longer. If others neglect salvation, therefore must I? Will their missing of salvation relieve me for the loss of mine? Through Christ, I defy you.’5 Pray repeatedly for strength to overcome all your enemies by listening well.”
5 Finally, teach your children to pray that they might come with a loving, expectant faith (Ps. 62:1, 5). Teach them to come pleading God’s promise that his Word will not return to him void (Isa. 55:10–11). Teach them to come with reverential fear of God, with reverential delight in God, and with reverential expectation and faith in God’s Word (Ps. 119:97, 103). Ask them to pray that they might be able to say like David in Psalm 119, “Thy word is very pure; therefore thy servant loveth it” (v. 140), and to love God’s testimonies “exceedingly” (v. 167), more than gold (v. 127), to the point where it nearly consumes you (v. 20). David’s love for God’s Word was so fervent that he would meditate upon it “all the day” (v. 97). In dependence on the Spirit, cultivate such love for the Word of God in yourself and your children.
Receiving the Preached Word
Here are some guidelines for you to teach your family about listening rightly to God’s Word.
1 Dear family, listen with an understanding, tender conscience. Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3–23; Mark 4:1–20; Luke 8:4–15) presents us with four types of listeners, all of whom hear the same word. First, the stony-hearted, superficial listener is like a hard path. The sower’s seed, or the Word of God, makes little impression on this hard heart. If a minister addresses this person’s conscience, this hardened heart shifts the blame to others. Second, the easily impressed but resistant listener is like rocky ground. A plant begins to spring up from this seed, but it soon withers and dies because it lacks sufficient nutrients. The plant cannot survive because it cannot grow roots among the rocks. Jesus presents here a listener that seems initially to listen well to the Word. This listener would like to add religion to his life, but he does not want to hear about the kind of radical discipleship that involves self-denial, taking up his cross, and following Christ. Thus, when persecution comes, this listener fails to live out the gospel in practical ways. He wants to be friends with the world, the church, and with God. Third, the half-hearted, distracted listener is like thorn-ridden soil. As Luke 8:14 says, “And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.” This kind of listener tries to absorb the Word of God with one ear while thinking with the other about business, interest rates, pension funds, and inflation. He serves God only partially. His conscience is quickly quieted, and the Word of God is quickly choked by the thorns.
Finally, the understanding, fruitful listener applies the gospel teaching he hears on Sunday to his conscience and life throughout the week. He believes with his heart that if Jesus Christ has sacrificed everything for him, nothing is too difficult to surrender in grateful obedience to Christ. Before all else, he seeks the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33). Grace reigns in his heart. He brings forth fruit, “some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matt. 13:23).
2 Dear family, listen attentively to the preached Word. Luke 19:48 describes people who were very attentive to Christ. Literally translated, the text says, “they hung upon him, hearing.” Lydia showed such an open heart when she “attended” or “turned her mind” to the things spoken by Paul (Acts 16:14). Such attentiveness involves banishing wandering thoughts, dullness of mind, and drowsiness (Matt. 13:25). It regards a sermon as a matter of life and death (Deut. 32:47).
We must not listen to sermons as spectators but as participants. The minister should not be the only one working. Good listening is hard work; it involves worshiping God continuously. An attentive listener responds quickly—whether with repentance, resolution, determination, or praise—and God is honored in this.
Jesus commands us to understand what we hear. He challenges us to think, and that takes work. We are to attend to His Word. The word attend is derived from two Latin words: the first means “to” and the second, tendo, means “to stretch or bend.” From this we get the word tendon, or a sinew that stretches. Thus, the word attend literally means we must stretch our minds by listening. This implies reaching out with all our mental and spiritual powers to grasp the meaning of a message. Are you stretching your spiritual muscles as you listen to the Word? Are you attentiveto the preached Word?
As you listen to the Word of God, ask yourself, How does God want me to be different on account of this sermon? Ask what God wants you to know what you did not know before. Ask what truths you are learning that he wants you to believe. And ask how he wants you to put those truths into practice. In every sermon you hear—even those on the most basic gospel themes—God offers you truths to believe and put into practice. Pray for grace to work at listening.
3 Dear family, listen with submissive faith. As James 1:21 says, “Receive with meekness the engrafted word.” This kind of meekness involves a submissive frame of heart, “a willingness to hear the counsels and reproofs of the word.”6 Through this kind of faith, the Word is engrafted into the soul and produces “the sweet fruit of righteousness.”7
Faith is the key to profitably receiving the Word. Luther wrote, “Faith is not an achievement, it is a gift. Yet it comes only through the hearing and study of the Word.” If the chief ingredient of a medicine is missing, the medicine will not be effective. So be sure not to leave out the chief ingredient, faith, as you listen to a sermon. Seek grace to believe and apply the whole Word (Rom. 13:14), along with the promises, the invitations, and the admonitions as they are spoken.8
“The whole Word is the object of faith,” wrote Thomas Manton. Therefore we need “faith in the histories, for our warning and caution; faith in the doctrines, to increase our reverence and admiration; faith in the threatenings, for our humiliation; faith in the precepts, for our subjection; and faith in the promises, for our consolation. They all have their use: the histories to make us wary and cautious; the doctrines to enlighten us with a true sense of God’s nature and will; the precepts to direct us, and to try and regulate our obedience; the promises to cheer and comfort us; the threatenings to terrify us, to run anew to Christ, to bless God for our escape, and to add spurs to our duty.”9
4 Dear family, listen with humility and serious self-examination. Do I humbly examine myself under the preaching of God’s Word, trembling at its impact (Isa. 66:2)? Do I cultivate a meek and submissive spirit, receiving God’s truth as a student while being intimately aware of my own depravity? Do I seriously examine myself under preaching, listening for my own instruction rather than for the instruction of others? We must not respond like Peter, who said to Jesus, “Lord, and what shall this man do?” We must listen to Jesus’ admonition: “What is that to thee? follow thou me” (John 21:21–22). When the marks of grace are set before us, we must ask: Do I experience these marks? Do I listen for the truths of God, wanting to be admonished or corrected where I have gone astray? Do I relish having the Word of God applied to my life? Do I pray that the Spirit may apply his Word, as Robert Burns put it, to my “business and bosom”?10
When a doctor tells you how to maintain your health or that of your children, do you not listen carefully so that you can follow his directions? When the heavenly Physician gives you divine directions for your soul, should you not listen every bit as carefully so that you can follow God’s instructions for your life?
Practicingthe Preached Word
The Word attended must also be practiced. Here are some ways to counsel your family on how to practice the preached Word.
1 Strive to retain and pray over what you have heard. Hebrews 2:1 says, “We ought to give earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip.” Thomas Watson said we should not let sermons run through our minds like water through a sieve. “Our memories should be like the chest of the ark, where the law was put,” he wrote.11 Joseph Alleine said one way to remember the preached Word is to “come from your knees to the sermon, and come from the sermon to your knees.”12
An elderly woman told me, “I take thorough sermon notes. When I bow my knees on Sunday evening, I put my notes in front of me, underline those things that I should strive to put into practice, and then pray through them one at a time.” Encourage your children to imitate this woman.
2 Familiarize yourself with the truths you have heard. The Westminster Directory for Public Worship advises parents to engage in “repetition of sermons, especially by calling their families to an account of what they have heard.”13 When you come home from church, speak to your children about the sermon you have heard in an edifying, practical manner. Talk about the sermon in words that your youngest child will understand.
Encourage your children to take notes on the sermon. My wife and I have trained our children since they were age seven to take notes. After the last service each Sabbath, we read through those notes as a family and talk our way through the sermons. Sometimes the discussions help our children more than the sermons themselves. Even when conversation does not produce the desired results, continue to attempt this review of Sabbath sermons. It is better to fall short than not to attempt at all.
Share some of the lessons you are learning from the Word with your children. As you talk with them, these lessons will help others as well as become more embedded in your own mind.
Most important, familiarize yourself with the sermon by meditating in private upon what you have heard in public. Meditation helps us digest truth and personalize it. One sermon properly meditated upon with the assistance of the Holy Spirit will do more good than weeks of unapplied sermons. Meditate upon each sermon as if it is the last you will hear, for that may well be the case. If additional private study on the text helps you meditate, by all means, take time to do it. Read commentaries on the text, such as those by John Calvin, Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole, and contemporary authors who soundly and ably expound the Scriptures.
2 Put the sermon into action. A sermon is not over when the minister says “Amen.” Rather that is when the true sermon begins. In an old Scottish story, a wife asked her husband if the sermon was done. “No,” he replied. “It has been said, but it has yet to be done.” Always seek to live out the sermons you hear, even if that means denying yourself, bearing your cross, or suffering for righteousness’ sake. Listening to a sermon that does not reform your life will never save your soul.
James 1:22–25 tells us, “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.” Too many people listen to a sermon, see themselves in the mirror of the Word, and leave church convicted, but on Monday morning, they abandon all the truths they have heard. Of what value is a mind filled with knowledge when it is not matched with a fruitful life?
True listening means applying the Word of God. If you do not practice the Word of God after you have heard it, you have not truly listened to God’s message. As seed that falls in good soil produces fruit, so the person who truly understands the Word produces fruit in his life.
Let me conclude with two pieces of advice. First, thank God for all that you receive from sermons. Give glory to God when you are able to put God’s instruction into practice. Second, lean upon the Holy Spirit. Beg God to accompany his Word with the effectual blessing of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44). The preached Word will be a transforming power in our lives under the Spirit’s blessing. If these directions are ignored, the preached Word will lead to our condemnation. As Thomas Watson wrote, “The word will be effectual one way or the other; if it does not make your hearts better, it will make your chains heavier.”14
Jesus warns us in Luke 8:18, “Take heed therefore how ye hear: for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have.” All of the means of grace will be taken away from inattentive hearers on Judgment Day. It will be too late for them to hear another sermon. The market of free grace will be closed forever, and the door of God’s ark will be eternally shut.
Are you and your family active hearers of God’s Word? Are you doers of that Word? Or do you listen to sermons half-heartedly? If so, repent of your sin and begin to actively listen to his Word. It is not enough for you and your family to attend church. You must be active hearers and doers of the Word. Thomas Watson warns lukewarm listeners: “Dreadful is their case who go loaded with sermons to hell.”15
Dr. Joel R. Beeke
is president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theologcial Seminary, a pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, MI, and a prolific author and frequent conference speaker.
1. Watson, Body of Divinity, 377.
2. Boston, Works, 2:28.
3. Clarkson, Works, 1:430–31.
4. See James T. Dennison Jr., The Market Day of the Soul: The Puritan Doctrine of the Sabbath in England, 1532–1700 (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2001).
5. Puritan Sermons, 4:187.
6. Watson, Body of Divinity, 377.
7. Ibid., 378.
9. Thomas Manton, The Life of Faith (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1997), 223–24.
10. The Works of Thomas Halyburton (London: Thomas Tegg, 1835), xiv.
11. Watson, Body of Divinity, 378.
12. Joseph Alleine, A Sure Guide to Heaven (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 29.
13. Westminster Confession of Faith,386.
14. Watson, Body of Divinity, 380.