by Bob Kaylor
George Whitefield (1714-1770) was one of the greatest preachers in history and even though he eventually had a split with the Methodists over his burgeoning Calvinism, his impact on the role of preaching in American churches is still being felt today.
But while Whitefield was a great preacher, he was also concerned about how people prepared themselves to hear great preaching. To that end he wrote a sermon titled, Directions: How to Hear Sermons. It’s a great treatise to share with a congregation as you help them get ready to hear the Word of God on Sunday morning. Here are Whitefield’s directions along with a little commentary on each:
1. Come ready to hear.
The first direction Whitefield gives is this: “Come to hear [the sermon] not out of curiosity, but from a sincere desire to know and do your duty. To enter His house merely to have our ears entertained, and not our hearts reformed, must certainly be highly displeasing to the Most High God, as well as unprofitable to ourselves.”
Preaching, at its best, is about call and response. We come not to evaluate the sermon or the preacher, or out of a sense of wanting to be religiously entertained for a while, but rather to hear the Word of God and obey it. It doesn’t matter if the oration is exciting like Whitefield’s or flat like that of Jonathan Edwards, or squeaky and fast like this preacher’s voice—God’s Word is in here somewhere, and you’ll hear it if you come prepared to receive it. Even the most poorly prepared and discombobulated sermon can be powerful if our hearts are opened by the Spirit to hear it.
2. Listen for the Word of God.
That leads to Whitefield’s second piece of advice: Give diligent heed to the things that are spoken from the Word of God. If a king or President were to issue a life or death proclamation, and your survival depended on whether or not you listened to it and did what was necessary, you’d put aside everything else to listen to it. So, says Whitefield, “Shall we not pay the same respect to the King of kings and Lord of lords, and lend an attentive ear to His ministers when they are declaring, in His name, how our pardon, peace, and happiness may be secured?”
The Scriptures offer us the word of life—in them is contained everything necessary for salvation. The reading of the Word each week should cause us to lean in and listen for the truth that will save us and save the world.
But while that Word brings us the good news of salvation, it can also bring us the bad news of our own sin and idolatry. If all the sermons you are hearing make you feel comfortable, happy, and content with the way things are, then you’re probably not hearing the Word of God! “The Word of God is living and active,” says the writer of Hebrews. “It’s sharper than any two edged sword.” It’s a word that will cut through our pride, our worldview, our idols, and our way of life. It’s like surgery for the soul—and surgery usually hurts before it heals. Scripture messes with us and good preaching will always meddle in our lives by giving us the good news that overcomes the bad news.
3. Focus on the Word more than the preacher.
Next, Whitefield turns to the subject of the preacher himself . “Do not entertain the least prejudice against the preacher,” he says, but also “be careful not to depend too much on the preacher or think too highly of him (or her) than you ought to think.” Jesus said of the Pharisees, “Do what they tell you, but don’t do what they do.” Even if the preacher is a hypocrite, that doesn’t mean that the Word of God isn’t being preached. Preachers do not speak on their own, but in Christ’s name—and a lot of people have been converted to Christ under bad preaching from cracked and broken preachers because God’s Spirit is the one that makes the preaching effective. God’s Word finds its way outward even from people who have no business preaching it. If you don’t believe me, just thumb through your Bible—Moses, Gideon, Samson, Peter, and even Paul, just to name a few, were completely unqualified and yet God qualified them with his Word.
On the flip side, we shouldn’t hold preachers up on pedestals, either. We live in a celebrity culture where there are lots of celebrity preachers with bigger congregations, nicer buildings, and better hair (or any hair). It’s easy to compare the sermons of our local church preacher to that of a celebrity preacher who’s on TV, on the radio, or on a podcast, or compare them to the preacher in our last church. People get attached to preachers and preachers get attached to fame. It was as true in Whitefield’s day as it is today and even in Paul’s day when people compared him to Apollos. But “has Christ been divided?” asks Paul. “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” No, he says. In fact, Christ sent me to “proclaim the gospel and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (I Cor. 1:13, 17).
Every preacher is merely an ambassador, a messenger for Christ. As Whitefield put it, “Other men may preach the gospel better than I, but no man can preach a better gospel.” We don’t preach ourselves, says Paul, but Christ crucified. If you listen for Christ in the sermon, it won’t matter who’s preaching. And if you don’t hear Christ, then it’s not preaching at all no matter how good it sounds.
4. Apply what you are hearing to your life.
Good preaching is not just about Christ, however, it’s about what we will do with what Christ has told us. “Make particular application in your hearts of everything that is delivered,” says Whitefield. It’s so easy to think that the sermon we’re hearing is for someone else instead of for us. When the disciples were confronted with the reality that one of them was going to betray Jesus, their first response was, “Is it I?” That’s a great question to have in your mind as you hear a sermon. We hear the word and we turn it on ourselves, and then we repent—we change our thinking—and believe—we change our way of being and living. Good preaching will not just stir our hearts, it will move us, under the Spirit’s direction, toward a new trajectory of life.
5. Devote time to prayer before and after the sermon.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Whitefield says that we should “Pray to the Lord, before, during, and after every sermon, to endue the minister with power to speak, and to grant you a will and ability to put into practice what [the Lord] shall show from the Book of God to be your duty.” Prayer is the best preparation for worship and for hearing a sermon. Pray that God will reveal his Word and will to you today. Pray for the preacher who delivers the sermon. We need the help! And then after worship, pray that God would strengthen and encourage you toward transformation.
George Whitefield was a great preacher—but every great preacher is only great because he or she works with good material. Let us come together each week to hear the Word of the Lord, expecting that no matter the circumstances, that word will not return to him empty!