Most Christians consider the Sunday sermon to be a staple meal of their spiritual diets that they receive throughout the week. It is the nutritious meal that every family of believers share around  the dinner table, as they open up to the weekly bible passage together and are fed through the reception of the preaching of God’s Word. Many of us consider it a tremendous blessing to receive the preaching together for the sustenance of our souls.

Yet, I must confess that lately ever since the start of this pandemic season, it has been notoriously difficult for me to chew on this weekly meal. As social distancing regulations were set in place, accountability structures were also being displaced. Who is there to tap me when I doze off, or to ask me what I found encouraging about the sermon? As church worship takes the shift to integrate online, congregants are given full discretion to tune in and out of the live stream at their own convenience. Not to mention that screen fatigue is a creeping reality for many from excessive interaction with the virtual world.

This is likened to a common experience for many children, where your parents are out on holiday, so your mum has bulk prepared a few meals for you at home. It’s sitting on the table, waiting to be eaten. You are all alone at home, so no one tells you to eat your veggies. You pick and throw away the bits you don’t want to eat. On some days, you decide to store the meal in the fridge to microwave and eat at another time. And on other days… you skip the meal altogether.

Does this describe your experience of online church? Consumerism, computer screen syndrome, and the competing distractions at home make listening to sermons online a more challenging endeavour than ever. What should we do to be better listeners of the preached Word of God and continue to be spiritually nourished in an online world?

Here are some practical tips that will help you listen and engage well with the weekly sermon online:

1. Prepare yourself for the meal

There can be a whole host of reasons for why we are mentally unengaged during the sermon. But in order for us to have a good appetite for the preaching of the Word each Sunday, we need to do what we can to alleviate the compounding negative effects of our interactions with the online world. There are a number of things you can do:

1. Get a good night’s sleep the day before.
2. Catch up on last week’s sermon to bring you up to speed for this week’s sermon.
3. If hunger usually distracts you, get a good meal in before the service.
4. Read the Bible passage and familiarise yourself beforehand for the sermon.
5. Pray to God for your pastor’s faithful preparation and for your attentiveness and response to the sermon.

If spiritual nourishment is as important as we make it out to be (and it absolutely should be), we would do well to make ourselves ready for the weekly banquet ahead.

2. Respect the meal

Regardless of whether we are listening online or physically in a church building, we must remember that throughout the sermon, God is speaking to us. Therefore, we need to give our utmost attention to the preaching of the Word. We need to respect the meal that God has placed on the table for us and recognise that His servants – our pastors – have worked strenuously to prepare them.

This means that on top of preparing ourselves well for the sermon we are going to listen to, we should also consider ways to engage our ears and our minds during the sermon. Allowing the preaching of the Word to have its rightful place of our attention means to minimise as much distraction as we possibly can.

1. If you are using multiple screens, hide or close all your tabs.
2. Put away your mobile devices during online church.
3. Avoid snacking or eating during the sermon. You are not at the cinemas. The preaching of God’s word is not meant to serve as your means of entertainment.
4. Resist any other sort of distractions like chores, social media, and the like. You may be a good multitasker, but listening well requires attention and focus.
5. Keep your Bibles open during the sermon. Check what your pastor is saying and find it in the text. You would be less likely to be distracted by other things by doing so.
6. Take down notes and questions you have about the passage and the sermon. It will help you to process your thoughts and reflections.

By clearing the dinner table of any clutter, we’d be able to focus on eating and digesting the nutritious meal of God’s word that is set before us! 

3. Find others to gather around the meal

Though the online platform has brought some sense of continuity and normalcy to our weekly worship rhythms, eating our spiritual meals in solitude were never an ideal arrangement to begin with. Historically and theologically, the reception of the preaching of God’s word has and should always be done on the corporate scale; within the embodied gathering of believers together. 

So I encourage all of you, if possible, to assemble together and have fellowship around the meal through whatever creative means necessary.

1. Arrange yourself to meet physically in each other’s homes to listen to the sermon together.
2. If you are confined to your own home, you can organise a small gathering with Christian friends and family you live with around the sermon
3. If all comes to worst, you can resort to meeting with a group of believers online (through Zoom, Facebook, Microsoft Teams etc.)

I recognise that some of these options to assemble are not feasible for everyone for many different reasons. I empathise on all levels. Yet, it can surely be lonely and discouraging to eat all by yourself. Feeding on the preaching of God’s Word was always designed to be a communal enterprise. Wherever possible, let’s work hard to congregate around the weekly meal. Share with one another your insights and reflections from the sermon. You will naturally find greater and more fulfilling refreshment to your souls!

4. Be thankful for the meal

One of the main reasons why we should persist in gathering with our other Christian brothers and sisters is  that we not only listen to the sermon together, but we will also respond together. There were numerous occasions when I was only driven to deep reflection and gratitude – for who God is and for what He has done – when another fellow believer asked me how I found the sermon. However, whether you are tuning into the sermon by yourself or with a group of believers, we should all strive to cultivate an attitude of gratitude to the meals we receive each Sunday.

1. Remember to thank your pastors for the effort they put into the sermon. All of us don’t do this enough, but it helps our pastors with the extra mile in finding joy writing up their next sermons!
2. Ask yourselves (and others around you) what you can give thanks to God in response to the sermon. This shouldn’t be a hard activity – there is always something you can be thankful for! 
3. Even if the meal was poorly prepared (based on your perception), salvage what you can and recognise the good parts of it. Challenge yourself to ask “What was good about the sermon?”

The unfortunate reality is that we won’t know when this pandemic season will ever pass. There will be more of these sub-optimal meal experiences coming along our way. Listening to sermons in an online world will require a great deal of diligence and commitment. And we will still fail at times to give God the due respect and attention He deserves. 

Nonetheless, COVID-19 has not halted the Spirit’s productivity in His sanctifying work in believers around the world. The Word is still living and active, penetrating to the soul, and judging the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts, propagating its purifying effects through whatever medium. Let’s remain hopeful that we – as God’s people – still have the potential to flourish and grow in our spiritual lives amidst a season of inconveniences and distractions.

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