Preaching is out of style. Many church goers today experience pulpits like they experience great white sharks—they’ve seen one on TV, maybe. Stools, music stands, couches, conversational tones, and large group discussions have replaced authoritative proclamation of God’s Word from what was once known as the “sacred desk”—the pulpit. People balk at the idea of everyone facing one direction and being talked at by someone who is arrogant enough to think he has a corner on Truth. Monologue is the enemy of the new way to do church.
But those who minimize authoritative Word-centered preaching forget the true nature of preaching. Preaching the Word is a distinct kind of communication in which the preacher prays desperately that the people will hear what the Spirit is saying. When a man preaches, to the degree his words accurately reflect God’s Word, God Himself is speaking. As the God-breathed Word is proclaimed, the Spirit is taking that Word and implanting it in the hearts of His people.
So the act of preaching engages not just the preacher, but also the person of the Holy Spirit. But there’s someone else involved—you. Though the listener does not verbally interact one-on-one with the preacher as he speaks, they should engage in silent conversation. Since all preachers are fallen sinful men, not everything they say will be accurate. Sometimes he says Paul instead of Saul or John 3:16 instead of 1 John 3:16. But other times the preacher may make an unprepared remark that is contradicted by the context of the passage. It’s also not uncommon for preachers to miss the entire point of the passage! It is right for a congregation to expect their pastor has “done his homework” and is communicating truth, but that assumption should not lead to blind acceptance.
Listeners should adopt the well known phrase, “Trust, but verify.” The Bible commends those who, “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). In his book Expository Listening, Ramey makes use of the pitcher/catcher relationship. The pitcher is responsible to send the ball to a precise location. But the catcher is responsible not only to catch the ball at that location, but to adjust himself if the pitcher misses. The catcher would be a fool to place his mit in the correct location and then close his eyes!
In order for a sermon to be successful, not only must the preacher “preach the Word,” but the listener must dialogue with the Word in his or her own mind. This is why I personally find it difficult to take notes during the sermon. If I’m writing, I can’t process what is being said; I can only write down what comes in my ears. But when I’m not concerned with taking copious notes, my mind can fire on all cylinders processing what I’m hearing, anticipating what is coming next, tying what I’m hearing together with what I already know, and even getting side-tracked by cross references. If I take notes, they rarely reflect what the preacher says. They normally contain my processed thoughts which were triggered by the Word being preached. But that’s just me. Many of you are excellent note takers, and there is a part of me that envies you!
Preaching is not a monologue because it involves at least three persons—the preacher, the Spirit, and the listener. Though only one may be making audible sounds, all three are speaking, and the preacher and listener are processing, and—hopefully—hearing what the Spirit is saying.
The first step to listening well is to engage your mind in silent dialogue with the preacher and the Spirit. In short, think. This can be done in its most basic form by asking questions like, “Does this point he is making come out of the text? Does the context affirm what he is saying? Is this consistent with what the Bible says elsewhere?” There are a multitude of questions to ask yourself as you listen. My hope is not that you’ll create a list of questions to ask of each point in the sermon. My prayer is that you’ll learn to think about what the preacher and the Spirit are saying.
J.I. Packer has said, “Congregations never honor God more than by reverently listening to His Word with a full purpose of praising and obeying Him once they see what He has done and is doing, and what they are called to do” (The Preacher and Preaching, 20). May you honor the Lord by listening and engaging with His Word.