Preaching is Not a Monologue

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.

Church Life, Uncategorized

Listening Well – Introduction

Before I turn 30 I will likely have heard more sermons than my nearly 80-year old grandfather. In high school I often tuned to CSN Radio (Calvary Satellite Network), taking in three or four 30-minute sermons a day. While I attended Whatcom Community College I cared for a couple horses and heard “Grace to You” on the radio three times a week cleaning out the stalls. In college we had chapel three times a week, and during seminary we had chapel twice a week. When I obtained an MP3 player I downloaded dozens of sermons at a time and played them as I drove around. Later as a programmer, I often heard three to four sermons a day while I punched out code. And that’s all on top of the one to two sermons every Sunday since I was born.

The paragraph above is not something I’m proud of. If anything, I should be ashamed. I should be ashamed that I’ve heard that many sermons and yet know as little as I do andsin as much as I do. I heard all those sermons, but I didn’t listen to all of them. The sound of the preacher’s voice passed through my ears, but most of the time I wasn’t paying close attention. Thousands of sermons have had little lasting effect in my life. In the words of James, I’ve done a lot of hearing, and not much doing.

The issue isn’t how many sermons you’ve heard, but how well you’ve listened, understood, believed, and applied. The Bible is replete with commands to listen to God’s Word. Frequently in Matthew and Revelation the command is, “He who has ears, let him hear…” And the commands imply obedience. As James says, “But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).

But the problem is most of us don’t know how to do that. If you’re like me, no one has ever taught you how to listen to a sermon well. You just… sit and listen hoping something interesting comes along.

Is it really that hard? It’s harder than you think. I remember driving with a friend in college who majored in music. He was listening to a classical piece played by an orchestra. I appreciate classical music. I enjoy classical music. And I thought the piece was excellent. But my friend listened to that piece in a way I’ll never forget. With his knowledge of music, he was giddy over the intricate details and nuances of the composition. He would say, “Oh, listen to this next part… Wow that was incredible! Did you hear that minor note?” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about… to me it just sounded like a nice piece of music.

The average person on the street can enjoy good art, music, and literature. But to the trained consumer, those products of human creativity take on significance beyond what others can comprehend. In the same way, listening to sermons can reap many benefits for anyone indwelt by the Holy Spirit. But the effect is enhanced, deepened, and overflowing when heard by someone who knows how to listen well.

The purpose of the coming series of articles is to help you grow in your ability to listen and apply God’s Word well. The substance of the articles will largely be summaries of chapters from Ken Ramey’s Expository Listening: A Handbook for Hearing and Doing God’s Word (Kress Biblical Resources, 2010).

Whether you attend this church or another expository preaching church, my prayer is you will make the time and effort to consider and apply these helpful lessons.

One caveat is critical to understand. Don’t assume that every sermon will require a behavioral change. Sometimes—even often—the effect a sermon ought to have has more to do with changing the mind, affections, and will rather than behavior. There are countless sermons I’ve heard where my soul was stirred, my love for Christ grew, and my confidence in God and His Word strengthened. Application is not limited to outward behavior. Applying God’s Word means to allow it to have its necessary effect in your life.

I hope you’ll walk with me through this series and seek to develop a healthy appetite for God’s Word, learn to chew on it, and digest it for your good and God’s glory.