How do we listen to sermons? What are the marks of good listening? This article looks at the parable of the sower in Mark 4 to discuss how Christians can train themselves to listen well to the preaching of the Word.
2013. 11 pages.
(Headings added by Christian Library.)
Reading of Mark 4:1-20.
You have a right to expect prepared preachers preaching prepared sermons in the pulpit. You have a right to expect preachers to come here who are themselves spiritually prepared and who have done the hard work of preparing sermons. You have the right to expect preachers to preach from the pulpit who have poured themselves out in the study, who pour themselves out in the pulpit and who pour themselves out afterwards in praying for all the hearers that the seed would take deep root and bring forth a bountiful harvest. You have these rights. But what about your responsibility? Is it all just your rights? Is all the activity just on the part of the preacher and passivity on the part of the hearer? No, listeners/hearers of sermons also owe work to the preacher before the sermon, during the sermon and after the sermon.
We are told men ought not to preach without preparation. Granted, but we add, men ought not to hear without preparation. Which, do you think, needs the most preparation, the sower or the ground? I would have the sower come with clean hands, but I would have the ground well-plowed and harrowed, well-turned over, and the clods broken before the seed comes in. It seems to me that there is more preparation needed by the ground than by the sower, more by the hearer than by the preacher.
I called this sermon Expository Listening. That is an unusual title, because maybe some of us will be familiar with what is often called expository preaching (that is what I hope goes on here [in the church] on most Lord’s Days), where a passage of God’s Word is explained and expounded, broken down for the understanding of the hearers. That is expository preaching. Preaching that explains the Word of God. But expository preaching, if it is to be profitable, needs expository listening. It needs a special kind of listening if expository preaching is going to be effective. There is a man who wrote a book called Expository Listening. His name was Ken Ramey. He said:
Preaching is a joint venture in which the listener partners with the pastor so that the Word of God accomplishes its intended purpose of transforming your life. Nothing creates a more explosive, electrifying, life-changing atmosphere than when the lightning bolts from a Spirit-empowered preacher hit the lightning rods of a Spirit-illuminated listener.
Expository Listening, 2010.
Expository listening. That is what I would like to look at as part of our series on the marks of a healthy church. We are still on the first mark: veracity/truthfulness. The mark of a healthy church is preaching full of truth. We have looked at what preaching is and what a preacher is, but we really have to look at the response now. Because you can have a biblical preacher preaching biblical sermons, but if there is no good listening it is really all in vain and that Church is not going to be healthy.
So what kind of listener is an expository listener? What kind of listening should be given to expository preaching? We are going to look at this parable of the sower (as it is often called). It is actually more accurately the parable of the soils – four different soils. There are two main points: expository listening is rare; and expository listening is hard work.
Expository listening is rare. Only one of the four soils produced lasting fruit. In other words, it is often (probably usually, most of the time) a minority of listeners who actually produce good fruit in response to good preaching. Let us briefly look at these four kinds of soil.
First of all, there is the hardened hearer. That is the first one that is described here. That is the seed that falls on the wayside, or the trampled down ground. It is good seed. It is sown well. But the soil is rock hard. It is like concrete. The soil cannot penetrate. That is a hardened heart that is being pictured here. And hearts can be hardened in many different ways. Hearts can become impenetrable, of course, through sin.
Hearts, though, can also become impenetrable through listening to sermons without profiting from them. You become a sermon-hardened hearer, which is a very solemn thing. Sometimes you can go into factories where there is huge noise going on all the time. And you as a newcomer will not be able to hear anything; it is just drowning out even your ability to speak, never mind listen to others. But those who are in the factory have gotten used to the use the noise. They can kind of tune it out and even have conversations with one another. They just trained themselves. And that can happen – sadly, painfully, awfully – under gospel preaching that does not produce fruit. It can harden us against hearing further sermons.
But other things can harden our hearts, like tiredness. Fatigue coming to the house of God. Distraction. Boredom. Confusion when you do not understand the Word. That too just means that the seed is not going to take root, and instead (as we have here) the devil is going to come and pluck that seed off and fly away again, as he has done every Sunday. The hardened hearer.
Secondly, there is the temporary hearer. It is described here at the beginning of the Mark 4 as “some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: but when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.” That is explained by Jesus in verse 16: These are those who hear the Word and “immediately receive it with gladness,” but “have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution arises for the Word’s sake, immediately they are offended.”
They are just temporary hearers. They hear the Word and there is kind of an initial burst of enthusiasm. There is an excitement. There is even a change. It looks very hopeful. People are optimistic. But the Word has not taken deep root. It has just gone in very shallow. It is a work that has been done but in the head – maybe an intellectual kind of understanding that is mistaken for true conversion and regeneration. Or maybe just a sort of emotional experience that feels like some kind of conversion experience, but again there is no deep work. There is no deep root. It is not the Spirit’s work; it is the person’s work. It is not something God has done; it is something the person has done.
And as a result, as soon as opposition comes – you tell a friend, “I am a Christian now” and they laugh and you don’t like it; you tell another and they do the same, and you tell another and they do the same – the enthusiasm begins to wane and weaken, and eventually wither. And it is all given up. The temporary hearer.
Thirdly, there is the busy hearer. There is good ground here and there is a good start, but thorns come in. We read in verse 7: “Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit.” Again, Jesus explains that for us in verse 18: They “hear the Word, and the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the Word, and it becomes unfruitful.” Again, there is a great start, but the busyness of a worldly life eventually chokes out the seed.
They are explained as really what is sometimes called the devil’s trinity here. The cares of this world – worldly worries and anxieties. The deceitfulness of riches – the passionate pursuit of things, things and more things; stuff and more stuff. And then the lusts of other things – just an unquenchable desire for more; a discontent and always wanting an extra something.
Two things are happening here: a good thing and a bad thing. Seed has taken root and there is something beginning to spring up. But in that soil are thorns that have never been taken out. Weeds that have never been taken out. And when the devil sees any kind of spiritual work, spiritual interest, spiritual enthusiasm beginning, he comes and he starts watering and fertilizing these thorns, these weeds. And it becomes unfruitful.
But then there is a fourth hearer: the productive hearer. Let’s call the hearer the expository listener. We read in the parable: “Other fell in good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some a hundred.” Jesus explains: these “hear the Word, and receive it.” It goes deep; it goes right to the core of their being. And they bring forth fruit – fruit that vastly exceeds the amount of seed sown! For one seed: thirtyfold, sixtyfold, in some cases, a hundred times is produced! This is incredible, isn’t it? It is amazing!
You know, you look at the Word of God and sometimes it does look so frail and so weak. But with God’s blessing it can produce such amazing fruit. Unmistakable results. Unmistakable fruit that lasts. That is the mark of an expository listener. And as we have said, it is rare. And even Christians here must confess surely that they are rarely, or at least not as often as they would like, expository listeners. This kind of thirty times, sixty times, a hundred times listeners. That is a sin to confess. It is a potential and a possibility that is not been realized in our lives.
So we want to ask: What is an expository listener? The answer is that it takes a lot of hard work. It takes hard work before the sermon, in the sermon and after the sermon. This productive hearer, this expository listener, has to work on these three fronts: pre-sermon, in the present hearing of the sermon, and post-sermon. I would like to look at these three areas. And ask yourself: Are you doing this hard work? Are you willing to do this hard work? Because nothing less than this is going to be productive.
What is required before the sermon is preached?
First of all, you need to read God’s Word every day. You cannot expect to come to church on a Sunday to hear God’s Word and hear it with profit if you are not listening to it through the week. Restaurants give you appetizers in order to get your digestive juices going and to whet your appetite. And really that is what our personal and family Bible reading is. They are like appetizers. They are to whet the appetite. They are to get the digestive juices flowing. So that when we come to the meat of a sermon we are ready to receive it and digest it and profit from it. We have to be reading and meditating upon the Word in the week before the sermon.
Secondly, we need to limit our media consumption through the week. The average American now apparently consumes nine to eleven hours of media every day. And that has serious consequences for listening to sermons. There is a recent book entitled Preaching to Programmed People: Effective Communication in a Media-Saturated Society. Turner explains how, “TV watching and preaching are diametrically opposed to one another – one is visual, the other is rational; one involves the eyes, the other involves the ears; one creates passive watchers, the other requires active hearers.”
Turner explains how TV fosters idleness and passivity by providing information that requires no response, whereas preaching seeks to generate some kind of change. If you are not careful, watching TV will turn you into a lazy listener who just sits there on the couch, takes in information, and doesn’t have to do anything with it. People tune in to TV to tune out. They disengage the brain and expect to be entertained and amused. The fast-paced images and sound bites have shortened people’s attention spans and created a passive spectator mentality where people are viewers rather than hearers and doers.
After watching TV and going to the movies and surfing the internet all week long, you come to church and have to sit and listen to a lengthy sermon that requires a great deal of concentration and exertion that you aren’t used to. You’re expected to go from being a passive viewer to an aggressive listener literally overnight.
Ken Ramey, Expository Listening, 2010.
The only way to come prepared is to really ration and limit that amount of media consumption, so that we are not building up bad habits that really make expository listening virtually impossible. So limit media consumption.
Thirdly, use Saturday evening well. Use Saturday evening to clear up the detritus of the past week and get prepared for the week ahead, so that it is not filling your mind on the Sunday. Put all your to-dos out of your head and on a piece of paper, so that you can put it aside and you no longer have to think about it for 24 hours. Try and spiritually prepare, if you can, by reading a good book or listening to a good sermon. Try and ensure your children are not out late. If they are, their hope of a profitable Sabbath is virtually gone, and it disrupts your own sleep and rest too.
Fourthly, pray. Pray for yourself and pray for the preacher. We all know the old saying, “You get what you pay for”; well, you also get what you pray for! The prayer for next week’s sermon begins tonight after this one. Pray especially for your pastor on a Saturday, when he is bring together the final hours of sermon preparation.
Fifthly, train yourself to listen. Recognize that we have all absorbed bad habits. We have all been untrained, untaught how to listen to sermons, to some degree or other. And we need to learn again. You can get that book Expository Listening. There is another book by Christopher Ash called Listen Up with lots of very helpful, practical tips on how to train yourself to be a listener to sermons. Motivate yourself with this parable. Wouldn’t you like to be a thirty times listener? A hundred times? That is a possibility, but not without work. Not without retraining and re-education.
So pre-sermon preparation. But what about the day of the sermon? Again, let me give you some tips.
Firstly, get to church early. Give yourself good time to get everything settled, especially if you have a family, so that you have time to compose your mind, calm your heart and still yourself for the presence of God.
Secondly, try to respect the silence of the sanctuary. There are people around you who maybe need to have silence to be ready to hear the Word. They might hear a conversation and their mind is taken away and they cannot get it back again to hear the sermon. They are being distracted. So for your own good and for the good of others, try and respect silence in the sanctuary.
Thirdly, engage your body and soul in worship. Look at Psalm 103. The psalmist says: “Oh thou my soul, bless God the LORD: and all that in me is be stirred up, His holy name to magnify and bless.” Here is the psalmist, and it is as if he is sort of preaching to himself. He is talking to himself. He is saying, “Soul, be stirred up! All that in me is, be stirred up!” It is like a call to be energized and to be connected and to be involved in the worship. It is not just going to happen if the sermon comes and you start listening. It is not an accident that there are preparations for the sermon – there are psalters, there are prayers, there are readings of Scripture. This is all to get ourselves in that spiritual frame. And use it! Use singing, use prayer and engage your mind in the pastoral prayer. Engage yourself in the reading, again, just to stir yourself up.
Fourthly, tell yourself that God is about to speak. Isn’t that what we believe? Insofar as the preacher is preaching in accordance with God’s Word, it is the voice of God. This is how God has chosen to speak to our generation – not generally through visions and voices, but through His word faithfully explained. We don’t come to hear [the pastor]; no, it is the Word of God. Tell yourself that God is about to speak! God is speaking! This is an act of faith. As you are hearing, tell yourself, “This is the voice of God! This is God’s message to me today.” Let the weight and solemnity and awe of that come upon you, and you will find that your ears will start listening in a new way.
Fifthly, recognize that this is a team effort. It is not something that God just does. It is not something that God and the preacher just does. It is something that you, God and the preacher do together. This is a team effort.
It is a joint venture between the preacher and the listener. Successful sermons resolve from the listener teaming up with the preacher much like a catcher works in unison with a pitcher. Both the pitcher and the catcher have an important role to play in the pitching process. The responsibility doesn’t all rest on the pitcher’s shoulders.
Expository Listening, 2010.
Sixthly, take brief notes if you find it helpful. If you find your mind being distracted and carried away, then just take the headings and the subheadings. Rarely is it helpful for most people to try and write out every word of a sermon. That changes the nature of a sermon usually into more like a lecture that you are trying to take notes from to inform your brain with. You have to allow in a sermon time to think, to process, so that it is not all focused on writing down like a secretary. So notes can be helpful – brief notes – but do allow time for meditation to soak in the Word. To let the Word go deeply into you. There is a fine balance.
Seventhly, check the preacher is preaching God’s Word. Now, there is a vast difference between pharisaical listening and Berean listening (Acts 17:11). The Pharisees listened to Jesus to find fault. The Bereans listened to the apostles to check that what they were preaching was it in accordance with the Word of God. And this is part of the activity of the hearers. It is not just to sit there and suck it all up. No, this is a fallible man who can make mistakes. And you have to check this preaching with the Word of God rather than just swallow it whole. You have to be a discerning listener, separating the false from the truth if necessary.
Eighthly, you have to accept that there are times when the Word is going to hurt you. If you start listening to the Word as you really ought to, you will start getting pain, because part of the Word’s function is to reprove and rebuke and to convict. Yes, to encourage and console and inspire, but if we are expository listeners we can expect piercing from time to time. And be able to accept that and to use it and to profit from it rather than react against it and fight it. It should be more: “Well, if this is true, God be praised. He is prodding me in this painful area, causing me to examine my life and to make necessary changes.”
Ninthly, build up good will towards the preachers. If you have ill will towards the preacher you cannot profit from what he says. If you harbour in your heart malice or anger or unresolved issues, then you really cannot get any benefit from the preacher. And be careful of that, because the devil loves to sow ill will and malice in our hearts, because he knows that that more or less brings an iron curtain between us and the Word.
Tenthly, try to find one good thing to go away with. You know, we do not deserve one crumb of truth. If we can get a crumb, then we should learn to be thankful and work with it and chew on it! Surely we can find one good thing in the sermon where there might be things we didn’t like, we didn’t enjoy, we didn’t understand. But surely there is one thing that we can go away with. And even with that one thing, imagine if God blessed it to thirty times, sixty times, a hundred times? Isn’t that better than hearing a hundred good things and not doing anything with them?
So there is much to do before the sermon. And there is much to do in a sermon. But there is also much to do after a sermon for an expository listener.
First of all, talk about it with others. What you have heard. Go and talk with friends and family. Share it in the car on the way home. Ask one another, “What did you hear that helped you?” Ask your children, “What were the main points? Any illustrations that you remember? What was the text?” And just try, even around the supper table or dinner table, to try and draw out of one another and go over it. Talk to one another. Share with one another something of what you have heard.
Secondly, put it into practice. Obey it. Don’t just take it; do it! Obey what God’s Word says. It is in the doing of it that fruitfulness multiplies. It is not going to do anything if it just lies dormant in our minds. It has to be done!
Thirdly, be patient. It is an agricultural illustration, as every farmer here will tell you. You cannot be an impatient farmer. You would be useless. Also with listening to sermons, sowing and fruit-bearing presupposes a very gradual, slow process. You cannot expect to wake up tomorrow morning and lo and behold there is thirty new stalks of spiritual fruit! Or sixty, or a hundred. No, it takes weeks! It may take months. Be patient. Wait for that work to bring forth the harvest.
Fourthly, work on your soil. After the sermon, you may have heard it and it did not profit you. You realize that you are either a hardened hearer, a busy hearer, or a temporary hearer. Soils can change! With God’s help and the Spirit’s blessing, these three barren soils can become good soil. There are many people here who had hard hearts, who were busy hearers, who were temporary hearers, and now they are good ground hearers! God worked with them and through them to change the constitution of their soils to give them good hearts in which the Word would lodge deeply and produce wonderful fruit.
Fifthly, give feedback. From time to time, as appropriate, speak to the preacher. Tell him specific things that helped you. Not just, “It was a good sermon, pastor.” Try and be a bit more specific to encourage and help the pastor know what kinds of things are spiritually helpful in a congregation.
I want to finish tonight by looking at the whole area of constructive criticism. So we have a preacher preaching sermons. We have a listener who is doing all this great work before the sermon, in the sermon and after the sermon. But this listener has heard something that troubles them or worries them. Something does not seem right. The preacher has said something wrong. What do we do? What are the steps to follow when you feel, “I must speak to the preacher and bring him my concerns”? This is a vital area in congregational life. Preachers must be able to take constructive criticism. They must be able to take destructive criticism as well. That is not so easy when you begin, but eventually in the ministry it is so common that it becomes a wee bit like water off a duck’s back. But a pastor must never, ever be closed to constructive criticism. And therefore we have to ask, “How can you help me and how can you help others that fill the pulpit?”
I want to give you ten questions to ask yourself when something like this is burning in your heart and mind. I want to give you these in a way that I hope will encourage you to do this at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reasons, because it can often be incredibly helpful to a preacher to receive this kind of criticism. And when it is not done properly it can be incredibly destructive to relationships and to the unity and harmony of a congregation.
Question one: Have I understood the preacher correctly? I think you have to give the preacher the benefit of the doubt, to begin with. He may have said something that creates an unease in you, but have you understood what he has said? Maybe talk to a close friend – someone who listens to sermons well – and ask, “Did I hear rightly there? Have I understood this correctly?” I think it is good to give the benefit of the doubt; to try and put the best possible construction on what is said. So that is the first question to ask: Have I understood this correctly? And maybe when you are approaching the pastor start with that: Did I understand you correctly? It is much more conciliatory and much more seeking unity and harmony rather than accusatory and confrontational.
Question two: Have I given this enough time? It is rarely right to bring a concern or an accusation to a preacher immediately after he has preached. It is unlikely that you are in the right frame – passions maybe have risen. And the preacher is probably not going to be in the right frame – he has just poured himself out for days and poured himself out in the pulpit, and then bang, he gets hit in the face! Men are men, and they react badly when they are in these situations. So ask yourself: Is this the right time? Have I given it enough time? Have I thought about this enough? Have I weighed it for long enough?
Question three: Have I prayed about this? It is a very serious thing, when a man stands in the pulpit claiming to bring God’s Word, to come up to him and say, “That was not the Word of God.” It is a very solemn matter that should be prayed over carefully, humbly, reverently before taking that solemn step. Have I prayed about this enough?
Question four: Is this personal preference or biblical principle? We all have our favourite kinds of preacher. We all have our favorite kinds of preaching. We all have our favourite topics, texts, areas of the Bible. We have to challenge ourselves: Is this criticism based just on my personal preferences, or is there truly a biblical principle at stake here that has to be addressed? Is it biblical principle or is it a tradition, maybe? Is it biblical principle or just different kinds of vocabulary for the same truth? Seriously, ask yourself: personal preference or biblical principle?
Question five: Have I chosen the best time and the best way to do this? If it is not good to approach a pastor on a Sunday, for a lot of them it is not good to do it on a Monday either. For myself I am virtually good for nothing on a Monday after preaching. I am just physically, emotionally and mentally washed out. And I can remember times in previous congregations when I was approached on a Monday with criticism and I did not respond well. I either just lashed out or just kind of collapsed in self-pity. Give it till Tuesday. Let the preacher recover a bit. So that what we want has a chance of taking place – which is something constructive, something that will result in a better preacher and better sermons rather than simply divided relationships. Choose the best time. Choose the best way. Usually face-to-face. Usually privately rather than publicly. And all these things will serve to maximize the chances of this criticism being constructive, of the preacher hearing it and taking it to heart, and of you have been blessed of the Lord to that preacher as well.
Question six: Am I doing this out of the right motive? Why am I doing this? Is it to serve my pastor? Is it out of love or is it to belittle and humiliate? Really, ask yourself: What is my motive? Serve your pastor by offering constructive criticism that aims at his improvement, at his sanctification, at his gifts being exercised even better for your and your family’s good.
Question seven: Am I focused on one thing or am I just spraying bullets? A pastor will listen to you much more if you come to him with a very focused area of concern. If you come to him and say, “You are wrong here…and as for this…and see this thing…and remember last year…and ten years ago” you are just spraying lead around! And it is unlikely to really pierce and be productive. Try and focus on the right thing, on the primary thing.
Question eight: Have I considered the possibility that I might be one of many? Always think that when you are offering criticism, when you are thinking about this, that preacher might have had eight other emails that morning. That tends to happen in pastoral ministry. And nobody else knows, of course, that others are writing, but consider the cumulative impact of that, as the letters and emails and the phone calls arrive. So you always have to ask yourself: Is this vital enough, is this important enough to maybe add to the accumulating effect of criticism upon this pastor?’
Question nine: Am I prepared to listen to his explanation? I have gone to him and I have said, “Pastor, I think this was said wrongly,” or “You have not spoken the truth,” or “You have been imbalanced,” or something like that, but are you prepared to listen to his explanation? He might have a reason for saying what he has said. For having that balance. For having that emphasis for one sermon, or maybe more sermons. Be prepared to listen. “Maybe you can explain to me, pastor, why you are doing this…saying this…repeating this. Because I don’t really understand it. It doesn’t really help me; in fact, I feel it is harming me.” Of course, a pastor has to take that into account as well.
Question ten: Is this in the context of previously expressed appreciation? Everyone in work knows what it is like. If you get somebody who has been affirming and appreciative and helpful to you, when they come with a worry or a concern, you listen and you react helpfully. But if it is just the same person again and again and again, you do develop a thick skin to it. It just doesn’t impact. You are not going to listen to it. So criticism – is it in the context of previously expressed appreciation?
These are ten questions that if you can answer rightly, then what you will say to the pastor will be extremely helpful to him and will result in better sermons and better preaching. I would heartily invite and encourage constructive criticism if these questions have been honestly answered. It will be good for you; it will be good for me; it will be good for everyone. It is part of being an expositive listener.
But all this is really to emphasize the vital importance of listening. Of listening expositionally. Of being a good soil hearer. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. Faith cannot be generated in the heart, faith cannot increase without hearing the Word of God. And the better listeners we become, that means the more faith we will have and the more other spiritual graces will flourish and grow and develop within us.
If you live an average life, you will listen to something like seven thousand sermons. And you will be called to account for each one of them. How did you listen to them? How did you respond to them? What kind of soil did you bring to these sermons? Our listening will determine our faith, our spiritual condition in this world. It reveals what spiritual state we are in. But it also determines our eternal destiny! Our listening determines our eternal destiny. That is how serious it is! Hearing is an act of eternal consequence. And that is why Jesus says here and other places, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.” You can hear the anxiety, can’t you? The passion and the compassion in these words. You have ears – use them! Listen with them! Respond to what you hear. “He that have ears to hear, let him hear.”
(Transcription of audio file stopped at 46:04.)
David P. Murray
This audio was transcribed by Ineke van der Linden