What is Expository Listening?

20 Tips for listening to sermons

But what about you? Is all the activity on the preacher’s side and just passivity on yours? You do little or nothing before, during, or after the sermon? You have all the rights but no responsibility? Not at all! You equally need to pour yourself out, to exert and expend yourself before, during, and after the sermon if you are to benefit from it. In fact, Charles Spurgeon said that the hearer needed to prepare even more than the preacher!

 

You have the right to expect that your church’s pulpit be filled by prepared men preaching prepared sermons. You have the right to expect preachers who have prepared themselves spiritually and have also spent many hours preparing their sermon. You have the right to expect preachers to pour themselves out in preaching the Word of God to you. And you have the right to expect those who preach to pray for you after the sermon is over, that God would bless the Word to you. Before, during, and after the sermon, you have the right to expect preachers to exert and expend themselves for your spiritual welfare.

Rights and Responsibility
But what about you? Is all the activity on the preacher’s side and just passivity on yours? You do little or nothing before, during, or after the sermon? You have all the rights but no responsibility? Not at all! You equally need to pour yourself out, to exert and expend yourself before, during, and after the sermon if you are to benefit from it. In fact, Charles Spurgeon said that the hearer needed to prepare even more than the preacher!

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 the preacher.

Preacher and Hearer
This kind of pre-sermon preparation is part of what Ken Ramey has calledExpository Listening. We are used to talking about Expository Preaching,the kind of preaching that explains or exposits verses of Scripture. But Ken’s point is that Expository Preaching requires a special kind of listening,Expository Listening, which, like Expository Preaching, requires work before, during, and after the sermon. Ramey says:

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.

Christopher Ash put it like this in Listen Up! his booklet on listening to sermons:

Preaching that makes a church Christ-like under grace takes a double miracle: the sinful preacher must be shaped by grace to preach; and sinful listeners must be awakened by grace to listen together week by week in humble expectancy.

Discouragement and Encouragement
Judging by the parable of the soils, this kind of Expository Listening is quite rare (no greater than one in four hearers) – that’s discouraging. However, the same parable also talks of one seed being multiplied to produce thirty fruits, sixty fruits, and even a hundred fruits. That’s the encouraging fruitful power ofExpository Listening.

Before the Sermon

1. Read and mediate on God’s Word every day: Daily Bible reading whets our appetite for the main course on the Lord’s Day. We can’t expect to be ready to digest spiritual food if we’ve not been eating through the week. And don’t spoil your appetite by feasting on sin.

2. Limit media consumption: Most Americans consume 9-11 hours of media a day (James 1:21). In Preaching to Programmed People: Effective Communication in a Media-Saturated SocietyTimothy 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.”

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 you aren’t used to. You’re expected to go from being a passive viewer to an aggressive listener literally overnight. Listening demands a great deal of concentration and self-discipline. (Expository Listening, 42)

3. Use Saturday evening well: Tidy up the previous week, prepare for next week, get to bed early, discourage children out late on Saturday night.

4. Pray for yourself and the pastor: Do this daily but especially on Sunday. In many ways, “you will get what you pray for.”

5. Train yourself to listen: There are multiple resources on how to preach but, apart from the few mentioned above, very few on how to listen.

Preachers have many resources to train and equip them to become better preachers, but listeners have hardly any resources to train and equip them to become better listeners. This is astounding when you consider that the number of listeners far exceeds the number of preachers and even more so when you realize that the Bible says more about the listener’s responsibility to hear and obey the Word of God than it does about the preacher’s responsibility to explain and apply the Word of God. From cover to cover, the Bible is jam-packed with verses and passages that talk about the vital necessity of hearing and obeying God’s Word. God is very concerned about how preachers preach. But based on the sheer amount of biblical references to hearing and listening, it is unmistakable that God is just as, if not more, concerned about how listeners listen. (Expository Listening, 3)

The Sermon

1. Come to church in good time to get calm, settled, and focused.

2. Respect the silence of the sanctuary: This includes training your children not to distract others

3. Engage your body and soul in worship and prayer: Stir up your whole body, mind, and soul in the worship before the sermon.

4. Tell yourself that God is about to speak: Keep praying that He will speak to you through His Word.

5. Recognize that this is a team effort and take personal responsibility.

It is a joint venture between the preacher and the listener. Successful sermons result 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, 4)

6. Take brief notes: Enough to help you concentrate but not so many that it turns into a lecture that only engages the head.

7. Check that the preacher is preaching God’s Word: Not a critical Pharisaical spirit (Luke 11:54), but with a discerning Berean spirit (Acts 17:11).

8. Accept there will be times when the Word hurts you: Don’t react against this and shut down, but receive it and try to profit from it.

9. Build up good-will towards the preacher: Ill-will or malice towards the preacher is a hardener of the heart. It blocks the Word.

10. Try to find one thing to benefit from: You can usually find a crumb or two in even the poorest preacher’s poorest sermon.

After the Sermon

1. Talk about it with others: Share what helped you with friends and family.

2. Put it into practice: Obey and do the Word.

3. Be patient in looking for results: Sowing and fruit-bearing presuppose a gradual and time-consuming process of development.

4. Work on your soil: Soil can change from bad to good to very good. We are responsible for preparing the soil of our hearts (Mark 4:1-20).

5. Give feedback: Encourage preachers from time to time with specifics about how particular sermons helped you and in which way. And what happens when you’ve done all 20 things on this checklist and you decide that you have to give negative feedback? Well, tomorrow we’ll look at how to criticize your pastor.

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article  first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.