How to listen to a sermon: part 2 "Expository Listening".

Yesterday I’d posted a piece called How to listen to a sermon: part 1 “The mechanics of listening”. It examined the surface elements of how to listen and looked at what distracts us from listening well. Listening is a skill that needs to be practiced and honed, actively. The ultimate goal of a good listening is to be able to listen to a sermon and to the man preaching it, to the highest ability we possess.

Expository listening goes deeper. I am going to take portions from Ken Ramey’s book “Expository Listening” and present them for your consideration. His book is a handbook of biblical listening and I found it to be very helpful. The blurb on the back of the book states,

In many people’s mind, if they don’t get anything out of a sermon, it’s the preacher’s fault. But that’s only half true. The bible says that listeners must partner with the preacher so that the Word of God accomplishes its intended purpose of transforming a life.

In the first part of this two part series, I said that listening is a process. The process moves through three steps—receiving, attending, and understanding. They happen in order. Read the first part for more information on how those work and what hinders them.

In Expository Listening, AKA biblical listening, first are the visual cues that ready the mind for receiving information auditorially. There is a connection between theology and church architecture. The Christian Pundit published a tremendous series on ecclesiastical architecture and how it got to be that way, and why. In part two of their series on pulpits, we read, “because the Word is indispensable, the pulpit, as the architectural manifestation of the Word, must make its indispensability architecturally clear” (Bruggink and Droppers, 80.) Proclaimed gospel, however, has historically held and should hold primary importance in Protestant worship. Everything else in worship and the sanctuary should revolved around it and point to it.”

Visual cues both support the Word and set a stage for listening. Your ears expect something different when your eyes see a high, formal pulpit versus a stage with bright colored lights and no lectern. The Christian Pundit explains this in their  ecclesiastical architecture series, regarding pulpits,

“The pulpit was large, not only so that it was visible from all parts of the sanctuary, but also so there was space to hold the preacher’s notes, a hymn book and a copy of the Scriptures which the congregation could see. The other reason that pulpits were large was to make the minister look smaller, hiding most of the man behind this architectural manifestation of the Word. When a man preaches Christ faithfully, he himself begins to disappear in the minds of the hearers, as God and His work is magnified. Large pulpits facilitate this reality. Pulpits were the center around which every other piece of furniture in the sanctuary was arranged.”

In former times, pulpits looked like the ones below. The reason was because the Word was magnified and the man speaking it was reduced. John MacArthur on large screens in church:

I actually try to minimize myself, if I can. That’s why you will never see big screens in here, because people need to hear the Word of God, they don’t need to see my nose hairs. They don’t need to become overly familiar with every nuance of my face and my expressions, it’s not about me.”

Pulpit of the Gallus chapel in Greifensee ZH, Switzerland. Wkipedia Commons

When you go into a church, look at the pulpit. Is everything arranged so that the place where the Word emanates is promoted to primary position? How does the church elevate the word and prepare you for hearing it? Seeing a majestic pulpit tells your mind that this place takes the word seriously and this helps to prepare you in a mindset that lays the ground work for sober listening.

Below we have a pulpit from puritan times in at the Old Ship Meetinghouse, in Hingham Massachusetts. This architecture is similar to most early pulpits in New England- high, wooden with stairs at the side. For a fascinating story on pulpits, this one at Boston, go here, “Mystery of the Old South Meeting House Pulpit

Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance 
Proverbs 1:5

Think of it this way. At a concert, your ears expect something different if you’re laying on the grass at a 4th of July Concert in the Park in Central Park NY than if you were inside the Rockefeller Center listening to the Opera Aida. Don’t underestimate the setting as to how it coaches your mind to receive text.

The Christian Pundit said,

“a central pulpit makes a clear statement to any stranger walking in the door: “We have something for you to hear. It’s not what we say, it’s what God says in His Word. The pulpit looks important because what you are going to hear from it is essential for life and eternity.”

I’m not saying we all have to build high pulpits. However, today’s listener sees a man on a stage, a man dressed in torn skinny jeans and sweatshirt, one gluteal cheek perched on a wobbly stool, and a music stand, if that. We have gone from this,

To this:

Rob Bell speaking at Rick Warren’s Willow Creek Community Church

We don’t have pulpits today. Joel Osteen doggedly refused to even call his stage a pulpit when pressed by Larry King. “It’s a podium,” he said. He has no cross behind him or anywhere on stage.

So the expository listener of today has been coached via architecture (or the lack of it) to prepare for a reduced word or prepare for a heightened word before a word is even spoken.

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:15)

Gill’s Exposition explains the verse:

“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. A way of speaking used by Christ, when anything serious, and of great importance, was delivered; and which required attention, and was not easily understood”

As Ken Ramey stated in his book “Expository Listening, “Those who take to heart God’s call to listen will transcend the discouraging trends in the church today.

Ramey continues in describing the sacred partnership the preacher and the listener has with each other, and the Word of God binds them. We come to church to hear a sermon, but in addition to listening, we must also heed it. Almost every book of the bible contains a reference to hearing and obeying God’s word. Mr Ramey said,

“We might systematize everything the bible teaches on the subject of listening by arranging the verses under four summary statements, or theological truths, as follows:

1. God has spoken and commands us to listen and to obey what he has said,
2. We all fail to listen and obey God and deserve to be punished by Him,
3. God grants us the ability to listen to and to obey Him by His Holy Spirit, whom we receive through Jesus Christ,
4. God promises to bless us both now and for all eternity if we listen to and obey Him.

How do we do this? We know the parable of the soils explains that there are four kinds of soils. One of them is hard packed. If you garden, then you know that for the soil to receive the seed, it must be prepared by aerating, breaking up the clods and making rows to put the seeds into. Our heart is like that hard packed soil. We need to prepare it before we listen to the seeds the preacher sends forth from the Word in a sermon.

We do this in several ways. One is, we must read and meditate on God’s word every day. Mr Ramey wrote,

Reading the Word on a daily basis will develop in you a healthy appetite for God’s Word. You can’t expect to come to church on Sunday with a hunger for God’s Word if you haven’t been feeding on it throughout the week.

We prepare to listen by praying throughout the week.

“Pray for yourself. You should pray that God would grant you an honest and good heart that would hear and accept the Word and that it will bring lasting fruit in your life, that he would make your heart receptive to the Word. … Second, you should pray for the preacher. Pray that the preacher would preach with great liberty and boldness and clarity (Eph 6:19-20; Col 4:3-4), that God’s Word would run rapidly, transforming people’s lives for His glory.”

Let us not forget about sin. In order to be good, biblical listeners, we need to confess our sin on a regular basis so that it does not form a block, a wall, or a stronghold against the implanting of the seed. James 1:21 says “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”

Here is another tip for becoming a biblical listener which you may not have expected as a tip for how to listen to a sermon. Mr Ramey suggests,

“Reduce your media intake. …  The media saturation in our society has a deadening, dulling effect on our hearts.” These conditions diminish our receptivity to hearing God’s word.

Do you prepare to listen? Just as architecturally, the pulpit is central in a sanctuary, do you orient your week with the focal point being the ministry of the Word? Is Sunday the most important part of your week? In Mr Ramey’s book “Expository Listening,” he wrote,

You should try to schedule your work activities, get-togethers and vacations around church. You should live by the principle that Sunday morning begins on Saturday night. Here are some practical suggestions on how to prioritize the Lord’s Day:
–Make it a habit to be home Saturday night
–Be careful not to do, watch, or read anything that will cause lingering distractions in your mind the next day
–Get things ready on Saturday evening to alleviate the typical Sunday morning rush
–Get a good night’s sleep so you can be sharp and energetic to worship and serve God. It’s hard to listen when you’re nodding off!

And so on. The book contains many more instructions for how to be a good, biblical listener. I recommend it.

I hope these tips on how to become a biblical listener have helped you in any way. There is so much more to receiving God’s Word than plopping down in the pew in a huff and a rush, and half listening with a closed heart. We honor God to do our part before-hand to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.

“The Gospel is not the doorway into Christianity, it is the unending, ever-expanding, always sweetening country that we will be exploring for eternity.”


Further Reading

How to listen to a sermon: part 1 “The mechanics of listening”.

What is expository preaching?

What is biblical theology of worship?