Listening Well to Preaching Is a Spiritual Discipline

The Lord Is Speaking

Jesus addressed a crowd at one point and laid down a command and a principle: “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you” (Mark 4:24). He said this in the context of parables he had been teaching the crowd. Sometimes we think that Jesus spoke in parables, using the imagery of first-century Israel—soil, seeds, lights, bushels, and more—to make it easier for people to understand. But Mark says that Jesus told parables to keep people at a distance. They were like riddles—people could understand the surface meaning thanks to the earthy imagery, but only those (the disciples and others) who approached Jesus to ask for an explanation received “the secret of the kingdom,” the true meaning of the parables (Mark 4:11). However, “for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘“they may indeed see but not perceive, / and may indeed hear but not understand, / lest they should turn and be forgiven”’” (Mark 4:11–12, quoting Isa. 6:9–10). The principle is clear—those who actively listen, engage, and approach Jesus for explanation are rewarded with insight. Those who half-heartedly listen to what he says and then wander off are left outside. Therefore, we need to listen well—attentively and prayerfully—remembering that as our pastor preaches the word, it is the Lord who is speaking (1 Pet. 4:11).

Fight for Your Pastor

Peter Orr

Fight for Your Pastor is an exhortation for church members to support their pastors through the difficulties of ministry through prayer, encouragement, generosity, and forgiveness.

Paul tells Timothy the role of the pastor is to “preach the word . . . in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). You can help your pastor fulfill this duty by being a good listener. That doesn’t just mean staying awake and maintaining eye contact while he preaches (though that would certainly encourage him!); it means correctly receiving the word of God. After urging Timothy to preach the word, Paul immediately adds that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim. 4:3). Listening well to God’s word means hearing it eagerly and letting it confront you—that is, allowing it to challenge and rebuke you. Listening badly means putting pressure on your pastor, whether indirectly (by lack of attention) or directly (by unfair criticism). This pressure can lead him—perhaps unconsciously—to preach to please his hearers.

If you humbly, submissively listen to the Scriptures, it will be easier for your pastor to preach the word. Scripture contains many passages and ideas that people in our generation don’t like or actually hate—passages on the uniqueness of Christ or on gender and sex.

A pastor who does his job will need to preach on such passages and topics. It will be easier for him if he knows that at least some people in the church are ready to submit to God’s word and listen to it rather than simply expect God’s word to affirm their preconceptions. A pastor I know, a good and godly man, became so affected by his congregation (which contained a number of progressive and liberal Christians) that when he preached a sermon on a particularly confronting passage, he told his hearers, “I wish the Bible didn’t say this.” He went on to affirm the teaching of the passage, but he was revealing a heart under pressure. He knew what people in his congregation thought about that particular topic and was swaying to their opinions. As congregation members, we can strengthen our pastor by listening well and making sure we respond in a godly way to God’s word.

A practical way to do this is to talk with one another after the service about the sermon. It is OK to talk about the weather, sports, politics, and other topics after worship, but it is sad that, at least in my experience, we so rarely talk about the sermon. But if our pastor sees us discussing his sermon and the passage he preached, he will be strengthened and encouraged to keep preaching and to take his preaching more seriously. If we never speak to one another—or to him—about his sermon, then we affirm by our behavior that we don’t value his preaching.

Active Listening

But what do we do if our pastor is not a very good preacher? We can still do some practical things. Of course, we need to work even harder at listening. Perhaps we can do so with pen and paper in hand so that we can actively engage with the passage even if our pastor meanders or misses the point of the text. If he does not preach a great sermon, we can still encourage him afterward about the things he did well. We can also ask him about the passage and the parts we didn’t understand because they weren’t clearly explained. This can create a feedback loop. If the people who talk to the pastor about the sermon ask careful and thoughtful questions, they will encourage him to preach careful and thoughtful sermons.

There may be a place for a more pointed conversation with the pastor about his preaching. Making sure we are not indulging a complaining or bitter spirit, it may be right for some people to sit down and help the pastor see how he could preach better sermons. For example, if he always preaches topical sermons, never getting into the riches of God’s word as it is written, we could suggest an expository series. However, ideally this is the sort of thing that the elders in the church will bring up. Critically, this kind of feedback needs to be given in a humble, submissive, and non-complaining way. If it is framed as coming from a hunger and an eagerness to hear the word every Sunday, a request for more of X, Y, and Z is more likely to be heard.

Listening well is a spiritual discipline. We should go to church with an expectation that we will meet with God in the preaching of his word.

One reason we may find it hard to listen to our pastor is because we listen too much to the “great” preachers on the internet. I remember gushing to a famous preacher at a conference about how helpful I found his material. He thanked me and then pointedly reminded me that I should be expressing that kind of thanks to my own pastor. It was a helpful reminder. Our pastor—particularly if we attend a small church—often has less time than he would like to prepare his sermons. He deals with a lot of things his more famous counterparts delegate. He often feels that he could have done better with more time. But nearly always there is something helpful in his sermons, and we ought to listen to his preaching as eagerly as we listen to streamed sermons.

I preach occasionally and can think of one former congregation member who was particularly easy to preach to. He would sit forward, make eye contact, smile, and nod the whole way through the sermon—to look his way as I preached was a great encouragement. Another person would sit at the back and stifle yawns as I preached. The most discouraging moment came when I began my sermon and he left. I thought perhaps he was going to the restroom, but ten minutes later, he walked back in with a cup of coffee. It was hard not to feel deflated. I had been preaching my heart out while he got in line for coffee. The preacher notices that kind of thing.

Listening well is a spiritual discipline. We should go to church with an expectation that we will meet with God in the preaching of his word. All of us on occasion arrive tired and distracted, and when we are in that frame of mind, there is every chance the sermon will bounce off us. But if we are hungry, expectant, and ready to engage with God, then our experience will be much more positive. So we need to listen actively, not passively. It is easy to listen to a sermon without really hearing it. But it is better for us, and more encouraging for our pastor, if we engage carefully with the Scripture passage being taught and go away reflecting on both the passage and the sermon.

In addition to your pastor’s sermons, you may be listening to others on the internet. But even if you don’t listen to other sermons, it is hard to escape the proliferation of voices on social media. This chorus can sometimes be helpful, as it encourages thoughtful and reflective listening. However, it can create competing realms of authority. Rather than submitting ourselves to the preached word of God, we can easily find someone who simply endorses our opinions. There is a tension here. Of course our pastor is not always correct; of course we need to test everything he says against the word of God. But the default stance should be to listen and submit to what he says unless there is an obvious issue. We need to test all things, but we often apply this more stringently to our pastor than to our favorite internet preachers.

Of course, there is listening that engages and understands, but does not obey. We need to heed James’s warning to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). There is real spiritual danger in loving good preaching for its own sake rather than as a means to meeting with the living God and responding to him with faith and repentance.

Your pastor is a flawed, fallible human being. But as he preaches the word of God, how you relate to what he says mirrors your relationship with God himself. Half-hearted listening to your pastor’s preaching signifies a half-hearted Christian faith. Distracted listening suggests a distracted Christian faith. Refusal to obey the message preached points to a heart hardened against God and his gospel.

This article is adapted from Fight for Your Pastor by Peter Orr.

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