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April 27, 2010
As Christians we (rightly!) have high expectations of our pastors as they preach the Word of God. We expect that that they will dedicate themselves to studying and understanding the Bible, that they will live lives marked by their commitment to holiness, that they will expend the effort necessary to craft Gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered sermons. In short, we expect that they will come to the pulpit prepared, having dedicated themselves to the task they’ve been called to. How odd it is, then, that we are content to have such low standards for our own preparation and our own diligence in listening. We expect to turn up at church and be blessed by the preaching of the Word, even while we have expended no effort in seeking to prepare ourselves to hear it and even while we sit passively throughout.
Having read many books dealing with the preaching of sermons, it was a blessing to me to read a book on listening to sermons. After all, I spend just a handful of Sundays each year preaching and all the rest listening. And I know I need to be a much better listener. Ken Ramey addresses just this in his new book Expository Listening: A Handbook for Hearing and Doing God’s Word.
Ramey, pastor at Lakeside Bible Church in Mongomery, Texas, says that 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. There is no telling the dynamic impact the Spirit of God will make through the Word of God any time someone who faithfully explains and applies God’s Word comes into contact with someone who faithfully listens to and obeys God’s Word.” This powerful synergy is at the heart of so much lasting spiritual change.
And so, in this book, geared specifically to the average person (like me) in the average church (like mine) Ramey calls for a new appreciation of the hard work of listening to God’s Word delivered through his servants. He begins with a theology of listening, showing the emphasis God places on listening to what he says. He then moves to the importance of hearing with the heart rather than simply hearing with the head or intellect. He offers teaching on harrowing the heart to hear, those week-long and life-long tasks of preparation that will allow us to listen and listen well. He also warns of the “itching ear epidemic” the Bible warns about (and the contemporary church gives such evidence of), calls for discernment among listeners, and offers biblical wisdom on practicing what you hear. He concludes with an exhortation to listen like your life depends on it.
In his Foreword to the book Lance Quinn writes “Merely hearing a sermon is easy; it requires a properly functioning auditory system, but it’s essentially a passive exercise. Actively listening to the preaching of God’s Word requires mental alertness, focused attention, and a spiritually receptive heart.” Ramey provides assistance and biblical exhortation on each of those disciplines.
In this book Ken Ramey shows that we ought to have equally high expectations of ourselves. For while the pastor preaches, we are to be attending to the Word, actively seeking to listen, to understand, to discern, to apply. Expository preaching demands expository listening. If you struggle to listen, if you struggle to know why you should listen, prayerfully read this book and heed its lessons.