When was the last time someone snapped at you, “Hey, listen up!”? It may have gotten your attention, but did that verbal slap in the face really help you listen better?
As Christians we should be concerned not only with becoming better listeners in general but specifically expositional listeners, those who listen for the meaning of a passage of Scripture and accept that meaning as the main idea to be grasped for our personal and corporate lives as Christians. Expositional listening is one of the most important ways we can grow and encourage others to grow as we listen to the preaching of God’s word week by week.
Well, if expositional listening is so vital to the health of individual church members and the church as a whole, how does a person form such a habit? At least six practical ideas can foster more attentive listening to God’s word.
1) Meditate on the sermon passage during your quiet time
Several days before the sermon is preached, ask the pastor what passage of Scripture he plans to preach the following Sunday. Encourage him by letting him know that you’ll be praying for his preparation and preparing to listen to the sermon. Outline the text in your own daily devotions and use it to inform your prayer life. Learning to outline Scripture is a wonderful way of digging out and exposing the meaning of a passage. You can then use your outline as a listening aid; compare it to the preacher’s outline for new insights you missed in your own study.
2) Invest in a good set of commentaries
Add to your quiet times some of the greatest minds in Christian history. Study the Bible with John Calvin or Martin Lloyd-Jones by purchasing commentaries on books of the Bible as you read and study through them. If your pastor is preaching through John’s Gospel, pick up D. A. Carson’s or James Montgomery Boice’s commentary on John. Let these scholars and pastors help you hear God’s Word with a clear ear and discover its rich meaning. The Bible Speaks Today commentary series is an excellent starting place for those wanting to build a library of good commentaries. Also, you might want to purchase an Old Testament and New Testament commentary survey to help you sort through the range of commentary options available. Tremper Longman’s Old Testament Commentary Survey and D. A. Carson’s New Testament Commentary Survey are excellent resources.
3) Talk and pray with friends about the sermon after church
Instead of rushing off after the service is over, or talking about the latest news, develop the habit of talking about the sermon with people after church. Start spiritual conversations by asking, “How did the Scripture challenge or speak to you today?” Or, “What about God’s character most surprised or encouraged you?” Encourage others by sharing things you learned about God and his Word during the sermon. Make particular note of how your thinking has changed because of the meaning of Scripture itself. And pray with others that God would keep the congregation from becoming “dull of hearing” and that he would bless the congregation with an increasingly strong desire for the “solid food” of his Word (Isa. 6:9–10; Heb. 5:11–14).
4) Listen to and act on the sermon throughout the week
We can cultivate the habit of expositional listening by listening to the sermon throughout the week and then acting upon it. Don’t let the Sunday sermon become a one-time event that fades from memory as soon as it is over (James 1:22–25). Choose one or two particular applications from the Scripture and prayerfully put them into practice over the coming week. If your church has an audio ministry or a website that posts recent summaries, take advantage of these opportunities to feed your soul with the click of a mouse. With your pastor’s support, establish small groups that review and apply the sermons. Or, use the sermons and your notes as a resource in one-on-one discipleship relationships. I know of several families that have a regular sermon-review time as their Sunday evening family devotional. There are a hundred ways to keep the sermon alive in your spiritual life by reviewing God’s Word throughout the week. Be creative. It’s well worth the planning.
5) Develop the habit of addressing any questions about the text itself
Jonathan Edwards resolved that he would never let a day end before he had answered any questions that troubled him or sprang to mind while he was studying the Scripture. How healthy would our churches be if members dedicated themselves to studying the Scripture with that kind of intentional effort and resolve? One way to begin is to follow up with your pastor, elders, or other teachers in the church about questions triggered by the text. Moreover, don’t be passive in your private study; seek answers by searching the Scripture yourself and by talking with accountability partners or small groups. But don’t forget that the pastor has likely spent more time than most in thinking about that passage and is there to feed you God’s Word. Follow up the sermon with questions and comments that would be an encouragement to your pastor and a blessing to your soul.
6) Cultivate Humility
As you dig into God’s Word, listening for his voice, you will no doubt begin to grow and discover many wonderful treasures. But as you grow, do not become a “professional sermon listener” who is always hearing but never learning. Beware of false knowledge that “puffs up” (1 Cor. 1:8; Col. 2:18) and tends to cause strife and dissension. Mortify any tendencies toward pride, the condemnation of others, and critical nit-picking. Instead, seek to meet Jesus each time you come to the Scripture; gather from the Word fuel for all-of-life worship. Instead of exalting ourselves, let us remember the apostle Peter’s words: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Pet. 5:6).
It is hearing the message and the Word of God that leads to saving faith (Rom.10:17). Church members are healthy when they give themselves to hearing this message as a regular discipline. Expositional listening promotes such health for individual members and entire churches.
In the next article in the series, I’ll explain why a healthy church member is a biblical theologian.
For Further Reflection
1. How would you rate your ability to listen for the meaning of the Word during private devotions? During sermons?
2. How do you plan to strengthen your listening ability?
 Around age 19, Edwards penned the following resolution: “Resolved, When I think of any theorem in divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if circumstances do not hinder me.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson), lxii.
Thabiti Anyabwile is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Cayman Islands. Pastor Thabiti is the author of What is a Healthy Church Member?, The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity, and The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Preachers. He also blogs regularly at Pure Church.