A Vertical Discipline
Read books on spiritual formation and you will be hard pressed to find any that list listening to the preaching of God's Word as a first-order spiritual discipline. It may be mentioned under the broader category of reading and studying the Bible. But listening to preaching deserves attention of its own.
This was clearly a crucial dimension of the early church's life—"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42). Certainly the leaders of the Reformation felt that way. They placed primary attention on public teaching and preaching. Karl Barth, writing to the well-educated West, regarded the proclamation of the Word as one of the three fundamental ways that people experience the life-changing Word of God.
In addition to biblical and theological aspects, we might consider some practical aspects of preaching—particularly expository preaching, preaching that strives to convey the meaning of biblical truth—that can help us see it as a vital spiritual discipline that humbly grounds us in the work and Word of God:
- Preaching brings us before God's Word in the presence of the Holy Spirit, who indwells the gathered church.
- Good preaching rescues us from our self-deceptions and blind spots, for left to ourselves, we tend to ignore the very things in God's Word that we most need to see. Preaching is done in community, covering texts and topics outside of our control.
- Good preaching brings us into the place of corporate obedience rather than merely individual obedience. This is a uniquely corporate discipline that the church does together as a community, building up individuals and the community at the same time.
- Good preaching contributes to spiritual humility by disciplining us to sit under the teaching, correction, and exhortation of another person. This strikes right to the heart of individualism, which is such a plague on the church.
- Good preaching gives a place for a spiritually qualified person to protect believers from dangerous error. To use the biblical metaphor: Christians are sheep; false teachers are wolves; preachers are guardian shepherds. A preacher is a person called and gifted by God with spiritual authority for the care of souls in the context of God's church.
- Good preaching does what most Christians are not gifted, trained, or time-endowed to do: interpret a text in context, distill the theological claims that are universally true, and apply those truths in a particular time and place to particular people in a particular church—all this with the help of resources informed by 2,000 years of the church's study that average Christians do not own.
- Listening to preaching has a much lower threshold. While many spiritual disciplines sound like exercises for the spiritually elite, young and old, educated and uneducated, disciplined and undisciplined can at least listen to a sermon.
A legitimate question of some is, "If preaching is so central, how can so many Christians listen to it for decades and not be transformed?" Part of the answer may be weak or unbiblical preaching in which the Bible plays little to no role in the sermon. Or, to put it in terms of the main article here: preaching that moves too quickly to what we should do before establishing who God is and what he has done for us.
In the end, no human activity—not even preaching—can guarantee the faithfulness of the preacher or the congregation. But there is a reason that preaching has been one constant in the life of the church. In telling his disciples, "He who listens to you listens to me" (Luke 10:16), Christ was promising to be present in their preaching. If we want to ensure that our lives and ministries are grounded in God's grace, there is no better place to begin than to listen humbly to the preached Word.