My Toyota Camry has served me well in my 40 minute commute to work, but after several close calls, I have discovered one downside: My car has a large blind spot.
I have had a similar experience with the spiritual formation movement, which I much appreciate. Books on spiritual formation speak my language. I'm a pastor who wants to see people grow into strong disciples of Jesus Christ. Disciplines of any sort appeal to me, and spiritual disciplines in particular. That's why as much as I respect those who have written on spiritual formation, I one day came to the realization that they have a blind spot: their view of preaching.
Read books on spiritual formation and you will be hard-pressed to find listening to the preaching of God's Word mentioned as a first-order spiritual discipline in its own right. The writers I have surveyed typically mention listening to preaching in passing under the broad discipline of studying the Word, if they mention it at all. The writers usually are not attempting to provide an exhaustive list of spiritual disciplines. If asked, I'm sure they would unanimously say listening to preaching is a spiritual discipline.
Contrast the low priority of hearing sermons in the contemporary canon of spiritual formation with the importance it has among the early church's spiritual disciplines in Acts 2:42-47. It begins: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer" (italics mine).
In addition, the importance that the apostles placed on preaching (in passages like Acts 6:1-4; 1 Tim 4:13; 5:17; 2 Tim. 4:1-3) suggests that, in their view, listening to preaching was a first-order spiritual discipline.
Granted, Acts 2 describes a period when the church did not yet have the New Testament, so that in a sense the apostles' teaching was their New Testament. In addition, the rates of literacy in the 1st and 16th centuries differed from those in churches of the West today.
But the leaders of the Reformation placed primary attention on public teaching and preaching, and Karl Barth, writing to well-educated Westerners, regarded the proclamation of the Word as one of the three fundamental ways that people experience the life-changing Word of God.
What is the unique value of the discipline of listening to preaching for Western Christians today? There are at least nine characteristics that separate sound, biblical preaching from Bible reading, memorization, and meditation:
- Good preaching rescues us from our self-deceptions and blind spots. Left to ourselves, we tend to ignore the very things in God's Word that we most need to see. Preaching covers texts and topics outside of our control.
- Preaching brings us before God's Word in the special presence of the Holy Spirit as he indwells the gathered church.
- Good preaching challenges us to do things we otherwise would not and gives us the will to do them. God has given speakers a remarkable power to spur others to take action.
- As our church communities listen to good preaching, it brings us into the place of corporate — rather than just individual — obedience.
- Good preaching causes humility by disciplining us to sit under the teaching, correction, and exhortation of another human. Relying on ourselves alone for food from the Word can lead to a spirit of arrogance and spiritual independence.
- Good preaching gives a place for a spiritually qualified person to protect believers from dangerous error. The apostles repeatedly warned that untrained and unstable Christians — as well as mature believers — can be easily led astray by false doctrines. Christians are sheep; false teachers are wolves; preachers are guardian shepherds.
- Preaching and listening are embodied, physical acts. Good preaching is truth incarnated through a person who can translate its meaning from an ancient setting to today. Good preaching is truth we receive sitting shoulder to shoulder.
- Good preachers do what most Christians are not gifted, trained, or time-endowed to do: interpret a text in context, distill the theological truths, and apply those truths in a particular time and place to particular people in a particular church. This is a challenging task for well-trained preachers who have access to 2,000 years' worth of the church's resources; how much more so for those who are not trained?
- Listening to preaching has a low threshold of difficulty. While many spiritual disciplines sound like exercises for the spiritually elite, both young and old, educated and uneducated, disciplined and undisciplined can listen to a sermon. It is the equal-opportunity spiritual discipline.
Some might ask, If preaching is so important, how can some Christians listen to it for decades and not be transformed? Part of the answer may be that in some inadequate preaching, the Bible plays little to no role or the pastor preaches without authority. Another part of the answer is certainly the sinfulness of the human heart, capable of resisting even the preaching of Paul or Jesus himself.
But the explanation for un-transformative preaching may also be that people don't naturally know how to listen to a sermon. They listen for the wrong reasons: to be entertained (Mark 6:20), to justify their wrong actions (2 Tim. 4:3), or to earn God's favor (John 5:39). They seek knowledge rather than transformation (Rom. 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 8:1-2). They listen without paying careful attention (Mark 4:23-25). They listen without prayer (James 1:5). They listen without an awareness of the deceitfulness (James 1:22) and hardness of their own hearts (Mark 8:1-21), or with an attitude of selective obedience (Matt. 23:23-24). They are not regularly warned of the dangers of a rebellious attitude (Heb. 3:7-16) and unresponsive hearing (James 1:21-25).
For decades the training of preachers has focused on how to preach better. But looking through the lens of spiritual formation, we realize that little attention has been paid to training preachers to train Christians to listen properly to a sermon.
The fact is, spiritual transformation comes not only from God's work in a person, not only from excellent, anointed biblical exposition, but also from the spiritual discipline of listening correctly with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Listening to preaching is a unique discipline, one that spiritual formation leaders should begin to prioritize and cultivate for the church's spiritual gain.
Bio: Craig Brian Larson is editor of PreachingToday.com and pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago. He is co-author of Preaching That Connects (Zondervan, 1994) and co-general editor of The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan, 2006).
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Christianity Today's coverage of the 30th anniversary of Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline includes:
A Life Formed in the Spirit | Richard Foster's disciplined attention to spiritual formation began early on. (September 17, 2008)
Richard Foster on Leadership | How do leaders — who must get subordinates to follow their lead — practice the discipline of submission? (September 17, 2008)
The Discipline of Solitude | Getting away from the podium and into God's presence. (September 19, 2008)
Other articles on spirituality are available on our site.