Eight years ago I bought a Toyota Camry that has served me well in my daily commute to work. But I have discovered one downside: after several close calls, I've learned when changing lanes that I can check all my mirrors carefully and still miss a car that's right beside me. My car has a large blind spot.
I have had a similar experience with a movement I much appreciate: the spiritual formation movement. 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—spiritual disciplines in particular. That's why as much as I respect those who have written on spiritual formation, I was surprised to find that they have a large blind spot: their view of preaching.
Read books on spiritual formation and you will be hard pressed to find anyone who lists listening to the preaching of God's Word as a first-order spiritual discipline. Granted, the writers typically 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. Still, the writers I have surveyed typically mention listening to preaching under the broader discipline of studying the Word—if they mention it at all.
Read books on spiritual formation and you will be hard pressed to find anyone who lists listening to the preaching of God's Word as a first-order spiritual discipline.
Contrast this with the important description of the early church's spiritual disciplines in Acts 2:4247. 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 6:14; 1 Tim 4:13; 5:17; 2 Tim 4:13) suggests that listening to preaching was a first-order spiritual discipline. 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.
Granted again, Acts 2 describes a period when the church did not yet have the New Testament; in a sense the apostles' teaching was their New Testament. In addition, the rates of literacy in the first through sixteenth centuries differed from those of churches in the West today. Still, for Christians in the West, is listening to preaching a second-order discipline in spiritual formation? What is the unique value of the discipline of listening to preaching?
What preaching alone can do
I want to say that sound biblical preaching does the following nine things that individual Bible reading, memorization, and meditation does not:
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.
Preaching brings us before God's Word in the special presence of the Holy Spirit, who 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 put within human nature a remarkable power to spur others to take action.
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. We are not just an individual follower of Christ; we are a member of his church and are called to obey the call of God together with others hearing the same Word.
Good preaching contributes to spiritual 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—are frequently led astray by false doctrines. 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.
Preaching and listening is a uniquely embodied, physical act. It literally puts us into the habit of having "ears that hear." There is something to be said for this physical act of listening and heeding. Good preaching is truth incarnated, truth mediated through a person from its ancient setting to today, truth we can feel through another person's heart, truth conveyed through an embodied person, truth we receive sitting shoulder to shoulder with other embodied Christians.
Good preaching does what most Christians are not gifted, trained, or time-endowed to do: interpret a text in context, distill the theological truths 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. This is a challenging task for well-trained preachers; how much more so for those untrained?
Listening to preaching has a much lower threshold of difficulty for almost all people. While many spiritual disciplines sound like exercises for the spiritually elite, both young and old, educated and uneducated, disciplined and undisciplined can at least listen to a sermon. It is God's equal-opportunity discipline. Preaching and listening is everywhere in the Bible because it is doable by the masses.
A legitimate question asked by some in the spiritual formation movement is, "If preaching is so important, how can some 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 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 answer 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 Timothy 4:3), or to earn God's favor (John 5:39). They seek knowledge rather than transformation (Romans 12:12; 1 Corinthians 8:12). They listen without paying careful attention (Mark 4:2325). 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 8:121), or with an attitude of selective obedience (Matthew 23:2324). They are not regularly warned of the dangers of a rebellious attitude (Hebrews 3:716) and unresponsive hearing (James 1:2125).
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 requires not only God's working in a person, not only excellent, anointed biblical exposition, but also the spiritual discipline of listening correctly with the help of the Holy Spirit. Transformation through preaching depends 100 percent on God, 100 percent on the preacher, and 100 percent on the effort of the listener.
Listening to preaching is truly a spiritual discipline. Because of its unique benefits and easy adoption, it is a discipline that spiritual formation leaders should prioritize and teach how to do for maximum spiritual gain.
Craig Brian Larson is the pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago and author and editor of numerous books, including The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan). He blogs on Knowing God and His Ways at craigbrianlarson.com.