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Thabiti Anyabwile

1st Mark of a Healthy Church MEMBER: Expositional LISTENING

By Thabiti Anyabwile

Every local church is a collection of individual church members. Therefore, fostering healthy churches depends in some measure on fostering healthy church members who understand the centrality of living and working together as one body for the glory of God. This series of articles aims to stir some thinking about what a healthy church member looks like. We take each of the nine marks of a healthy church and apply them to the individual Christian in order to color in a picture of what it means to be a healthy church member. In other words, we want to answer the question, “How can each member of a local congregation contribute to the collective and functional health of their local church?” We pray that these short studies are useful to pastors and members as they labor and serve together in the gospel for the glory of God our Father and Jesus Christ our Savior.

Mark #1: “Expositional Listening”

What is “expositional listening”?
The first and most important mark of a healthy church is expositional preaching. “Expositional preaching is not simply producing a verbal commentary on some passage of Scripture. Rather, expositional preaching is that preaching which takes for the main point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture.”1 If churches are to be healthy then pastors and teachers must be committed to discovering the meaning of Scripture and allowing that meaning to drive their agenda with their congregations.

There is an important corollary for every member of a local church. Just as the pastor’s preaching agenda is to be determined by the meaning of Scripture, so too must the listening agenda of the Christian be driven by the meaning of Scripture. What we are listening for when the Word is preached is not primarily “practical how-to advice,” though Scripture teaches us much about everyday matters. Nor should we listen for messages and ideas that bolster our self-esteem or that rouse us for political and social causes. Rather, as members of Christian churches we are listening for the voice and message of God as revealed in His word. We are listening to hear God speak to us the things He has in His omniscient love written for His glory and our blessing. Listening for the meaning of a passage of Scripture, and accepting that meaning as the main idea to be grasped for our personal and corporate lives as Christians, is what we mean by “expositional listening.”

What are the benefits of expositional listening?
The first benefit of expositional listening is that it cultivates a hunger for God’s word. As we tune our ears to the style of preaching that takes as its main points the primary meaning of a particular passage of Scripture, we grow accustomed to listening to God. We become fluent in the language of Zion and conversant with its themes. His word/voice becomes sweet to us (Psalm 119:103-104); and as it does, we are better able to push to the background the many voices that would rival God’s voice for control over our lives. Expositional listening gives us a clear ear with which to hear God.

The second benefit of expositional listening follows from the first. Expositional listening helps us to focus on God’s will and to follow Him. Our agenda becomes secondary. The preacher’s agenda becomes secondary. God’s agenda for His people takes center stage, reorders our priorities, and directs us in the course that most honors Him. The Lord himself proclaimed, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Listening to the voice of Jesus as it is heard in His word is critical to following Him.

Third, expositional listening protects the gospel and our lives from corruption. The Scripture tells us “the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (II Tim. 4:3-4). The failure to listen expositionally has disastrous effects. False teachers enter the church and hinder the gospel, and ultimately, the truth is displaced by myths and falsehoods. Where members cultivate the habit of expositional listening they guard themselves against “itching ears” and they protect the gospel from corruption.

The fourth benefit, then, is that expositional listening encourages faithful pastors. Those men who serve faithfully in the ministry of the word are worthy of double honor (I Tim. 5:17). Little could be more discouraging or dishonoring to such men than a congregation inattentive to the word of God. Faithful men flourish at the fertile reception of the preached word. They are made all the more bold when their people give ear to the Lord’s voice and give evidence of being shaped by it. As church members, we can care for our pastors and teachers and help to prevent unnecessary discouragement and fatigue by cultivating the habit of expositional listening.

Fifth, expositional listening has benefits for the gathered congregation. Repeatedly, the New Testament writers exhort local churches to be unified, to be of one mind. “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (I Cor. 1:10; see also Rom. 12:16; II Cor. 13:11; I Pet. 3:8). As we gather together in our local churches, as we together give ourselves to hearing the voice of God through His preached word, we are shaped into one body. We are united in understanding and purpose. And that unity testifies to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ (John 17:21). But if we listen with our own interests and agendas in mind, if we develop “private interpretations” and idiosyncrasies, we risk shattering that unity, provoking disputes over doubtful matters, and weakening our corporate gospel witness.

How can church members cultivate the habit of expositional listening?
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 the preacher by letting him know that you’ll be praying for his preparation and preparing to listen to the sermon. Throughout the week, outline the text in your own quiet time 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 Augustine 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 (both co-published by Baker and IVP) 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 or sporting event, 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,” that He would bless the congregation with an increasingly strong desire for the “solid food” of His word (Isaiah 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 it 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 at the push of a button or 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 is 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.2 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 thinking about that passage than most 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” (I Cor. 1:8; Col. 2:18) and tends to cause strife and dissension. Mortify any tendencies toward pride, condemning 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” (I 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.

1. Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), p. 40.
2. 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), p. lxii.