Monday, July 22, 2013

How to listen to a sermon: part 1 "The mechanics of listening"

Part 2 here: "Expository Listening"

As I'm sure you do, I like to listen to sermons. I listen at my laptop, while I am doing dishes or cooking, and in church. The former means I have no visuals to accompany the listening, and the latter does.

The catch is finding a good preacher who treats the scripture with respect, doesn't promote a false doctrine, and is clear in his preaching. That is hard to do these days! Once you find some pastors like that, phew, it is easy to settle into a routine that contains your favorite few. Mine are John MacArthur, Mike Abendroth, (and also herePhil Johnson, and Don Green.

However, I have an Old Testament prophet's heart and I LOVE to listen to good exposition on the OT texts. The problem is, pastors who preach those texts are few and far between. Pastor Johnson has a great series on the Psalms, and Dr. MacArthur has a very few on OT texts (his series on Genesis 1 is fantastic) and Pastor Green as a tiny amount, but that's it.

Martyn Lloyd Jones was a well-known British preacher. He lived from 1899 to 1981. He preached for a long time. Recently, his recorded sermons were combined into a trust and released to the public via the internet. There are 133 sermons on the OT. There are 55 on the great biblical doctrines. There are 1,600 sermons overall. What a treasure trove! I got so excited!

This week, I listened to two of his sermons from Jeremiah and I had a hard time sticking with it. I like Jeremiah a lot, and  was truly interested in the exposition of the text. So why was my mind balking? Lloyd-Jones is an old-fashioned fire and brimstone preacher, which I love. So why was I having a hard time? You know me, I have to analyze everything.

Lloyd-Jones's voice is upper crust, 'veddy British'. He rolls his rrrr's dramatically. He has a high nasal
voice, not helped by older recording equipment from the 40s, 50s, 60s that makes him sound more tinny than likely he was in real life. The vocabulary he uses is slightly different that I'm used to, and it included British words as well as simply a different phraseology than I've heard before. All these surface elements of the skill of listening negatively impacted my listening experience.

I thought about it for a while and I came to the conclusion that our ears settle into a comfortable rut. Just as we enjoy living in a routine, so do our ears. People's voices are like blankets. We become used to how our pastors sound, we know their verbal tics, and go along with their vocal rhythms. Listening is an ability. It needs to be kept in good working order, the wheels of the mind greased and stretched. I was having a hard time not because of the content of Lloyd-Jones's sermons, which are tremendous, nor because of any spiritual conviction I was experiencing, but simply because my listening ability was being stretched.

I'm sure you've experienced this when a guest preacher comes to your church. It takes a while for your mind to settle down and get used to hearing a new tone of voice, an new rhythm, a new way of speaking. All this stretches your listening vocabulary and listening skills. And listening is a skill.

I used to watch foreign films a lot. I don't like dubbing so I always went for the subtitles, which never bothered me. Foreign films of course show foreign things, contain foreign ideas, use a different approach to story telling, and even the cinematography is different because of different type cameras used in the making of the film. It has been about ten years since I've seen a foreign film and I watched one recently. I had a hard time settling down at first because I'd lost the skill of watching them. Same goes for black and white movies, which I've recently gotten back into, and the same goes for silent films. I was surprised that the 2011 American/French film "The Artist" won so many Academy Awards (five) because it was a silent film. A silent film hasn't been made nor an old one released in a long time, and many of us have lost that skill of how to watch one.

It is the same with listening. The mechanics of listening to a sermon are just as important. Keep honing your skills in listening to a wide range of good preachers. Here is a little tutorial on how to keep the mechanics of your listening skills in good shape. In another blog entry, I'll discuss the spiritual mechanics of biblical listening.

Literacy is reading and writing, listening and speaking. It is via literacy that we create meaning in our lives. The US Air Force has a University called The Air University, or AU. In this good series on Listening Effectively, we read,

"Listening is a complex process—an integral part of the total communication process, albeit a part often ignored. This neglect results largely from two factors."

"First, speaking and writing (the sending parts of the communication process) are highly visible, and are more easily assessed than listening and reading (the receiving parts). And reading behavior is assessed much more frequently than listening behavior; that is, we are more often tested on what we read than on what we hear. And when we are tested on material presented in a lecture, generally the lecture has been supplemented by readings."

"Second, many of us aren’t willing to improve our listening skills. Much of this unwillingness results from our incomplete understanding of the process—and understanding the process could help show us how to improve. To understand the listening process, we must first define it."

The essay goes on to explain that, "The process moves through the first three steps—receiving, attending,
Group of people listening to a sermon.
Coranderrk, c.1860-c.1865
understanding—in sequence." Receiving is what it means, someone transmits a body of information auditorially and your ears receive it. There are many things that can impact receiving. If you're in a car and driving, of course that impacts you because you get distracted. The speaker is still sending, you're not receiving. Even if you are in a pew and seated comfortably, receiving can be impacted by the preacher's speech, any impediments, his rhythm, tone, or distracting verbal tics.

My old pastor used to punctuate every half phrase with "Amen?" as in, "Paul was about to set out in his second missionary journey, amen? And then he got in the boat, amen?" etc. Like that. Drove me nuts. I'm exaggerating a bit on how frequently he said it, but it was frequent enough that it became a distraction to me rather than a pattern of speech unique to him. Sometimes I'd just count the amens rather than listen to what he was saying. That is what I mean by verbal tics. MacArthur repeats a sentence he really wants us to get. He doesn't do it often within a sermon, but only at the introduction of a new main idea, so it doesn't distract me. In the former case, it was distracting, in the latter, a comforting vocal blanket to my ears.

In the Air University lecture it stated that "attending" is the second part of the process of listening. Attending is hard when you're distracted. This impacts receiving. Like I said above, I had a hard time paying attention to the content when the distraction of the amens got in the way.

The AU lecture notes that in the second part of the listening process attending, there is such a thing as--

"Selectivity of attention. We direct attention to certain things to prevent an information overload."

And alternately, we become distracted by things when they are competing for our attention. This is why listening is active. If there arise any barriers to listening, we must mentally work to overcome them.

"Selectivity of attention explains why you “perk up” or pay attention when something familiar to you, such as your hometown or your favorite hobby, is mentioned. In fact, you may have been listening intently to a conversation when someone in a different conversation mentions your name. Immediately, the focus of your attention shifts to the conversation in which your name was mentioned." (source)

So in listening to a sermon, you may have a favorite topic. If any preacher mentions anything about eschatology, I am all ears. If the sermon is on marriage (I'm single) I tend to want to tune out.

Strength of attention. Attention is not only selective; it possesses energy, or strength.

Attention requires effort and desire. It is possible to get lazy in listening, that is why I'm writing about listening as a skill that needs honing and practice. We make ourselves literate when we connect the new to the known. If you are listening to a preacher for the first time, you have nothing to connect the new to the known with. In other words, I understand without having to think about it that when MacArthur repeats a sentence it means he is emphasizing a point and getting ready to launch into another verbal paragraph. This barely registers with me now but it is what I am talking about when I say that listening is an active skill. When you tune in to a new preacher you won't know his patterns and it takes a few listens to acquire them. Stick with it.

Words are verbal symbols. Yet there can exist barriers to understanding even when we all speak the same language.

Barrier #1: The same words mean different things to different people.

I laugh when I remember this example. When I was married, my husband and I used to talk of course. All
my degrees are in literacy and my profession is teaching. I live by words. My husband was a mathematician, his profession was databases and computer software. One time we were having a talk. We were both speaking English. We were at home and undistracted. But we were not connecting verbally. Finally, I asked him, "When you speak what does it look like in your mind?" He said, "Numbers. I think in equations. How do you think?" I answered, "I think in anecdotes."

In the AU lecture, the professor said, "I may tell my colleague that the temperature in the office is quite comfortable. My “quite comfortable,” however, is her “uncomfortable”: 75 degrees is comfortable for me; 70 degrees is comfortable for her. The same word can mean different things to different people."

If you listen to a new preacher it takes a while to become familiar with what he means when he says such and such.

"Barrier #2: Different words sometimes mean the same thing"

It took me a while after moving from the north to the south in the US that buggy meant cart, soda meant pop, and tea meant cold and sweet. I remember asking one of my kindergarteners to get the wastebasket and he literally didn't know what I meant. I said "the trash can" and then he brought it right over.

A new preacher you're listening to might indeed be speaking English but may be using different words in that present a barrier to understanding. With ongoing listening you absorb his meanings into your mental listening vocabulary.

Barrier #3: Misinterpretation of the voice. The quality, intelligibility, and variety of the voice affect the listener’s understanding. Quality refers to the overall impression the voice makes on others.

There is a preacher I listen to who has a tone that tends to become petulant, even though he is not petulant in the least. I have to work hard while listening not to be distracted by it. I love Pastor Mike Abendroth's voice on his radio program No Compromise Radio. His voice is so soothing, he speaks slowly and clearly, there are no sound effects or distractions. In fact, when I want to be soothed, I'll listen to him. His voice is like an oasis in the loudness of life. He makes it easy to receive, attend, and understand.

Well, that was a little lesson on the mechanics of listening. In the next essay I'll offer some information on how to partner with the preacher via maximized listening so that the Word of God accomplishes its intended purpose. It will be geared to the theology of listening: expanding your capacity for expository listening. Meanwhile I'll urge you all to keep the mechanics of your listening skills honed by occasionally practicing an deliberate expansion of who you listen to, and how.


  1. That's fantastic. Thanks. I've never thought of listening as a skill before, but you're absolutely right. I need to practice it more. Good explanation.

    1. Hi Nigel, thanks so much! be sure to check out part two, how to be a good expository listener :)