By Skylar Spradlin
Preaching is hard work.
It’s filled with a complex array of details, plans, thoughts, and purposes. Good preaching deserves hours of preparation, constant reflection, and regular refinement.
But in all the work of sermon prep and delivery, a crucial element can be lost or neglected. Pastors sometimes forget that people need to be trained on how to listen to a sermon.
Paul shared as much at the end of his life when he told Timothy:
“For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
There’s much that could be said about these verses, but at the very least we know people won’t always be a good judge of good preaching. They won’t always know what they need.
And they won’t always be willing or able to listen to good expositional preaching.
Now, this doesn’t mean it’s your fault if people don’t like your preaching. It may be their fault, or it may be that you aren’t preaching well.
It does mean people need to be taught what it means to listen to a sermon. They need to be taught about the eternal implications of their listening. They need to be taught that listening isn’t void of action, a mere sitting around.
People need to understand that listening is more than sound waves penetrating the eardrum. They must be taught that distractions aren’t harmless, preparation is necessary, and they have a real spiritual responsibility.
For this article, however, I want to focus on the preacher. Here are five understandings every preacher should have when it comes to training their congregation to listen.
1. Realize Limitations
Not every person has the capability to eat a full steak. Sometimes, people need to work their way up to ingesting a full meal.
And yet, the preacher’s expectation and responsibility is to deliver a full, nutrient-rich, healthy spiritual meal made with the ingredients of Scripture, cooked in the fires of experience, and served on the passion and conviction of faith.
The challenge to serving such a scriptural feast is that not everyone can eat to the same degree or handle the same ingredients—at least at first.
In more plain language, sometimes, people aren’t trained or ready for expository preaching. They’ve grown up on a steady diet of junk food—mostly storytelling and moral devotions. This doesn’t mean expository preaching should be neglected.
Rather, it means the preacher should understand with gentleness and care that it may be hard for people to receive expository preaching until they’ve acquired a taste for it.
Eventually, they’ll come to love it more than the junk food. But until then, it may require effort to explain to them the necessity and benefit of such a preaching system.
2. Patiently Teach on Teaching
A lack of expositional appetite requires the preacher to sometimes teach on teaching. Take people to passages that talk about the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 2:16-21; Hebrews 4:12).
Turn their attention to passages like Nehemiah 8:1-8 and show them what real teaching and listening look like. Pick up books like Albert Mohler’s He Is Not Silent, devour it, and then teach its principles.
Be patient and committed to help them see the value in systematic, expositional preaching. Help them realize they don’t need their ears tickled; they instead need their hearts and conscience pricked with the Living Sword.
They need to know what they should expect from their preacher (to hold you accountable), and they need to know how to listen to good preaching.
3. Stay Faithful
Charles Spurgeon was far from a verse-by-verse, systematic, exegetical preacher. But he understood nonetheless the frustrations that come with poor listeners.
John Piper cites this quote from Spurgeon:
What terrible blankets some professors are! Their remarks after a sermon are enough to stagger you. … You have been pleading as for life or death, and they have been calculating how many seconds the sermon occupied, and grudging you the odd five minutes beyond the usual hour.
Every preacher can identify here with Spurgeon. This is especially true when people don’t yet have an appetite for expositional preaching.
I was once told I was killing a church because I thought every verse should be taught. I may have very well been killing that church, but it wasn’t because God’s Word was being shared.
The preacher, even in the face of a people who want junk food instead of a meal, must stay faithful to the calling of making the whole counsel of God’s Word known.
Remember, we have an Audience of One, and our success is determined by Him, not the listeners.
Stay faithful, even when the children whine.
4. Trust God
While the church is developing this appetite for right preaching, there may seem to be more complaining than transformation. But trust God.
His Word is working, even though you don’t see it. Eventually, if God is gracious to let you see it, the seeds of scriptural truth will sprout, and you’ll witness the beauty and glory of blossoming flowers you never thought existed.
We plant, we water, but He gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7)!
When you think you’ve accomplished all of the above steps, repeat them. Continue to realize people need to be shepherded in their listening. They have real limitations that the Spirit is going to overcome.
Be supernaturally patient while teaching them what it means to teach and to listen. Stay faithful no matter the hardships. Trust that God is accomplishing a work you may never see.
Then keep doing it all over again. And continue repeating until you’re called home with Christ.
Many things may be added to our understanding and method of preaching. But these five qualities will never be taken away.
SKYLAR SPRADLIN (@SkylarSpradlin) is the lead pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Weatherford, Oklahoma. He’s earning his Masters of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the co-host of “Pastor Talk,” a weekly podcast geared toward helping Christians think biblically.