The pastor as a hearer 

The words of James in the first chapter of his letter and his counsel to hearers are familiar indeed: 

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:22–25, ESV) 

Listen up

Douglas Moo comments: 

‘“Doing” frames vv. 22–25: “Be doers of the word” (the Greek equivalent of these words comes at the beginning of the verse) opens the paragraph, “blessed in what he does” concludes it […] we should note that James’s concern with doing does not mean that he thinks hearing the word is unnecessary. It is not listening to the word that James opposes or diminishes, but merely listening.”1

For those who preach regularly it is important they too are found to be good hearers/listeners, with the accompanying doing of course, not mere listeners and not preachers only.

Putting critique on pause

A friend of mine was a student in theological college and on one particular day the students were to preach to each other and then be critiqued by their peers. My friend delivered his short message. The lecturer looked around the room to pick up points from the hearers. One student, who later became a nationally known preacher and writer, paused and said he did not wish to make any comment as he had felt deeply challenged by the sermon. While there is a place for appropriate critique, here we have a great lesson for pastor/preachers.

Grace to you as well as through you

Those who preach regularly occasionally find themselves listening; holidays, periods of rest and recovery, conferences, giving less experienced preachers the opportunity to serve, learn and grow. The preached word is a means of grace through you but also to you. Preachers need to remain listeners and learners. The preacher, of course, preaches to himself as he prepares, but preachers have times when they need to be preached to.

This is not as simple as it appears because there are traps for preachers as hearers. The snare of a superior attitude to the one preaching, particularly if the man is young or inexperienced. The pit of that inaccuracy, or just badly expressed statement, that makes you cringe – forgetting you were inexperienced once. The cage trap of a style or approach you are uneasy with. The leg hold trap of forgetting that you have much to learn and the Lord may be teaching you that very day. There is a need to remember Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20: ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers […] Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.’ Good listening to preaching is part of keeping watch over ourselves as we receive the word of his grace.

Practice what you preach about preaching

An important approach is to practice what you preach about preaching when listening to preaching. What do you hope for from your hearers?  Thoughtful preparation of heart beforehand, coming with an attentive, humble, eager, responsive spirit that is ready for worship, instruction and repentance. You must have often pointed out to others the investigators at Berea (Acts 17), as well as the practitioners of James 1. Do you long for the Spirit to speak through you? Can you not hope, trust and expect that he can speak to you through others? In these days of notable falls of prominent pastors, being a good listener to the preaching of others can be at least one valuable safeguard.

Rather like a meal of fish, I was listening recently to a sermon. I placed a few bones on the side of my plate and went home with a direct challenge from the Lord on the matter of my sense of greater dependence on Him. It lingered on through the week. The bones were largely forgotten.

If we could be or become Emmaus Road listeners (Luke 24), we may well expect the Emmaus Road blessing of a burning heart. It has been well said that listening is one of the easiest things you’ll ever do, and one of the hardest! It is good for us to be stirred, shaken and strengthened as we hear the Lord’s voice address our very souls. May the Lord help us learn to listen and not be preachers only.

[1] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James (Leicester: Apollos, 2000), p. 88.