Take care then how you hear . . . (Luke 8:18)

Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. (Psalm 119:18)

People manipulated by propaganda become increasingly impervious to spiritual realities. (Jacques Ellul[2])

As covenantal communication, preaching is always two-way. The hearer is always to be a worshipper. It is never preaching and worship. Preaching is the supreme act of worship.[3] Thus, listening intelligently and reverently is part of that supreme activity. Along with the internal work of God’s Spirit, the effectiveness of preaching depends, in part, on the attitude of the listener. Prior to modern times there were almost as many books written on sermon listening as there were on preaching. This section is meant to help those who regularly hear the Word of God preached to take their covenant responsibilities more seriously. It also provides an outline of issues which the preacher should address in his preaching. God’s people, whose stony hearts have been replaced with hearts of flesh, must cultivate the art of hearing God’s Word preached. As the prophet Ezekiel looked forward to the New Covenant era God promised: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 36:26).

Dangers To Avoid

Every attentive hearer of God’s Word must be on the lookout for idolatrous tendencies in the culture of which we are all a part. The apostle John was keenly aware of this danger when he issued this pastoral warning at the close of his first letter: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). The following themes are examples of some of the worst dangers in our culture to avoid.

As Paul states in his exhortation to the Roman Christians in Romans 12:1–2, world conformity is the default position of all human beings until they are redeemed: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Tragically, Israel displayed a central attribute of the unbelieving heart with its disinclination to hear God’s Word: “For they are a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the LORD” (Isa. 30:9). Under cultural pressure, exacerbated by the electronic environment, it is easy for believers to become poor at hearing the Word of God, as the writer of Hebrews laments, “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing” (Heb. 5:11).

Avoid Being a Consumer of Entertainment

Among other unbiblical expectations of the minister in our age, the preacher is often expected to be an entertainer. Television and all the electronic and visual media have cast all of modern life in the entertainment mode. Neil Postman has described the medium as a metaphor: “Media-metaphors classify the world for us.”[4] We have moved from the “Age of Exposition” to the “Age of Show Business.”[5] Thus we are a culture which is regularly engaged by talk show and game show hosts. Entertainers have become the role models and spokesmen for our world. Celebrities lecture at colleges and universities. Their opinions on a variety of “serious” subjects are regularly sought. We have come to expect all of life to be entertaining. This may, unfortunately, color the way worshippers look at the preacher, as well as the way the preacher often looks at himself.

I have a book in my library which I received in a box from the library of a retired minister. I keep it with the spine turned toward the wall because it is titled The Preacher Joke Book: Religious Anecdotes from the Oral Tradition.[6] I comfort myself with the thought that I do not recognize any of the names of the contributors. I recently attended a conference at which the main speaker began with a lengthy joke, obviously to loosen up the audience, and assure us that he is, after all, a “regular guy.” It has also become a tradition for presidential candidates and even the president of the United States to appear on late night comedy shows.

Humor is a wonderful gift, but it strikes me that only in the Age of Entertainment would humor be an expected part of the preacher’s repertoire. When we think of the tone which ought to be set in the act of preaching, especially in the Age of Entertainment, we must conclude that it should be one of extreme seriousness. The writer of Hebrews sets worship in the context of coming judgment and the holy character of God: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28–29). As our culture entertains itself to death, we must attach to the preaching of the Word a solemnity which we rarely find in the modern world.

The analogy of the ambassador gives us biblical boundaries in this regard.[7] Preachers have been given a very serious message from the King of kings. We are to communicate as his messengers. As preachers deliver the message of reconciliation to sinners, they must speak in the words and way of the King who sovereignly proffers amnesty to a lost and alienated world. As we enter the very presence of our augustly holy God in worship, dealing with issues of life and death, we must labor as God’s people to be as unlike the “house of mirth” (Eccl. 7:4) as possible. All faithful hearers must expect this, and thereby encourage the preacher with their expectations.

Christians must never expect entertainment in worship—especially from the preacher. The proper mode of worship is the holy presence of our Lord. The committed hearer will look for substantive exposition of the Word of God. Exposition, not entertainment, is the mode of the preacher. That is the point of our favorite verse to prove the inspiration of the Scripture: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). This is the profit we must seek from preaching in the Age of Entertainment.

Avoid Being a Connoisseur of Celebrity and Entrepreneurial Skills

The power of celebrity is a uniquely modern problem. As historian Daniel Boorstin notes, celebrity is manufactured fame. It is all about image. Instead of the hero, who was known for his extraordinary character and deeds, the celebrity is a product of the Graphic Revolution. “The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name.”[8] The celebrity is known for being known. He has an impressive persona. This has created a great temptation for the church. If the celebrity has become the role model for the world, the preacher may be expected to be the same, an image of the modern leader—just an image. Thus, the church is at times almost as superficial in its expectations of the pastor as the world is of its celebrities, looking for the “nice” or “dynamic” personality.

It has been observed that the two vocational heroes of our time are the manager and the therapist. The ideal of the “professional” has become an idol of modern culture. This is no less true of the ministry. David Wells comments:

Technical and managerial competence in the church have plainly come to dominate the definition of pastoral service. . . . [T]he minister’s authority or professional status rides not on his . . . character, ability to expound the Word of God, or theological skill in relating that Word to the contemporary world, but on interpersonal skills, administrative talents, and ability to organize the community.[9]

This is reflected in one of the premier journals for evangelical clergy, Leadership, launched by Christianity Today in 1980. Wells observes that eighty percent of its articles from 1980 to 1988 dealt with problems encountered by ministers, and thirteen percent were devoted to “techniques for managing the church. . . . less than one percent of the material made any clear reference to Scripture . . .”[10] If the pastor is truly called to imitate his Lord, who is the Great Shepherd of the Sheep (1 Pet. 5:1–4), in ministry, one need only replace his title with the Chief Executive Officer to get a sense of how out of accord with Scripture the modern conception is.

Burton Bledstein chronicles the development of “professionalism” in its connection with educational ideals in the nineteenth century in The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America.[11] Bledstein demonstrates the shift in the meaning of “career” to include the idea of self-advancement and eventually to replace the Christian ideal of calling, which implies following the will of God in an area of service and usefulness.

Bledstein takes the ministry as a case in point, carefully documenting the emerging shift in ministerial attitudes beginning in the early nineteenth century. As the idea of career slowly replaced the concept of calling, a man’s lifework became his choice, and not God’s:

Far from setting an elevated moral example of clerical detachment, the minister often appeared to be an entrepreneur, privately negotiating the contractual terms of a successful career as he moved upward from congregation to congregation. In the course of an individual’s career, every congregation now became a conquest, a stepping-stone to the next challenge.[12]

Paul was careful to distinguish his own work from such: “For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness” (1 Thess. 2:5).

Wells cites several televangelists as the most “exaggerated example” of the professionalization of the ministry. Closer to home, however, is the emergence of Doctor of Ministry programs in almost every evangelical and Reformed theological seminary by the 1980s. With the growing displacement of the ministry as a “respectable” or desirable career, “status anxieties” led to an upgrade of degree nomenclature. “What had been the B.D. became the M.Div. in the early 1970s, and, for those seeking upward mobility, the D.Min. was shortly thereafter added to the arsenal of social tools. . . . the D.Min. was a lucrative new product to sell.” Three quarters of those interviewed expected more respect and more money for their efforts.[13] Along with the baleful effect of self-advancement, the professionalization of the ministry has led to an emphasis on leadership technique and attendant success as opposed to knowledge of the truth and its effective communication.[14] Theology plays second fiddle, if it plays any real role at all. The Bible has a lot to say about godly leadership, but the study of this was never the center of the theological curriculum as it often is today. While we need to be careful not to impugn the motives of men who pursue these degrees, or of those who have determined the nomenclature, the evidence points to a real danger, one with which the earnest minister must deal honestly before God.

The corollary of this new concept of the ministry as a career are congregational consumers, who expect ministry to meet their needs, especially when ministers are paid to do so. The church and the Christian ministry have absorbed such expectations from our consumer culture:

There are those who think in terms of paying the church and minister to meet their needs. If they are disappointed, they quickly look for alternatives, or seek to undermine and replace him. What the consumer looks for most is what the self movement offers, except in evangelical dress.[15]

Biblical expectations, which should be demanded by every congregation of its leaders, are often eclipsed by the new managerial emphasis.

The impact of professionalization on the task of preaching is profound:

If preaching, like the ministry, is now defined by the needs of the church rather than the fabric of truth in the Bible, . . . the pulpit is little more than a sounding board from which the Church hears itself.[16]

The pressure is on to sound “relevant” instead of challenging the idolatry of the modern world. Meanwhile, real needs, identified in Scripture, are often neglected or ignored. An analysis by David Wells of over two hundred Evangelical sermons covering 1980 to 1991, revealed virtually no attempt to account for “the modernity into which the Word was preached.” Instead, congregations are often left “vulnerable to all of the seductions of modernity, precisely because they have not provided the alternative, which is a view of life centered in God and his truth.”[17] That there have been some sermons preached in the 1980s which did address the problems of modernity does not diminish the reality of the problem of which Wells speaks. Perhaps Wells’s strong antipathy toward modernity yields an exaggerated critique. But, surely, in the face of the naiveté with which most Christians approach modernity, such a critique is necessary. Only after we have appreciated its general validity are we in a position to raise cautions about the particulars of the challenge.

Our self-oriented culture is the context into which the Christian minister must speak. The degree to which he imitates the worst aspects of professionalism is the degree to which his message will be muted. The preacher must insist as Wells frames it: “The Bible is not a remarkable illustration of what we have already heard within ourselves; it is a remarkable discovery of what we have not and cannot hear within ourselves.”[18] Only the faithful preaching of the Word by men who understand the times will bring about repentance in a self-absorbed culture.

The worshipper’s attitude, combined with the expectations of the rest of the congregation, will either tempt the minister to consider himself, and therefore act like a celebrity or manager, or it will encourage him to be what God has called him to be: a minister of the Word. There can be little doubt that the professionalization of the ministry has led to a decline in preaching passion and skills. The less God-centered the church’s view of the ministry and preaching, the more man-centered the sermons will tend to be.[19] What is worse, as the church expects the pulpit to meet its needs, fallen culture calls the shots.

The temptation to esteem the “famous” preacher is one of the greatest threats to preaching today, especially among those who esteem preaching. The preacher who has made a name for himself on the conference circuit, even though that may not have been his motive, makes the everyday preacher look drab and dull. There is no glossy photo in the bulletin, no recognition beyond the local church. This undermines God’s basic institution. What he has provided for his people in the local church week after week, through thick and thin, is the greatest blessing of all—a minister who preaches faithfully each Lord’s Day and pays attention through prayer and visitation to the ordinary lives of God’s people. How can celebrity recognition be important in light of the message of a Savior who was crucified as a despised and rejected criminal?

Avoid Looking for Therapy

In our day the Devil simply caters to an age-old addiction when he promotes the therapeutic. This same anthropocentrism was evident in Calvin’s day. In seeking to bring a biblical concept of the church to expression in Geneva, he noted of his opposition:

they were entangled in so many errors, because they would not follow that form which God had appointed. . . . The first difference between true worship and idolatry is this: when the godly take in hand nothing but that which is agreeable to the Word of God, but the other think all that lawful which pleaseth themselves, and so they count their own will a law . . .

Instead, they “forge to themselves a carnal and worldly god.”[20]

How much of our modern attitude toward worship reflects this same self-oriented pleasure quest? How many judge the preacher and his sermon is in terms of the question, “Is it meeting my needs?” This is usually what the slogan “relevance” refers to. This, of course, is the wrong question. Believers should be asking, “Is the preaching faithful to God’s Word?” and “Am I being changed by it?”

The market-driven church has as its motto, “Find a need meet it, find a hurt heal it.”[21] The entire “self esteem” philosophy, which permeates every cultural institution, reverses the biblical concern when it claims that loving our neighbor as ourselves is a call to first love ourselves. This falls hard on the central ethical implication of the cross: self-denial. The gospel message, from the modern perspective, is irrelevant by its very nature. It demands repentance from our self-preoccupation and a liberating call to a God-centered life rooted in the kingdom of heaven. As George Macdonald poignantly observed: “that need which is no need, is a demon sucking at the spring of your life.”[22] Expect and pray for preaching which will challenge and root out such demons.

Avoid Being a Passive Listener

One of the great dangers presented by our entertainment and therapy culture is that they cultivate passivity. We are entertained or have our problems solved for us. Our participation is simply to enjoy or feel better about ourselves. In the consumer mode we are “programmed” to view everything, every situation, every person as a product or service to be consumed. We ask questions like, “What can this church do for me? How can this preacher make me feel better or solve my problems?” So we tend to sit, waiting to be entertained, waiting for our needs to be met. Even in the singing of fine hymns, worshippers are often not singing, because they are used to being sung to by a solo performer. But this is not the mode, position, or attitude of the true worshipper.

The cry for “participation” in worship is one of the most misdirected quests of worshipping communities. It is just the wrong response to the problem of passivity. It is often motivated by the desire to share the spotlight “on stage,” or to feel the excitement of an emotionally charged group experience. Covenantal participation, on the other hand, is primarily an inward reality. Outwardly it means being prayerfully engaged in every element of the order of service. This is especially true of listening to the sermon. “Hearing a sermon correctly is an act of religious worship.”[23] Physically the worshipper may be passive, but spiritually and intellectually he or she is called to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd in the ministry of God’s Word. This takes an intense effort, which challenges the “couch potato” mentality of our day. Listen to Pastor Kornelis Sietsma:

Hearing God’s Word is not only an activity of the first order but the only activity befitting humans in relationship to their God. A relation of equality never exists between God and His people; however that fact in no way detracts from the dignity or office of the believer. Therefore, when in the administration of the Word, this relationship between speaking God and listening man shines forth, then the office of believer is most beautifully displayed and exercised. Thus we are not called to find a liturgy in which preaching is minimized so that the congregation can be given a more obvious role. The congregation’s duty is to listen. Rather, we are to practice improving and increasing our ability to listen, so that the congregation may listen to the Word with all its heart and soul and mind. That is not a slight task.[24]

Avoid Being Self-oriented[25]

All the problems that tend to inhibit proper worship, which I have warned about above, are rooted in a more fundamental malady: self-orientation. Narcissism is the logical outworking of sin in its most extreme form. Enamored of his own image in a fountain, Narcissus died of despair and frustration in his vain attempt to connect with the ephemeral object of his affections. The “Me Generation,” characterizing many in the generations following World War II, has unwittingly imitated this ancient god. In 1979 American historian Christopher Lasch published an alarming book, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. He begins:

This book . . . describes a way of life that is dying—the culture of competitive individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of the narcissistic preoccupation with the self. . . . Liberated from the superstitions of the past, he doubts even the reality of his own existence.[26]

Cultural critic Jacques Barzun observes: “Throughout our culture, the most visible trait is concentration on what is owed to the self.”[27]

Early in our nation’s history Alexander de Tocqueville noted a troubling characteristic of American culture: “The woof of time is every instant broken, and the track of generations effaced.”[28] Individualism, slowly loosed from a framework of Christian tradition, eventually ends in narcissism. The self without heritage, without purpose, without transcendence or transcendent values is left with only a self. We are left with self-analysis, self-discovery, self-awareness, searching for the “child within,” an endless quest to figure out one’s feelings and get “in touch” with oneself. We then turn to reinventing the self, as if human nature were infinitely manipulable. In school, “values clarification,” no-fault grading, and self-image propaganda teach children that they are number one and should “feel” good about what once would have been called “selfishness.”

The self-fulfillment and self-awareness movement focuses on the self to the exclusion of an objective referent and thus leads to “privatizing” as opposed to the healthy self-reflection encouraged in Christian tradition. Many aspects of electronic media encourage “privatizing,” thus isolating the self from its context in the world and before God. The self-reflection of “individualizing” in Christian meditation, on the other hand, deepens the self in relationship to God and world. As Lasch points out, not all psychological therapies tend toward narcissism.[29] However, given the relativism of the contemporary setting, it is difficult to see what convincing objective reasons therapists can offer for relating to the world which will effectively counter the narcissistic bent of our times:

The mass media, with their cult of celebrity and their attempt to surround it with glamour and excitement, have made America a nation of fans, of moviegoers. The media give substance to dreams of fame and glory, encourage the common man to identify himself with the stars, and to hate the “herd,” and make it more and more difficult to accept the banality of everyday existence.[30]

I once imagined how glorious it would be to be Napoleon Solo or Illya Kuryakin in the 1960s television spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., until I realized that in the real world of espionage there is no audience. Such are the aspirations cultivated by television. The very existence of photography tends to be self-conscious about how we look. The increase in medical labels for character disorders combined with a dizzying array of medical examination technologies tend to make us think about our physical and psychological well-being in a self-absorbed way.[31]

The literary movement of deconstruction reflects and cultivates narcissism by viewing the text chiefly as a means of reflecting the self, like the reflection in the pool of Narcissus. This is the way in which most Christians read their Bibles. They treat the text of Scripture as a mirror, rather than a picture, or a window viewing a reality transcending the self.[32] While seeking what the text asks as a response from the reader is essential to a true reading of the Bible, it is not the proper place to begin. By seeking personal guidance first and only, the reader misses almost entirely the objective meaning of the text itself (the picture) in its context of the history of redemption (the window) and our situation in relation to God’s world. The danger in this omission is multiplied by the fact that the personal application is often distorted and sometimes even contradictory to the meaning intended by the primary author, the Holy Spirit. Is it any wonder the church is filled with “need” and “feeling” oriented people when they look in the Bible for themselves? That is sadly just what they find, only the self, and not the Word of God. An equal and opposite error lies in discarding the mirror and failing to give in to the divine pressure of the text.

A typical example of narcissism is given in Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart. Nurse Sheila Larson, after much therapy to overcome an obsessively conformist upbringing, describes her faith as “Sheilaism.” While claiming to believe in “God,” she describes her belief: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other.”[33]

Personal choice is another theme of narcissism. The apotheosis of choice is a catch-22 for modernity. Choice, the unlimited menu of possibilities, is constantly presented as an ideal. Yet along with this comes a dark sense of meaninglessness as standards by which to choose disappear, and as history and meaning are deconstructed. With the loss of meaning comes the sense of not having any real choice. Our creations, especially the electronic media, seem to be out of control and overwhelming us with choices which lead nowhere, in a labyrinth of emptiness.

The center of gravity for late modern thought is inexorably the self.[34] Given the growing economic, political, technological, and psychological investment in narcissism, it would seem that Neo-Enlightenment alternatives will have great difficulty in persuading the self-satisfied of the validity of their agenda. Where the bankruptcy of Liberal rationalism will lead is difficult to tell. As long as people are sinners in the electronic age, the gospel offers the only sufficient and compelling alternative to the preoccupation with self which seems to continue on its ascendancy. Because the self only and always exists in relationship to God and the socio-cultural context in which he has placed us, modernity can only go so far in its attempt to establish difference as the ultimate category. I suspect that more moderate modern people will strike up a bargain with Neo-Conservatives and agree on a combination of lesser narratives to keep the barbarians at bay.

Nothing is better calculated by the forces of darkness to undermine true worship like its opposite: self-worship, which is after all the essence of idolatry.

Attitudes and Practices to Cultivate

Elizabeth Elliot speaks wise words about our attitude toward worship:

Hymns constitute a crucial part of worship, but not by any means the whole. In churches which use almost exclusively what are called “praise songs,” that part of the service is usually referred to as “Worship,” as though prayer, preaching, offering, and listening were something else. May I lodge a plea to those who use overhead projectors to make sure that some great hymns are displayed in addition to the praise songs? Hymns will get you through the night. . . . Everywhere I go I try to point out what a tragic loss is the disappearance of these powerful aids to spiritual stamina.[35]

The Westminster Larger Catechism (Question #160) gives hearers of the Word excellent instruction:

Q. What is required of those that hear the word preached? A. It is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.

How seriously our forefathers took the responsibilities of the listener. In light of the following suggestions, meditating on the Scripture references provided by the authors of the Larger Catechism will be an important aid to becoming a better hearer: Proverbs 8:34; 1 Peter 2:1–2; Luke 8:18; Psalm 119:18; Ephesians 6:18,19; Acts 17:11; Hebrews 4:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:10; James 1:21; Acts 17:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; Luke 9:44; Hebrews 2:1; Luke 24:14; Deuteronomy 6:6–7; Proverbs 2:1; Psalm 119:11; Luke 8:15; James 1:25.

While preachers should always be open to criticism, one common complaint, “I’m not getting anything out of your sermons,” should be answered with a question: “What are you putting into them?” The following is meant to help worshippers to put something into their sermon listening.

Come to Worship Prayerfully Expectant

Prayer in preparation for worship is essential. It should be noted, as we will see below in connection with the Scriptures, that praying in the Bible, even in private, was with the voice. David in countless places in the Psalms says that he cried out to the LORD with his voice. The voice lends concreteness to our words and to God’s Word. Paul pled with the Ephesian church:

praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. (Eph. 6:18–20)

As the Larger Catechism instructs, we are to come to attend to preaching with diligence, preparation, and prayer. Certainly, both diligence and prayer must be part of our preparation. Preparing with prayerful reading of God’s Word, especially on the eve of the Lord’s Day, will cultivate the diligence to hear when the public worship begins. We will come expecting to hear from our good and great Shepherd.

It must not be forgotten that as surely as preaching requires the Spirit’s presence, so hearing the Word is no less a supernatural reality:

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor. 2:12–14)

Be Engaged in Listening as a Reader

The regular habit of good reading will help prepare worshippers to be good listeners to faithful preaching. The very act of reading helps us to think more clearly, logically, and cogently. It helps the reader to develop depth through contemplating what is being read. It provides a counter environment to the simultaneity of the electronic media, which tends to bypass thought processes and undermine concentration.

The non-reader will be prepared only for content-light preaching. Like Bud Lite, lightweight preaching is nonfattening, and so it will not fortify the soul in Christian faith. This, of course, is especially true of Bible reading. Because the Bible was written in oral cultures it is designed to be heard. That is why the King James Version has the subtitle “Appointed to be read in churches.” Reading the Bible aloud even in private devotions helps the reader remember what is being said. Thus, the sensibilities and habits of mind necessary for hearing sound biblical preaching will be cultivated. The disciplined Bible reader will bring a store of knowledge of biblical concepts, stories, and teaching to their listening. They will also bring the art of worshipful meditation to the pew, which is a requirement for engagement in biblical preaching. The Bereans profited from Paul’s ministry precisely because they were good readers of God’s Word (Acts 17:11).

Listen to the Voice of the Good Shepherd

“The ‘book religion’ of the Hebrews, as Siegfried Morenz points out, lay in the Hebrew ‘genius for hearing’.”[36] In the modern world there are many other voices competing for our attention. This has always been the case since Adam and Eve listened to the wrong voice in the Garden. The environment of this world is cultivated by the voices of communication. The world now has a heightened ability to impose its environment of thought, one which is contrary to the Word of God, on the church. We must always ask what the voices around us are appealing to, commitment to the world’s idols, or worship, service, and enjoyment of our gracious God.

Psalm 1 is most instructive in this regard. The Psalmist frames his inspired poem in negative terms. The believer is distinguished by his opposition to the entire environment of unbelief. He does not walk in the counsel, stand in the way, or sit in the seat of the scornful unbeliever. He has a whole different approach. The world is the environment into which he is born. That environment is the given, default position of every human being. But as a person of the covenant of grace, he is part of the LORD’s invasion of history through the Seed of the woman. The Psalmist cultivates a “counter-environment” by meditating on the Word of God day and night. Through redemption the believer is to develop a completely different approach to God, and thus, to all of life. He is to work at the development of a Christian mind so that he can withstand and navigate the environment of this “present evil age,” as he bases his thinking on the written Word of God.

One of the elements of poetry in the Bible, which is largely lost on contemporary people, is that it was written to be read aloud as I have noted above. The correlation between the written and the spoken word in the Bible is essential to cultivating a Christian counter-environment. Its writtenness protects the Word from the corruption of the fallen mind. But the individualizing tendency of writing/print, while important in its own way, needs to be balanced with the hearing of the Word, as well as the seeing, touching, tasting of the Word in the sacraments. Along with preparation for hearing God’s Word read and preached each Lord’s Day, it is important to read the Word daily in private and family devotions. Catechizing, in oral culture, meant to teach by “sounding in the ear.” Oral instruction was the staple of ancient pedagogy. God has made us to know him through all the natural media of communication.

In listening to the voice of Jesus Christ, the committed listener must cultivate respect for his ordained under shepherds. Many in our day believe that reading the Bible on their own is sufficient. But if we believe Paul’s great statement: “faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17), we will recognize the absolute necessity of the preacher in his office as minister of the Word. In fact, we would be hard-pressed to find instances of conversion through mere reading of the Bible in the Bible itself. What we find, rather, are people like the Ethiopian Eunuch, who need an interpreter, or preacher, to explain the meaning of a biblical passage from Isaiah. The worshipper must always take the position of the eunuch who, when asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” answered, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30–31). Even the Scripture-searching Bereans received the gospel by hearing Paul (Acts 17:10–11). Only the radical individualism of our day leads us to believe we can do without the biblical teacher and preacher.

One of the dangers of the printed book as a medium is its tendency to undermine the authority of the spoken word and the authority of the speaker. This should never be the case in the church, because God has designed the means of grace, as well as the church itself, to overcome this democratizing, privatizing propensity. The Bible is the book of the church, not merely of individuals. It is addressed to the church as the body of Christ. God’s Word, applied by God’s Spirit, is what unites God’s people in Christ. Long before printing was invented, this sinful tendency of the human heart was addressed by the writer of Hebrews:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:24–25)

Those who hear the voice of our Savior should be prepared to obey all that he says. Whatever attitudes, ideas, words, and activities need to be repented of, changed, or practiced, the true worshipper will be ready to respond in repentance and faith. Remember that the biblical idea of “hearing” (ʾāzan אָזַן) is obedient response to the Word of God, “Speak, LORD, for your servant hears” (1 Sam. 3:9). If he is the Lord of the believer’s life, this should be the only response to biblical preaching. An unrepentant attitude tends to create bitterness toward preaching and the preacher (Heb. 12:14–17).

Worship, with its covenantal order—liturgy—is meant to provide and cultivate a counter-environment to the ordinary life of the fallen world. The Sabbath is God’s antidote to idolatry, as it teaches us our connection with heavenly realities (Lev. 26:1–2). It is God’s way of cultivating his call, in the life of God’s people, to live vitally connected with Christ. We are called to re-enact the heavenly pattern of Lord’s Day worship in everyday life. Careful attention to God’s Word preached is meant to inculcate moment by moment hearing and heeding of the Word of God, as the applied Scripture rings in our ears throughout each moment of each day. Our attitude as worshippers, and thus as hearers, is summed up by the hortatory refrain of the glorified Lamb to the seven churches: “If anyone has an ear, let him hear” (Rev. 13:9). The power of the electronic environment is no match for this voice. The power of modern images in their tendency toward idolatry is nil for a people of the Word.


[1] Gregory E. Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 345–53.

[2] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. trans. Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 229.

[3] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 7.

[4] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985), 10.

[5] Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 63.

[6] Loyal Jones, The Preacher Joke Book: Religious Anecdotes from the Oral Tradition (Little Rock, AR: August House, 1989).

[7] I owe the suggestion of this analogy to T. David Gordon.

[8] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image or Whatever Happened to the American Dream? (New York: Atheneum, 1962), 47, 61.

[9] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 233–34.

[10] Wells, No Place for Truth, 113–14.

[11] Burton J. Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1976).

[12] Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism, 176.

[13] Wells, No Place for Truth, 234–36.

[14] Wells, No Place for Truth, 248.

[15] David F. Wells, “The D-Min-ization of the Ministry,” in No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age, eds. by Os Guinness and John Seel (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 187.

[16] Wells, No Place for Truth, 253.

[17] Wells, No Place for Truth, 253.

[18] Wells, No Place for Truth, 279.

[19] Wells, No Place for Truth, 251.

[20] John Calvin, Commentary on Acts [7:44] (1540–1563. Translation and reprint. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society. 1847. Repr. vol. 18) (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969), 298, 299, 303.

[21] Os Guinness, Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 62–67.

[22] Guinness, Dining with the Devil, 67.

[23] T. David Gordon, “Presuppositions Regarding Preaching,” unpublished manuscript, n.d.

[24] K. Sietsma. The Idea of Office. trans. Henry Vander Goot (Jordan Station, Ontario: Paideia, 1985), 99.

[25] Adapted from Gregory E. Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 214–17.

[26] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Warner Books, 1979), xv, xvi.

[27] Jacques Barzun, The Culture We Deserve, Arthur Krystal, ed. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 105.

[28] Barzun, The Culture We Deserve, 9.

[29] Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 31ff.

[30] Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 21.

[31] Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 49ff.

[32] I owe this hermeneutical metaphor to Richard Pratt and T. David Gordon. Cf. Richard L. Pratt, Jr., “Pictures, Windows, and Mirrors in Old Testament Exegesis,” Westminster Theological Journal 45 (1983): 156–167. Cf. Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 10.

[33] Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William N, Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven, M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 221.

[34] See Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).

[35] Elisabeth Elliot, “Whatever Happened to Hymns?” https://cdn.elisabethelliot.org/newsletters/EENews_1999_05_06.pdf

[36] Walter Ong, Review: Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion (William A. Graham) in America (Mar. 4, 1989): 204.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, November, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: November 2023

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