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A Handbook for Practicing Expositional Listening / A review of "Listen Up!" by Christopher

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“Adam couldn’t really be doing with sermons. There were a number of things he really liked about church, especially the friends he had made and the music (when the new music group were leading). But not the sermons….They just seemed dull.

“Beth was really looking forward to the sermon….with a sense of eager anticipation. She wondered what God was going to say to her. She felt as if someone had told her to expect a telephone call from the U.S. President….

“Beth was right. And Adam was a fool.”

So begins a very short, easy-to-read, but incredibly powerful and practical booklet by Christopher Ash called “Listen Up! A practical guide to listening to sermons.” The conviction that drives this work is stated up front: “it is good when when people who can read, do read and study the Bible; but it is vital that all people, without exception, hear the Bible preached”. Ash’s aim, then, is to help Christians “‘consider carefully how you listen’ (Luke 8 v 8).”

The main body of the booklet is a series of seven practical helps to sermon listening. I won’t, out of respect for the author, repeat them all here, but I will highlight a couple of points. First, he tells the reader, “Expect God to speak….when the Bible is faithfully opened up, we are to listen to the preacher’s voice as to the voice of God himself….We ought to listen to this kind of sermon with the utmost seriousness.” He makes the (for our podcast generation) timely point that Christians need to “Hear the sermon in church” because “there is no such thing as a ‘virtual’ church” and that, furthermore, this hearing together needs to be a regular, “week by week” occurrence. He stresses the need not only to listen but to “Do what the Bible says,” warning that “We mustn’t expect sermons to entertain us”; not only does he warn that “faithful Bible preaching will always cause offence” but, even more bluntly says “Sometimes I may even feel insulted.”

There are two additional sections that are absolutely invaluable for every Christian, both found at the end. He devotes a fifth of the booklet to “How to listen to bad sermons.” He treats three kinds of bad sermons—the “dull,” the “biblically inadequate,” and the “heretical.” Again, I won’t cover all his content, but I’ll highlight the main points. He makes the needed point that dullness doesn’t remove the responsibility to actively listen for God speaking in the message. He warns both against the danger of listening gullibly and against the (more common in Reformed circles, I fear) opposite and equal danger of developing a critical spirit: “Some of those who listened to the Lord Jesus were ‘waiting to catch him in something he might say’ (Luke 11 v 54).” He gives practical advice on how to lovingly and gently question a preacher about possible shortcomings, but still stresses the responsibility of the hearer to glean what they can regardless. He warns people about listening to heretical sermons (“don’t!”) but also highlights the importance of distinguishing between what is actually heretical (and gives a very useful three-part definition of a heretic) and what is merely biblically inadequate. After some brief thoughts on how a congregation can “get better sermons,” the second and last additional section closes with some practical suggestions for listeners to encourage good preaching (while Ash divides these topics, they really are the same).

What really sets this booklet apart is that Ash goes out of his way to be practical. Each of the seven main sections, and the final sections just mentioned, are accompanied by several “Practical steps to take” or “Suggestions.” Ash gives more than thirty such practical pointers in this little book! Here are just six of them:

  • “Pray for next Sunday’s preacher in the middle of the week.”
  • “Deliberately quieten your mind and heart before the sermon and say to yourself: ‘This is when God speaks to me.’ Pray again: ‘Lord, speak to me. I am listening.’”
  • “Read the passage or listen carefully when it is read.”
  • “Be aware of others in your local church as you listen to the sermon. Talk to them afterwards, not only about how we should respond as individuals, but about how the Bible passage should shape the church.”
  • “Write down as definitively and precisely as you can some action you need to take to obey this Bible passage.”
  • “Ask the preachers to help you see where they got a particular point from the passage; this will sharpen them up if, in fact, it didn’t come from the passage, or indeed the Bible….Be humble and respectful in the way you do this; remember, it is much harder to preach than it is to criticize preaching.”

Ash writes in an engaging and interesting style. In each of the main sections, he describes two people and their opposing attitudes as an illustration of the point he is making (such as the one at the start of this review). The booklet is full-color and comes with many of the key phrases already highlighted. There’s even some lighthearted and funny illustrations! I would feel confident that youth or even middle schoolers with good reading skills could pick up and use this booklet.

Imagine what would happen to our churches, and to the advance of the Gospel on earth, if everyone approached the privilege of sermon listening in a deliberate and intentional manner like Ash advocate! Every Christian believer, without exception, would benefit from reading this booklet more than once. And not just as “yet another book to add to the reading list”; no, this should displace all the others and go right to the front of the line (interrupt what you're reading!), because I really do think this booklet would be more valuable to most Christians than almost any other book, besides the Bible itself. I say that because, if gathering together to hear God speak from his Word is the most vital practice of the Christian life, then striving to do so as well as we can should be our first priority.

So if you’re attending Calvary Grace, we’re going to give you a copy. We have a few dozen in stock at the moment, and more are on the way—don’t worry if we run out at first! And to get you started until you get your hard copy, here is a PDF copy of the first one-third of the booklet. We consider this an investment in the health of our church; if, as a result of this, we all strive to “take care how we hear” and listen actively, intentionally, and expositionally, it will have been money well spent.

Information on the booklet

Listen Up! A practical guide to listening to sermons, by Christopher Ash. 2009, The Good Book Company Ltd. 32 pages.

Listen Up! can be purchased in Kindle format from Amazon here, or from the publisher in ebook format or in hard copy (bulk discounts are available).

(CORRECTION: In my January 13 article, “The Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God,” I incorrectly argued that Silas was not an apostle; in fact, he was [1 Thes. 2:6]! Mea culpa. That said, the point I was making still stands [that God speaks through preaching, even when the speaker is not an apostle]; other texts such as 1 Peter 4:11 [NASB best translates this text] make precisely the same argument, and Paul’s point in Thessalonians was not to assert his apostolic power but to commend them for recognizing God’s voice in his human words.)