From Preacher To Listener

Since stepping down as Senior Pastor of Charlotte Baptist Chapel in August 2009, after 25 years of continuous ministry in three different churches, preaching most Sundays, often twice in my early days (849 of my sermons are listed here!) I have transitioned from being mostly a preacher of sermons to a listener of sermons.

This is partly through now worshipping at Niddrie Community Church under the stimulating leadership of Mez McConnell (see his blog ) – and can I encourage you if you are a pastor/teacher not to always use the occasion of a visiting preacher to go and preach elsewhere but to acquire good listening habits. But it is mostly through my present role as Director of 2 Timothy 4 ( a Trust set up in 2009 with the purpose of “strengthening Scottish preaching”. This involves me in teaching – in two colleges and at workshops for preachers – and also in mentoring a number of preachers, ranging from those starting out to one who has been preaching for over 20 years.

This has meant listening to several hundred sermons over the past two and a half years. At a Board Meeting, one of our Trustees asked if I could summarise the main thing (a good practice for every preacher!) I had learnt thus far from listening to preachers (all of whom would be in the broad evangelical tradition). My answer was/is that most preachers are stronger on either explanation or application. Let me expand on what I mean and then use an example from a passage of Scripture.

Explanation & Application

The first task of the preacher approaching any text or passage of Scripture is to understand what message the writer, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21) intended to communicate (“authorial intent” in contrast to “reader-response” or some other new hermeneutical models). So, using the training he has received and the skills he has acquired, along with commentaries and other resources, he exegetes the text. In his sermon, he then explains this in understandable terms and with appropriate illustrations to his listeners.

For some preachers, that is it – the text explained, they largely leave it to the listener, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to work out the implications. Someone told me recently of a trainee preacher who did just this – explained the passage accurately and clearly for 30 minutes and then, in conclusion, paused and said, in effect, “Now go and do likewise”!

But he has only answered the first (and essential) question – “What does it mean?”  What is missing is the answer to a second question – “What must I/we do?” in consequence. So, for example, you can (and must) explain the background to the issue of “eating meat offered to idols” in 1 Corinthians 10, but not many of us here in Scotland will be taxed by the dilemma the Corinthian Christians faced when we are invited around for Sunday roast with our non-Christian next-door neighbours!   However, the principles of “whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” and “Do not cause anyone to stumble” have a universal implication which needs to be thought through and applied in practical terms in every specific cultural context.

That is the application – but it must be built on the explanation. Otherwise, you can end up with a sermon with a powerful (and orthodox) application – but one that is not derived from or faithful to the text in question. Most of us have heard such sermons – and some of us have preached such sermons. The very first sermon I ever preached as a teenager (50 years ago!) was based on the words of King Agrippa to Paul in Acts 26:28 – “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” and I preached a sermon challenging any present who were on the brink of commitment to Christ (concluding with a moving Sankey hymn “Almost persuaded now to believe, almost persuaded Christ to receive” with a final verse “Almost – but lost”). I hope God used it but the King James Version from which I had read and studied the text obscured Agrippa’s incredulity/sarcasm and led me to conclude that he was on the brink of responding to Paul’s altar-call!

An Example

So, let me look at an example of explanation and application from Exodus1 (as Exodus seems a popular recent choice for an expository series). The danger is to impose the big idea of redemption from slavery (which is the major theme of the Book of Exodus) onto the opening chapter and apply it to our slavery to sin and redemption through Christ. But the opening chapter doesn’t lend itself very easily to this application. The Israelites are forcibly enslaved and abused and the only people who are mentioned who feared God and experienced his kindness and blessing are the Egyptians midwives!  And there is no mention (yet) of Moses the redeemer!

The key which unlocks the meaning (and application) of the opening chapter is the word with which it and the whole book begins, which is not translated in (m)any English versions: literally:

And these are the names of the sons of Israel who went down to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family

Even the English Standard Version which loves sentences beginning with “and” (29 out of 43 sentences in Mark 1!) omits it.  But, starting the process of sermon preparation with explanation/exegesis, any good commentary makes the point:

The initial “and” found in the Hebrew makes it clear that Exodus is not a new book, but simply the continuation of the Genesis story, and the fulfilment of the promises made to the patriarchs. (Alan Cole, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary).

So the opening verses of Exodus 1 are taken verbatim from Genesis 46:8ff and pick up the story from the last verse of Genesis which concludes with the death of Joseph and the embalming of his body (Genesis 50:26). Genesis concludes with the Israelites comfortably settled in Goshen – not just to see out the original famine but (it appears) forever (between the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus is a period of 400+ years!)

But the people of Israel don’t belong there* for God has a promised land and a plan of salvation – not just for them but through them for the whole world. So how will he get them (and how does he get us – must be some secondary application here?!) out of their comfort-zone and persuade them to move en masse after four centuries back to a place where they own a field with a cave? By making it a discomfort-zone through using a mass building programme with the Israelites as forced labour.
So what’s the big idea of Exodus 1? One of the preachers I work with summarised it in his title: “God’s irresistible plan of salvation”. God is working out his plan of salvation that began in Genesis (or “before the foundation of the world” if you want to be picky), continues through rescue from slavery in Egypt in Exodus, climaxes in redemption through Christ in the Gospels, expands towards “the ends of the earth” through Acts and is concluded in Revelation. And nothing can stop it/him.

And what’s the application? That through faith in Christ we can belong to God’s people and be participants in his plan of salvation.  What a message for post-moderns who we are told don’t like metanarratives but need to hear this story!

* In a cautionary response to the many who have enthusiastically embraced the exodus in the cause of liberation theology,  Jon Levenson, Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, writes that “the implication would seem to be that the exodus is more directly about the repatriation of aliens than the emancipation of slaves” (see Jon D. Levenson, ‘Exodus and Liberation’, Horizons in Biblical Theology 13, 1991). An interesting and controversial perspective from a Jewish scholar engaged in biblical studies at the interface of Judaism and Christianity.



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About Peter Grainger

Peter Grainger worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators in India, Pakistan and Nigeria for 20 years, served as a Pastor in three churches for 25 years (most recently from 1992-2009 in Charlotte Chapel, Edinburgh) and now directs 2 Timothy 4 (, ' strengthening Scottish preaching.' He is married to Nita and they have two adult children and a grandson.

3 thoughts on “From Preacher To Listener

  1. Great article Peter and very helpful.

    Although I wish you had made this clearer to me about the big idea of Exodus when we preached through Exodus 1-20 back in the late 90s!

    I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s alleged quote – “When I was 14 I thought my Dad was so ignorant that I couldn’t stand to be around him but by the time I reached the age of 21 I was amazed by how much the old man had learnt in those 7 years!”

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