February 2, 2009
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first in a series of articles from What Is a Healthy Church Member? by Thabiti Anyabwile (Crossway).
What would your response be if I told you that the most important thing you need to be as a church member is an expositional listener?
I think your first response might be, “What on earth is ‘expositional listening’?” Before answering that question, we need to define “expositional preaching.” The first and most important mark of a healthy church is expositional preaching. “Expositional preaching is not simply producing a verbal commentary on some passage of Scripture. Rather, expositional preaching is that preaching which takes for the main point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture.” If churches are to be healthy, then pastors and teachers must be committed to discovering the meaning of Scripture and allowing that meaning to drive the agenda with their congregations.
There is an important corollary for every member of a local church. Just as the pastor’s preaching agenda should be determined by the meaning of Scripture, so too should the Christian’s listening agenda be driven by the meaning of Scripture. When we listen to the preaching of the Word, we should not listen primarily for “practical how-to advice,” though Scripture teaches us much about everyday matters. Nor should we listen for messages that bolster our self-esteem or that rouse us to political and social causes. Rather, as members of Christian churches we should listen primarily for the voice and message of God as revealed in his Word. We should listen to hear what he has written, in his omniscient love, for his glory and for our blessing.
So what exactly do I mean by “expositional listening”? Expositional listening is listening for the meaning of a passage of Scripture and accepting that meaning as the main idea to be grasped for our personal and corporate lives as Christians.
What Are the Benefits of Expositional Listening?
Expositional listening benefits us, first, by cultivating a hunger for God’s Word. As we tune our ears to the kind of preaching that makes the primary point of the sermon the primary point of a particular passage of Scripture, we grow accustomed to listening to God. We become fluent in the language of Zion and conversant with its themes. His Word, his voice, becomes sweet to us (Ps. 119:103–4); and as it does, we are better able to push to the background the many voices that rival God’s voice for control over our lives. Expositional listening gives us a clear ear with which to hear God.
The second benefit follows from the first. Expositional listening helps us to focus on God’s will and to follow him. Our agenda becomes secondary. The preacher’s agenda becomes secondary. God’s agenda for his people takes center stage, reorders our priorities, and directs us in the course that most honors him. The Lord himself proclaimed, “My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Listening to the voice of Jesus as it is heard in his Word is critical to following him.
Third, expositional listening protects the gospel and our lives from corruption. The Scripture tells us “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3–4). The failure to listen expositionally has disastrous effects. False teachers enter the church and hinder the gospel. Ultimately, the truth is displaced by myths and falsehoods. Where members cultivate the habit of expositional listening they guard themselves against “itching ears” and protect the gospel from corruption.
The fourth benefit, then, is that expositional listening encourages faithful pastors. Those men who serve faithfully in the ministry of the Word are worthy of double honor (1 Tim. 5:17). Few things are more discouraging or dishonoring to such men than a congregation inattentive to the Word of God. Faithful men flourish at the fertile reception of the preached Word. They’re made all the more bold when their people give ear to the Lord’s voice and give evidence of being shaped by it. As church members, we can care for our pastors and teachers and help to prevent unnecessary discouragement and fatigue by cultivating the habit of expositional listening.
Fifth, expositional listening benefits the gathered congregation. Repeatedly, the New Testament writers exhort local churches to be unified—to be of one mind. Paul writes to one local church, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there may be no divisions among you, but that you may be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10; see also Rom. 12:16; 2 Cor. 13:11; 1 Pet. 3:8). As we gather together in our local churches and give ourselves to hearing the voice of God through his preached Word, we’re shaped into one body. We are united in understanding and purpose. And that unity testifies to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ (John 17:21). But if we listen with our own interests and agendas in mind, if we develop “private interpretations” and idiosyncratic views, we risk shattering that unity, provoking disputes over doubtful matters, and weakening our corporate gospel witness.
In the next article in this series, I will explain how you as a church member can cultivate the skill of expositional listening.
 Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 40.