By Ken D Noakes
COVID has changed the experience for many Christians – gone is the ability to gather together physically to listen to the preaching of God’s word. Church is now online!
A key discipline that goes with the Christian life is the practice of sitting under the teaching of the Bible. Historically that has happened when believers gather together regularly to hear someone teach/preach through a passage with the hope that those before them will walk away with an encouragement, or challenge, to live as the disciples of Christ in the days ahead.
For now, gone is the accountability of sitting next to others to collectively listen to the preaching of God’s word at a set time and location. In its place is the online gathering with the freedom to individually tune in and out as you watch church whenever you want, wherever you want, with the ability to stop (and start) at any point. The result is that the hearer has so many choices with little or no accountability.
How do we listen to the preached word of God in an online world?
In our world there are many ‘voices’ competing to be heard. The same could be said for the 1st century Christian church. The apostles ‘competed’ with many ‘voices’ as they faithfully proclaimed the gospel at a time when there were many people waxing lyrical – Paul’s address at the Areopagus is an example (c.f. Act 17:21). What is different, is the number of mediums in which these voices can now be heard – written word or public address is now broadcast on TV, Radio, Podcast, Video Stream, Newsfeed, Social media…
As such, the discerning Christian needs to filter what they hear, and how they hear it so that they might listen well. The upside for the proclamation of the gospel is that there has never been a time when the gospel word could be broadcast so freely. The downside for the proclamation of the gospel is that the ‘noise’ can be deafening, or perhaps wearing, as screen fatigue takes its toll.
The question for church leadership is how to most helpfully and effectively continue to preach God’s word in an online world to a virtual (yet real) gathered congregation? There is a temptation, now that most preaching is happening in an online format, for the listener to seek out the most engaging speaker, or the best production. It is much easier to switch over to a different online stream than it is to walk out of an actual church gathering.
But there is another question worth asking of the church member. How do I most effectively listen to the preaching of God’s word in an online world?
How do we listen?
Speaker speaks – hearer hears! Is it that simple?
Our western consumer driven culture places a good amount of pressure on the preacher to do all that he/she can, to construct a biblically correct, engaging, thoughtful, applied message for the benefit of the hearer. It is no mean task, and one that thankfully only happens because the Holy Spirit enables the fruit.
By God’s grace, we have both great speakers and not so great speakers. The ideal is the biblically engaging, faithful and fruitful speaker.
Yet any effective communication happens when there is both a sender and a receiver – that is someone who speaks a message (in whatever format) and someone who hears that message (in whatever format).
Whilst there are many volumes available which may develop the skills of the preacher in the art of writing a Bible talk/sermon, there are not so many books dedicated to how to listen to a Bible Talk/sermon. (Christopher Ash makes this points in his helpful pamphlet: Listen Up! – A practical guide to listening to sermons (Surrey: The Good Book Company, 2009))
The challenge then for the church member is to work out how to listen to preaching well – regardless to whether it is online or physically in a church building (both present challenges).
Five Tips that will help me listen to the preached Word of God?
Tip 1: Respect the Preaching of the Word of God
As the word of God is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16), the preaching of God’s Word is a key way that God speaks. In listening to biblical preaching, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we are listening to God speak.
We should consider our attitude to the preaching of God’s word, rejecting any notion that it is optional. As such, allow it to have its rightful and intentional place before all other means of communication.
It would be a travesty to consider the main aim of preaching to be entertainment. The risk, given most online communication is visual and entertainment based, is to put the online preaching of God’s word into the same mental basket. We become observers rather than listeners.
Respect the preaching of the word of God by engaging our ears and applying our minds (regardless of whether it is online or physical).
Tip 2: Prepare yourself to listen to the Word of God
As the word of God is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16), the servant of God needs to be ready to be equipped by the Word.
There are many endeavours which demand our time week to week. At the top of the list should be that which God wants us to give most attention to – his word. It is easy to get distracted, worn out, tired, or delayed. If listening to the Word of God is not a top priority, then we are at risk of missing what is most important.
How often does the activity of our week tire us so greatly that when it comes to listening to the Word, we struggle to stay alert and listen? Sure, that may have something to do with the way that the speaker speaks (c.f. Act 20:7-12), which makes it all the more important that the listener prepares well to be ready to listen.
Given a lot of weekly activity now days involves screens, it may be helpful to take measures to ensure you are alert and ready to listen even if on a screen (i.e. Am I too comfortable in my seat? Have I removed distractions? etc.)
Tip 3 – Put God’s word before your word.
The author of Hebrews reminds us that the word of God is alive and active, sharper than a double-edged sword, penetrating even to divide the soul and spirit, joints and marrow – because it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12).
When God speaks, he has something to say and it serves the listener well to sit under that word. It judges our thoughts and actions and asks us to do what it says.
There is a temptation to put that around the other way. For us to judge what it is saying to determine or disregard what it is asking us to do.
Gogglebox is a TV show that is built around people comfortably watching TV and airing their opinions about what they view. Christians now find themselves comfortably watching sermons online. Are Christians at risk of becoming gogglebox sermon listeners – ready to express opinions yet not ready to be challenged by what is being said?
The mature Christian is the one who puts God’s word before their own even if that draws out some uncomfortable truths.
Tip 4 – Be Berean
In Acts 17:10-12, Paul and Silas entered the synagogue in Berea and as they did in each city they entered, they proclaimed the gospel, reasoning with those willing to engage. What they found were Jews who ‘received the message with great eagerness and [who] examined the scriptures every day to see what Paul said was true’.
Listening to scripture is not meant to be an experience that washes over you – it is an activity that requires the listener to do some of the work. To look into the text and ask themselves where the preacher got what they are saying.
At physical church, the ‘norm’ should be to have Bible in hand so that you can look into the Bible text during the sermon. Online at home should be no different – have your Bible open and ready to be examined.
Tip 5 – Develop a sustained intentional listening habit
At the church where I serve, we recently worked our way through the book of Deuteronomy. Moses addresses a second generation of Israel, aware that the first generation had forgotten much of what God had promised and done to save them.
He calls upon them to remember what the Lord asked of the first generation:
‘Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children’ (Deut 4:10).
Moses even offered practical suggestions to help Israel keep the word of God before them each day:
‘Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on your doorframes of your houses and on your gates’ (6:7-9).
The principle, is to have God’s words before you as you do life.
As Christians today live on the other side of God’s salvation plan through Jesus, the directive to assemble, hear and act has to be even more pressing. Hebrews makes that a very present activity, warning us not to do what that first generation under Moses had done:
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” (Heb 3:7-8; 15-16 quoting Psalm 95:7-8)
And as such calls upon believers to encourage one another in sharing Christ for all of life:
See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. (Heb 3:12-14)
The point. Christians today should develop a sustained intentional listening habit. A habit which leads to frequently assembling with other Christians (church/growth group etc.) to listen together and respond together. Yes, that is more difficult when we can not do that physically (which is why they were called to assemble in the first place), but we live in a world that means we can still assemble online (i.e. Zoom, Skype, Facebook, Google Classroom etc.). Don’t avoid assembling because you don’t like the medium, gather because Christians are called too!
There are benefits of gathering together regularly. Among them – accountability under the same word means that you are shaped together as you ask: ‘What is God saying to us?’. It helps to live life in a fallen world where there are no quick fixes (despite many promises). And there is the connectedness of being in relationship together with others under God, relationships that don’t end when you return home (or are confined to your home).