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Well, it’s a joy to be here this morning, to open the Word with you. This is the third Sunday in a series on Spiritual Health, and we’ve been having a good time considering some essential elements of the Christian walk. This morning, I want to look at a subject which I pray will act like a booster shot in our efforts to be more spiritually healthy.
Now I know our normal practice here at Faith Bible Church is to choose a singular text to exposit (and that would even by my preference too), but this week I thought we might take a little different approach. Instead of taking just one Bible passage this morning for the purpose of exposition, I want to discuss an area of spiritual health, or you might say an area of practical theology, which I hope will be helpful to you.
This morning, I want to discuss the subject of “Community Sermon-Listening.” Now I know there are books out there written on how to listen to a sermon. Our friend, Ken Ramey, wrote an excellent book called, Expositional Listening, which I recommend to you. In fact, I see it’s on the reading list for Men of the Word this semester. But I’m not asking the question this morning, “How do we listen to a sermon as individuals?” I’m asking the question, “How do we listen to a sermon together with other Christians?”
How do we Appreciate the preaching event together?
How do we Anticipate the preaching event together?
How do we Attend the preaching event together?
How do we Apply the preaching event together?
The reason I think this subject is so important is because our autonomous and individualistic society, and me-centered culture has affected the way we do church. We have become so autonomous in the Church that we don’t even realize how autonomous we are. As a result, we don’t listen to sermons the way we used to twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago. There is a community aspect to sermon-listening that has been lost and we haven’t noticed the change which has taken place slowly over many years.
I remember when my dad was first prescribed glasses. We’d been telling him for years that he needed to get his eyes checked out, but of course he thought he was doing just fine. We knew something was up because of his driving–I mean he was really bad. Well, when he finally went in to the optometrist and came out with glasses he couldn’t believe what he’d been missing all those years. He could see birds sitting on powerlines, he could see new houses which had been built on distant hills–the detail he’d once missed now stood out to him so clearly. But until he got glasses he had no idea what he’d been missing. The change had happened so gradually that he didn’t even know it had happened.
The same has happened in the Church, folks. We have slowly, over a long period of time, become so individualistic in our sermon-listening, that we don’t know how individualistic we’ve become. Since the change has happened imperceptibly, we haven’t correctly measured its effects on the Church. We certainly haven’t identified its dangers. Let me give you some examples of what I mean. These are some of our “Autonomous Sermon-Listening Trends”.
1. Virtual Church and Christian Avatars
In recent years, techno-wizards have created ways for us to go to church without actually going to church. You can now have a full-on church experience online from the comfort of your own home. It’s called the virtual church, and you can attend in your pajamas, if you want.
You create an avatar which is a 3D digital representation of yourself–and your avatar can attend a service for you. It can sit in the pews on your behalf, sing the songs for you, take communion in your place, get baptized, become a church member, and when the service is over it can chat with the other people. Your avatar represents the real you in a 3D immersive world. This is the ultimate in listening to sermons alone.
And when there’s something you don’t like, with the click of a button you can unfriend another person’s avatar. You can even quit that church, quit the sermon, and go look for another one. Or if the entire experience doesn’t meet your expectations, you can simply logoff and return to the real world.
2. Self-Designed Streaming Churches
Another option is to take advantage of streaming church services online. These are available to you 24/7 so you don’t need to wait till Sunday to attend. Just like ordering items from a menu, you can design your own church service. You select the songs you like, select the message that seems most appealing, and format the service any way you want.
One such website boasts over 365 billion different possible worship-service combinations–you’re in control. You can get whatever you want in a church service, and if you don’t like it, you simply change it to make it more to your liking. This made-to-order church service is ideal for anyone who wants to sit at home alone and experience church from a distance. You don’t need to listen in community at all.
3. Religious Television
Now, before all of this, there was religious television–it’s been around for years. You’ve all seen it–you can select your favorite preacher, or your favorite music, and sit back in the comfort of your lazy-boy rocker at home and enjoy the presentation. But of course, that’s all it is—a presentation. You don’t actually take part in the service, but act as a distant observer.
You’ve got the ability to approve or disapprove of the show. You are in charge of the remote control. You’re a consumer in the market-driven world of commercial television. Typically, you will do this by yourself, not with others. No one else needs to know about it. No one else has any input into your religious television choices, and there is no accountability.
Now, that autonomous reality is exactly what it’s like for many people in a mega-church. They sit in a congregation of 2,000 or more people, and remain completely anonymous. No one really knows who they are. They don’t know anyone in the church, and they’re content with that–they don’t want to be known. They prefer to sneak in and sneak out, and decide for themselves whether that church service meets their expectations. If they skip a Sunday service, it’s okay, because no one misses them. They have no responsibilities–they are autonomous, independent, and self-sufficient.
Now of course, there are ways by which some large churches try to mitigate this problem of anonymity, but for those people who are looking for a religious experience without engagement, the mega-church scene is a way to achieve that. You can listen to the sermon alone.
5. Multi–Site Churches
Another recent development that has increased the autonomy of people in the church is the establishment of multi-site churches. This is where a local church outgrows its building and sets up a live video feed to an adjacent building on the same property, or to a building in a different part of town, and sometimes even to locations in another city or country altogether. In this scene, people gather to watch and listen to their favorite preacher on a large video screen. Now this isn’t necessarily all bad, as long as the church leaders do what they can to engage each person who attends their cell. They need to mitigate the potential problem of anonymity, just like the leaders of large and mega-church congregations do.
Now here at Faith Bible Church we put our sermons online for others to hear, and there’s the awesome new app which is just cool! You can catch up on missed sermons yourself, and you can encourage others to tune in and take advantage of it. But we need to acknowledge that there is a big downside. Those who are not physically here are missing out on a major part of what church is all about–fellowship, community, and mutual accountability. They can listen in, but they do so as distant observers–they’re not actually involved. They can receive ministry, but they can’t give ministry. They are cut off from the body life of this gathering—not joined to it. And ultimately, both they and we miss out on the full community aspect of preaching.
6. International Pastors
Now, all of this technological advancement has produced a new phenomenon in Christendom—and that is the “International Pastor.” The International Pastor is the man who is your favorite preacher—the man to whom you listen the most, the preacher who has the most influence in your life, the preacher who lives in another state, whom you’ve never personally met.
I’m sure you’ve heard it, when someone calls out the name of one of the world-renown rockstar preachers and then describes that man as their pastor. It doesn’t matter that they’ve never met, and will probably never have a personal relationship. The famous celebrity preacher has attained rockstar status, and sadly, the local preacher can’t compete with that kind of stardom.
Now when this happens, we need to admit that the relationship we have with these international pastors is severely lacking–there’s no community, there is certainly no body-life engagement between the international pastor and his listeners, there is no shepherding in that relationship, no discipling, no counselling, no personal connection at all. And once again, what we find is that sermon-listeners can maintain anonymity, autonomy, an individualistic mindset and churchless approach to ministry.
7. Internet Sermon Libraries
Now, easy access to the famous super-preachers has been around for years. On the Internet, we can track down the sermons of pretty much any preacher we want–it’s really easy to do. And assuming that the Bible teaching you’ve been listening to is God-centered, Bible-saturated, sound theology, then that’s all well and good. In fact, we even encourage you to take advantage of these resources.
“Grace to You”, an internet-based sermon library, which we have appreciated for many years, sees millions of sermon downloads every year. In 2012 alone, “Grace to You” saw almost 18 million sermon downloads–18 million sermons distributed in one year. That’s 50,000 sermons every day–that’s incredible! And that’s just one sermon library ministry. There are many more.
8. Tapes, CDs, DVDs, MP3s, and iPods
We’ve all done it–we’ve all listened to sermons in the car, while we workout, or while we are doing chores. And we’ve grown spiritually as a result–it’s been good. But like anything in life, some helpful and beneficial practices can also have negative consequences if we aren’t careful.
For instance, if you supplement your diet of Bible teaching with preaching CDs, cassette tapes, and digital downloads, then that’s great. But if all you ever do is listen to recorded sermons, and you never attend a local church, and you never join a body of Christians who can provide mutual accountability and fellowship, then that good thing has become a very bad thing.
So as we look at this list of sermon-listening trends, we aren’t going to critique them as though they are all bad–that’s not my point at all. What I am saying is that there can be a downside to all of this which needs to be evaluated carefully.
Now, you might look at this list and respond, “Well, I don’t sit anonymously in a mega-church, I don’t sit secretly in the back row of a multi-site church, I don’t exclusively follow a superstar preacher to the neglect of the teaching provided in my local church, and I don’t replace my church involvement with digital sermons and CDs.” But here’s my question to you–is it possible that:
even though you attend church every week
even though you turn up faithfully to hear your local pastor preach the Word of God
even though you sit in a church building and listen to sermons alongside your friends every Sunday
even though you have the appearance of listening to sermons in a community of other Christians . . .
Is it possible that you are still listening alone? It could be that we have been so affected by the individualism of our world that even when we come to church and sit with people, we are still alone. Our sermon interaction amounts to next to nothing and so we might as well be at home by ourselves listening online.
So I ask the question again–when you come to church, how much community-oriented sermon-listening are you really doing? Do you really let the sermon form the basis of your discussion after church? Because if you don’t, then you might as well watch religious television at home, or join the virtual church, or go for a run while you listen to sermons on your iPod.
So I want to do two things this morning. For the rest of our time this morning, I want to do two things. First, I want to go to the Scriptures to see what the Bible says about community life in the church. And then second, I want to give you some practical pointers on how to recover community sermon-listening in our churches.
What does the Bible say about community life in the church?
We’re asking the question, “What does the Bible say about community life in the church?”
Stimulate, encourage–Hebrews 10:24 and 25 say, “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.” I have heard verse 25 quoted very often in response to someone who has chosen not to attend church–and that’s appropriate, we cannot forsake gathering together. But there’s more to it than that. Verse 24 is the key verse.
Look at it again–it is our responsibility to stimulate one another to love and good deeds. We must consider how we are going to do this. We must plan for it. We must prepare ourselves so that we can encourage others in their spiritual growth. We must be purposeful about this. Let’s be honest, folks–isn’t it just easier to relax at church, enjoy the service, give a few nice greetings to people, and then go home? But you see–when we come with that self-centered attitude, we fail to live according to the Lord’s commandment. It’s not enough, folks, to listen to a sermon with only yourself in mind. There are people all around us in church, listening to the same sermon, and once we’ve listened together, we then have a responsibility to help each other apply it.
John Piper says, “Sanctification is a community project.” We need to encourage one another, and stimulate one another, to follow through on the application of God’s Word every week. This is a major commitment to each other. We listen to God as a community. We apply God’s Word as a community. We grow into greater Christlikeness as a community. So as you’re listening to sermons in church, of course you want to be asking yourself how you are going to make personal application, but it doesn’t stop there. We have a responsibility to look out for one another, and stimulate one another in these things.
The “One Anothers”
I mean, look at this–I know you know this, but let me remind you of all the responsibilities we have to one another. Here is a list of the “one another” commands of the New Testament. According to Scripture, God wants us to:
Confess sins to one another (James 5:16)
Build up one another (Romans 14:19)
Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
Pray for one another (James 5:16)
Be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32)
Submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21)
Show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
Serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
Comfort one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18)
Restore one another (Galatians 6:1)
Forgive one another (Colossians 3:13)
Love one another (1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 4:7,11)
Admonish one another (Romans 5:14; Colossians 3:16)
Teach one another (Colossians 3:16)
Encourage one another (Hebrews 3:13)
Stimulate one another (Hebrews 10:24)
Again, this is a serious list of responsibilities–loving commitments. You can’t do all of this by clicking “like” on Facebook. We are talking about open, frank, loving relationships that require intimacy, honesty, and transparency. These are the kinds of relationships which are directed by regular exposure to the Word of God and a desire to apply its lessons in a corporate way. When we talk about the “one anothers” of the New Testament, we are talking about applying God’s Word to each of our lives. We are talking about community sermon–listening.
Essential Church Activities (Acts 2:42)
Now, this kind of church experience was modeled in Acts 2:42, where it says that thousands of people were being converted to Christ in Jerusalem, “and they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” These are four essential components of Church life. You cannot separate these four activities–they go together:
All of those must be undertaken in the context of community. You cannot pursue them alone. You cannot do them individually.
Teaching (or preaching) is a community event
Fellowship is obviously the product of community
Communion and prayer are done in communal settings
Why is it that we are so inclined to make these individualistic activities, when they aren’t? Is it because we have been so influenced by the individualism of society? Today’s Christianity is lending itself more and more to individual experience, but that’s not what the Church is all about. Everything we do in the Church is for the benefit of someone else. Even our own sermon-listening is for the benefit of others. This is even true for the way we relate to our pastor. We have a responsibility to keep the pulpit accountable too.
Community Sermon Testing (1 John 4:1)
Look at 1 John 4:1 with me. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” In other words, it’s our responsibility (it’s the listener’s responsibility) to check what’s coming out of the pulpit. We need to test the teaching to make sure it is biblical.
Now, if you look at verse 1, you’ll see there are two commands there–do you see them? John says, “Don’t believe every spirit . . . test the spirits.” But get this–neither of those instructions is directed to an individual–they are both second person plural commands. That means that the testing of the pulpit is not conducted by you alone in some kind of vacuum, but rather the testing of the pulpit is conducted in the context of community. Everyone is involved in this process.
Actually, we too quickly assume that the Bible is/was written to us as individuals. We get our Bible out in the morning to have our daily devotions and we read it as if it was written to us personally–but it wasn’t. Moses, for instance, was writing to the nation of Israel. Matthew wrote to Jews in order to prove that Jesus was indeed their promised Messiah. Paul wrote letters to specific churches. None of those were written to American Christians living in Southern California. Now of course, the eternal truths of Scripture apply to us by extension, but we cannot forget the community aspect of Scripture. Most of the books of the Bible are addressed to groups of saints, communities of believers, and entire church congregations.
Not “You,” but “Yous” and “Ya’ll”
So understand this–most of the time, when you see the word “you” in the New Testament, you need to understand that it is not a reference to one person, but many. It shouldn’t be you (singular)–it should be “yous” or “ya’ll”. We are so quick to make sure we are applying the truths of Scripture to our own lives–and that’s good, and that’s needed. But we forget that there is a community aspect to Scripture. Its principles are not for me alone, they are for us together.
It’s the same with the commands of the New Testament. Once again, we too quickly apply them in an autonomous manner–and again, that’s okay, because we don’t want to fail in personal sanctification. But listen, those commands are not just for you. They are for yous.
Let me quote a list of New Testament commands which you know very well.
“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26)
“Do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” (Ephesians 5:18)
“Rejoice always. 17 Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16 to 17)
Let me say it this way. We cannot afford to listen to sermons only as individuals. We need to listen together. How do we put all of this into practice? I want to give you some pointers.
Seven Ways to Practice Community Sermon–Listening Before the Sermon
Confess Sins to One Another
1 Peter 2:1 and 2 says, “Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, 2 like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.”
Gather to Pray for the Preacher
Preaching is hard work, it is taxing, and it requires discipline. Pray for your preacher, but do it together.
Gather to Pray for the Listeners
Get together to pray in advance of the sermon, and beg the Lord that every single person in church that Sunday would be changed forever as a result of that sermon.
Gather to Read the Bible Passage
In your midweek home groups or RMGs, we need to prepare ourselves for the Sunday sermon. The Sunday sermon is the high point of our week, so we need to come prepared. We need to read the passage ahead of time. Why not do it with others?
Discuss the Passage/Subject
Ask questions of the text. Talk about the upcoming sermon. Engage other people in the sermon discussion before the sermon even happens.
Post on Social Media
Express your excitement for the upcoming sermon series. Ask questions about the passage. Do it in a way that would generate interest among all your social media friends.
Utilize Church Blog/Website
Six Ways to Practice Community Sermon–Listening during the Sermon
Commit to Regular Attendance
Get in the flow of the sermon series. If you miss a sermon, you miss a piece of the puzzle, your momentum dies, and you find yourself out of sync with everyone else in the church. You need to be there every Sunday, sitting with the congregation, learning with them, experiencing the same spiritual changes as your brothers and sisters.
You never know–you might be able to minister to someone, if you have an extra ten minutes before the service starts.
Pray for Those Sitting Next to You
Model Attentiveness to Others
Participate in the Offering
Prepare for Fellowship/Discussion
Eight Ways to Practice Community Sermon–Listening after the Sermon
Hang Around after the Sermon
Engage in Sermon Discussion
Pray with Someone
Respond Directly to the Preacher
Post on Social Media
Engage in Hospitality
Attend Sermon-Based Small Groups
Listen–you are now faced with a decision. There really are two ways to listen to a sermon–alone or in community. Either you compartmentalize your life by keeping your sermon-listening and fellowship experiences quite separate, or you commit to integrate the two so that they never take place one without the other. Which will it be? It is a life-changing decision. Do not move on without answering that question.
If you want to practice community sermon-listening, you need to make a plan. You need to involve others. The practice is by nature, communal. Maybe you will need to do some work to convince others of this vital need. Take a long-term approach. We are talking about changing global Church culture. We here at Faith Bible Church can lead by example. Would you pray with me?