Matthew 11: 15, 13: 9,43; Rev: 2.7

Abstract: This plea echoes in the aural/oral culture of the New Testament. How much more urgently it must be attended to today. With reference to Trinitarian theology of the preaching event this paper will concentrate on the critical need to restore godly listening and participation. Some steps for encouraging active listening will be outlined and some practicalities discussed.

“The skills of the hearers are more important than the skills of the preacher” controversially claimed G.E. Sweazey, (Preaching the Good News 1976, 310). He went onto argue how hearers “need their own instruction in homiletics . . . they need to know what the whole idea of preaching is.” This overstates the case for in preaching there is a principle of mutual responsibility with a complex balance of accountability between hearers and preacher. No preacher can abdicate accountability for conveying God’s truth and neither can hearers evade responsibility. Boring sermons produce yawns, but willfully bored people can stonewall sermons. Both sides have to listen and learn from each other. Preachers need to listen to their own hearers in order to preach better and hearers need listen to preachers in order that they might respond more sensitively to God’s word.

This paper considers a New Testament command embedded in the teachings of Jesus and probes at some of its implications in the light of recent research in orality, culture change and a theology of preaching. It concludes with some practical steps (which would please Sweazey!)

The Synoptic gospels testify that on several different occasions Jesus called for active listening with the refrain: “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen” (Mark 4:23; 7:16; Matthew 11:15; 13: 9, 34; 25:29; Luke 8:8; 13:9; 21:4.) It is particularly interesting to look at Jesus’ parable in Mark 4:1-20 (and its parallels) with its different soils and harshly realistic quotation from Isaiah 6: 9-10. How significant is it that Jesus opens with the command: “Listen!” (verse 3) and concludes with the refrain: “Let anyone with ears, listen”(verse 9)? Commentators are convinced that Jesus raises the threshold for hearers. Cranfield likens it to way the daily Shema opens (Deut. 6.4). It is “both an appeal to hear aright and at the same time a solemn warning of the possibility of a wrong hearing.” (Cranfield, 1959, 149.) “This is no self evident truth.” Wessel (1984, 648). “By it the hearers are summoned to hear at a deeper level than mere sense perception, to take hold of the meaning of the parable, to apply it to themselves and thus ultimately to hear the word of God which can save them (Ezk. 3:27).” Marshall (1978, 320). It seems that hearers bear some responsibility for being seeded in ‘good soil’ accepting and “bearing fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold”

“Let anyone with ears to hear, listen” is not an empty ritual refrain but an urgent encouragement that listeners need to listen with more than their ears with spiritual apprehension. It calls for holistic listening. Hearers have a responsibility to be willing to live in new ways. It involves an intensity of response that casual notice may miss to its peril. Hearing words and not putting them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house upon sand (Matt.7: 26). For “faith comes from what is heard” (Romans 10:17.) You catch the urgency, for example in 1 Cor. 15:51, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! Hearing opens up a dimension of responsibility that echoes in the early church (Rev.2: 7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22) and complements the accountabilities of the preacher.

Holistic listening then

Orality focuses on the role of spoken words. The history of spoken words can be described by three main eras: aural-orality, writing and print, and electronic. The early period of aural-orality was marked by the dominance of the spoken and heard word. It continued long after the invention of writing and many of its features were seen up until the invention of printing. Though Old Testament Scriptures were written by hand, and the gospels were later to be recorded, (and Paul’s letters to be sent), the ways of thinking and ordering thought among Jesus’ disciples were most influenced by an unwritten culture of “word of mouth.” Words operated very differently from what happened later when you could see them written down. Words were ‘sounds’ from within a person’s ‘interior consciousness’ and these sounded out words were events in themselves. Hence the Hebrew word dabar means both word and event. Words were personal happenings with direct impact on the ears of the listeners.

The ear was all-important. There was no other back up to memory. Communication was abortive if people failed to hear and to remember. Orality meant aurality. Important truths needed to be recalled afterwards. The primary way therefore for Jesus to engage his disciples in sustained thought and action was tied to hearing speech, to “think memorable thoughts” as Ong (1982,35) describes it. Sounding out words and listening to them were both essential for faith and community. Various techniques were developed to help the ear such as mnemonics, rhythms, repetitions, formulae, but the most obvious and far-reaching was the place of “stories.” Accurate listening and ability to recall was fundamental to truth telling and truth living.

“Let anyone with ears to hear, listen” directly related to how words worked in an aural/oral culture. At the center of Jesus’ discipling were sounded out words which created a community of the ear. Indeed, Wilson has described the era of the early church: “The authority of word as sound” (1992 17-66).

Babin,(following ideas of McLuhan 1969), has further emphasized the vital role played by the medium of communication within this aural/oral culture. “The message is not in the words but in the effect produced by the one who is speaking . . . modulation is the essence of audiovisual language . . . Modulation indicates vibration frequencies which vary in length, intensity, harmonics and other nuance . . . perceived by our senses and induce emotions, images even ideas” (1991,6). Christ’s teaching not only concerns information and ideas, but also invites hearers into relationship with himself through audio-visual language. Babin asserts the importance of the communal life as Christian faith was learned through what he terms “immersion” from New Testament until the fifteenth century. “Immersion” describes how faith was communicated in an aural/oral culture characterized by “the pre-eminence of communal life, by liturgy and practice, by stories and images, and by the sacred part played by the person teaching.” Hearers were drawn into a deep belonging where “there was no gap . . . between the sacred and the profane. The whole of life was bathed in a religious climate.”(21). It was a total learning experience. “To understand is to participate.”

The aural/oral era was succeeded by an era dominated by writing and print. Instead of the ear being primary, with learning by immersion in community with participation, the eye was dominant. “Let anyone with eyes to see, see” became the litany for individual readers who no longer had need of immersion in community nor for techniques of recall – you could simply look it up on a page and put the page down at your convenience. Thinking could now be recorded in linear and logical format with a greatly extended vocabulary. Babin makes the judgment that this led increasingly to a “more cerebral form of faith. . .but one day we woke up to the fact that, for the majority of people the living reality of faith had fled.” (99)

Holistic listening now

My enthusiasm for orality studies concerns the present third era with the advent of electronic communication. Modulation, vibrations, participation in community have returned with two electronic media – the audio-visual which relates primarily to pleasure and entertainment and data-processing which involves information and calculation.

Babin believes that these two media together open up a “new era in religious communication.”

I do not think it is possible to separate an audiovisual form of catechesis, one that appeals to the heart and to human feelings, from a purely notional form, one aimed more precisely at the intellect and reason. This new, combined type of religious education will hereafter be called stereo catechesis (his italics) . . . The greatest danger threatening faith today, I am convinced, is not the absence of information and firm instruction, but the lack of interest in Jesus Christ and the failure of our hearts to be converted (1991, 31-32).

Two kinds of language therefore coexist. ‘Conceptual’ language appeals to intellect and reason and is grounded in writing, print and data processing. “Symbolic” language is his term for audiovisual language that “adds modulation to abstract words.” (146) Babin claims that Jesus’ language was primarily symbolic which “leads to spirit, heart and moves the body. Full of resonances, rhythms, stories, images which lead to a different kind of mental and emotional behavior.” (149). It is transformational more than informational. However, these two languages operate together in stereo form, combining like “two waves, each one carrying with it its own sand.” (152)

The electronic revolution has opened up new possibilities for stereo listening, head and heart. “Let anyone who has ears to hear and eyes to see, listen and see.”

Many authors on preaching are wrestling with the implications of stereo communication for preaching. There is increasing awareness that conceptual language alone, characteristic of the print age, is not communicating as effectively in the electronic age. Contemporary congregations have people who hear, see and touch the preaching differently. Frick (1999) generalizes about three groups found in congregations: those who respond visually and often sit at the back of the congregation in order to see the big picture. Others respond audibly, sitting in the middle so as not to miss anything. Yet others respond kinesthetically preferring to be drawn into experience by participating physically. Sitting at the front they engage with bodies as well as minds. To respond to the needs of all these different kinds of listening Frick calls for a “total learning experience” with a variety of creative approaches. He joins a long line of those who have studied orality change and suggest new options for preaching. Some have focused on using words in multi-sensory ways (Mitchell 1999), on emphasizing orality by preaching without a manuscript (Elsworth 2000) and on using technology (Slaughter 1998, Wilson 1999). Others have emphasized “participation and immersion” by developing collaborative preaching with listeners involved at each stage of the preaching process (Schlafer 1992, McClure 1995).

Spiritual apprehension

Central to holistic listening is a theological issue about what God does in the act of preaching. Though this paper allows only limited space to sketch out some implications we should consider how the triune God empowers effective preaching?

Torrance warns how many Christians are practical Unitarians with a practice of worship which:

Has no doctrine of the mediator or sole priesthood of Christ, is human-centered, has no proper doctrine of the Holy Spirit . . . we sit in the pew watching the minister “doing his thing,” exhorting us “to do our thing,” until we go home thinking we have done our duty for another week (1996,20).

In contrast, a Trinitarian view of worship sees it as “the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father (20).” Torrance calls for a fresh experience of the two movements of grace: the God-humanward from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit and the human-Godward to the Father through the Son in the Spirit. No genuine listening and responding to God in preaching can occur except by gracious revelation of the Father, Christ’s interceding presence in the midst and the empowering Holy Spirit who enabled Scripture first to be inspired, and now interpreted, interactive, heard and lived out in faith. Preaching is a Father event, a Christ event, a Spirit event or it is merely resounding gongs or clanging cymbals.

Preaching occurs within a 360 degree dynamic as the Lord gives a word and it returns to him. Comparing the word to the cycle of rain falling from heaven and not returning until it has watered the earth and caused seed to grow, “so shall my word be that goes from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa.55: 11.)

This returning word, in a 360 degree dynamic, is difficult to describe. Any attempted model is untidy and multi-dimensional with arrows and lines flowing in many directions and many more connections too complex to show in a flat diagram. The triune God of grace is involved in every point yet begins and finishes the process. Each line and arrow describes Trinitarian connections between preacher and hearers, and hearers and preachers as the whole community is challenged in its living.

The command: “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen” invites participation in a dynamic where God’s word will not return empty, Christ stands with those who gather in his name (Matthew 18:20) and prays for all believers (John 17:20-26) and the Holy Spirit actively creates spiritual apprehension (1 Thess. 1: 5). “The quality of preaching is affected most significantly by the level of awareness of the movement of the Spirit shared by those in the pulpit and the pew” (Forbes, 20).

Convincing, rebuking, loving, healing, converting, sending out, are all evidences of God’s work through a preacher. It is the Holy Spirit who will “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8) and who makes connections “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God “(Rom 8:16). The outcome of preaching is well summarized in 1 John 1:3: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

Let anyone with ears to hear, listen

Earlier I referred to a principle of mutual responsibility between hearers and preacher. On one side, preachers have accountability to ensure good news is just that. Preachers in their exegesis, interpretation and design need always to be conscious of their listeners, making connections and ‘hooking’ responses by content and interesting style. David Mains, of Mainstay Ministries, contends that 80% of evangelical sermons fail because preachers are unclear what response they are calling for. Hearers can tell you afterwards what the theme was but they had no idea what to do about it. Contemporary preachers should not avoid working through the implications of stereo preaching and we have already noted some authors’ contributions.

However, in the last part of this paper I want to address hearers in particular. Authentic twenty-first preaching must recover authentic listening and preachers have a critical task of restoring godly listening. Sweazey (1976) argued that hearers need their own instruction in homiletics. He suggested that an occasional sermon with a subject such as: “Partners in Preaching” could be useful as well as offering courses on homiletics for hearers. Preachers have to awaken passive listeners to become active partners in hearing and doing God’s word. Mark 4:1-20 has to be taken seriously. Hearers have to be alerted to responsibilities before, during and after preaching. Like loving God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Luke 10: 27), stereo listening requires everything of a hearer. Here are some guidelines:

1. Prepare for worship expectantly.

The more casual and unprepared that listeners are as they come to worship the less likely they are to experience God. All worshipers, preacher included, should make space and time for genuine prayers of preparation. “Who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully” (Ps 24:3,4). Snatched seconds of perfunctory routine before worship smothers spiritual possibilities within worship. “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:21) and be sensitive to God who is spirit. Spiritual insensitivity to God beforehand can condemn to spiritual insensitivity during worship. The outcome is a Unitarian utilitarianism – preachers “do their own thing” which may or may not have any relevance to hearers “doing their thing.”

Preachers need to include themselves in more rigorous practice of prayerful preparation that stills the spirit (Psalm 37:7) and raises expectation that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are involved in a spiritual happening in worship for the whole community. God’s word does not return empty. God’s seed in good soil can make an astounding difference – “bearing fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. ” Worshipers should prepare with openness to what fruit they might bear. If you think a sermon is going to be a waste of time, nine times out of ten it will be. If you believe in an active present God anything could happen.

Preachers have a responsibility to model sensitive preparation for worship. In the crescendo of interruptions often leading up to the service prayer should not be treated as a routine to be squeezed out by more important matters, but the foundation for prepared minds and hearts of everyone. Listeners can be encouraged to pray in the days leading up to worship by specific information. Preachers can share next week’s Scripture text and theme and ask listeners to prepare by reading and reflecting themselves as well as supporting the preacher in preparation. The more seriously preachers reflect personal conviction about the Trinitarian dynamic of worship and preaching, the more seriously listeners will prepare with them.

Those who commend collaborative preaching where they work with a small group of people, before, during and after the preaching, comment on hearers’ heightened awareness as they work on a text beforehand (McClure, Schlafer). It may be a far cry for most congregations to undertake home assignments on the text for the next Sunday and prayerfully uphold a preacher, but nothing is more effective in raising the possibilities of fruit bearing. Preachers have a responsibility to raise the stakes.

2. Listen with all your mind

Stereo listening hears both conceptual and symbolic language. Morreale and Bovee stress the importance of developing four kinds of listening which cover both kinds of language: content (comprehensive) to understand a speaker’s message; critical listening which evaluates the message; empathetic listening which seeks to understand the speaker’s feelings and viewpoint; appreciative listening which intentionally seeks to admire and enjoy (2000, 70).

Many older members of congregations have a strong preference for conceptual language in preaching which emphasizes precision, clarity, analysis, idea, explanation and linear sequence (fig 1). They particularly focus on content listening and critical listening.

There is a considerable literature on the dynamics of listening to conceptual language and about the effort involved to develop active listening. Active listening is a willingness to participate mentally with a speaker, to dialogue, question and engage with a developing linear sequence. It requires concentration. The average person speaks at a rate of 125-150 words per minutes while the average capacity to listen is nearer 500 words per minute. This considerable extra capacity for the mind to wander is a common cause of those with ears to hear not hearing. While appearing to be listening attentively, hearers can be “miles away.”

Many churches, especially those that publish worship bulletins, provide aids for listeners in the form of sermon outlines and spaces for writing sermon notes. Some churches have sermon note pads provided in the pews. On other occasions preachers ask specific questions which they expect to be written down while they are preaching and in some cases small groups use these at a later occasion to follow up the sermon.

Morreale and Bovee give six strategies to improve active listening which can be applied to preaching. Improve your concentration recognizes how easy it is to be distracted and calls for a conscious focusing on speaker and following through what is said, anticipating the next point and testing what has been said so far. For sermon listening, this means holding the Scripture passage open, listening for assumptions, questions and surprises in the passage so that time and energy are invested while the preaching proceeds. Focus on verbal and nonverbal cues looks at a speaker’s face, posture and gestures and asks whether it reinforces or contradicts the message. Withhold your judgment stresses the need to listen to the whole and compare conclusions. Manage personal reaction disciplines prejudice from past experiences about certain people, clothing styles, accents, words and topics. Take notes not only of central idea and main points but an overview of the whole listening experience. Share the responsibility for successful communication emphasizes the quality of feedback that hearers give nonverbally. Listeners who slump with heads down are not an encouraging sign. (1998,76-82).

3. Listen with all your heart

Clearly, it is false to distinguish sharply between head and heart responses. Preachers who use conceptual language would claim to change hearts through changed thinking. However, symbolic language is characterized much more by participation, immersion, intuitive and imagination and evolves “by thresholds rather than by linear accomplishment” (see fig 1). The more symbolic language is used, the less satisfactory is the taking of notes.

Preaching to the heart is more often stressed in black preaching than in white. In many white congregations conceptual language focuses on content and critical responses. A white colleague of mine, in a highly liturgical tradition, commented recently how distressing he found it that people gave so little response, even facially. In black congregations, however, there can be empathetic and appreciative listening with highly vocal dialogue. Some black preachers invite responses not only directly: “Do I have a witness? Do I hear Amen?” but by their whole approach to holistic preaching from which we can all learn.

Mitchell in Celebration and Experience in Preaching (1990) emphasizes how preaching should be to the whole person, cognitively and emotionally. “Every sermon must make sense; it must be manifestly reasonable . . . otherwise the subsection of the rational mind that monitors such things will shut down one’s receptivity. However, although reason . . . opens the gate to the intuitive, it does not itself beget faith . . . faith invades our lives through the intuitive and emotive sectors of consciousness . . . experiential encounter (his italics) (19-22). Mitchell has much to say to preachers about moving in sermon design from outline as “flow of ideas” to outlines as “flow in consciousness”(49). The implications for listeners are very significant too. As “Jesus required “clients” to take some part in the healing. . .no healing at the church can take place without the cooperation of the person in need . . . to have openness to and confidence in the healer. So seeds come to life.” (149). Symbolic language seeks a personal commitment from a listener to be sensitive to the spiritual possibilities of God acting in the present tense.

One or two of my African American students have commented how in their experience, certain patterns of black preaching can sometimes build their own momentum that seems to owe too much at times to congregational expectation or, worse, a need for ministerial affirmation. Yet on many occasions there is an undeniable participation and celebration that actively involves the whole congregation.

4. Listen with all your strength.

Preaching should always result in more than a cerebral response, such as notes made on a sheet of paper. Its outcome is about people building on rock and not on sand, doing God’s word and living God’s word together. It is about God’s word returning to him having changed lives and communities. Preaching is about forming Biblical shaped, Christ centered individuals and communities. The test for preaching is what happens in the behavior of the hearers.

The reference in 1 Cor. 14:3 to “those who prophesy” relates to intelligible speech (verse 9) and therefore to preaching. Its three outcomes are listed as “building up” (oikodomeo), “encouragement” (paraclesis) and “consolation” (paramythia). 2 Tim. 4:2 adds convince (elegeon) and rebuke (epitemeson). Mitchell calls for each sermon to have a “behavioral purpose.” “Every sermon will have a controlling idea and require some intellectual growth or increased understanding, but maturity of attitude and behavior – deep trust with willing obedience is the central objective.” (54)

Hearers, and preacher, need to recognize that God may be calling for a specific response that requires deeper trust and willing obedience. Too many listeners rate a sermon in terms of its interest and weight, but what matters most is what they will do differently. As Sangster once commented, what counts is “service beyond services”, or in Bill Hybel’s words that hearers become “a biblically functioning community.”

5. Remember: Good listening makes for better preaching.

In Sweazey’s advice to hearers he describes how ministers who preach away from home are sometimes struck by contrasting responses from different congregations (perhaps to the same message). In some places it feel like “slogging through mud up to the waist” as all eyes are averted and body language is depressed. Yet in another church everyone seems to lean forward with excitement (316). Most hearers have little idea of what a vital role they have to play in the worship and preaching event. They have never understood the impact that their body language makes, and what difference their graciously worded comments afterwards can make (including negative observations). Which preacher has not risen with eagle’s wings when they are told about significant events triggered by a sermon?

It is beyond the remit of this paper to pursue important issues about how preachers might develop greater mentoring and organize more formal feedback after sermons. But listeners should be awakened to their responsibilities to share in the dynamics of a preaching event.

For many churches these five guidelines mean a revolution in listening habits. Some churches would benefit from “listening clinics” for new believers who are unused to listening to sermons, tired and middle-aged listeners who long ago gave up expecting to hear anything from God and have settled for tedium. For the elderly who were excited once and who long to hear the sound of heaven again. “Sermons are delivered to the church on Sunday so they can be delivered to the world on Monday. Out there is where the harvest will be reaped” (Sweazey, 318). “Anyone who has ears to hear, listen.”


Michael Quicke is C.W.Koller Professor of Preaching and Communication at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois.


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