A pioneer is a person who goes on ahead of a group of travelers to make it safe for them to follow. The pioneer scouts ahead, explores, examines, risks, discovers, and suffers if necessary, on behalf of fellow travelers who will take the same path.
According to Hebrews 2:10, Jesus is the pioneer of our salvation. And this is how He pioneered to make it safe for us to follow: “since therefore children share in flesh and blood, He himself likewise partook of he same nature, that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15).
When we listen to sermons, we are the fellow travelers. Life is a flesh-and-blood journey through death that has been pioneered for us by Jesus. He has made it safe for us to follow and has delivered us from the paralyzing fear of the journey. Along the way, we listen to those who have pioneered for us in other ways. When we listen to sermons, we have the right to hear a pioneer listener speak.
If hearing the preaching of Christ stands at the center of the church’s mission, then listening is central to the church’s task. But how can the church hear? By appointing pioneer listeners who can help us hear along the journey. Pews represent the place where we listen and hear, but we should not think of them as being nailed down. They accompany us on the journey. They are vehicles of a sort. When we sit in them, we hear our pioneer listeners speak the word of faith for the journey.
Preachers are pioneer listeners on behalf of the community of faith. Preachers who remain behind the travelers to take pictures and keep records of what happened along the way cannot help us with what is ahead. Preachers who remain in the company of the faithful without risking the look ahead and around may be able to help us with what’s happening now but they will not be able to lead us safely around the bend. Preachers should be listeners before they are speakers.
When a person is ordained to the ministry of the Word and sacraments in the church I serve, the liturgy and vows give no indication that the preacher is called to be a pioneer listener. When we ask “what the Scriptures say concerning the office of the minister of the Word,” we are told that the minister is called to four tasks: (1) to preach the gospel of the kingdom, (2) to administer the sacraments that the Lord has instituted as signs and seals of His grace, (3) to pray steadfastly for the whole family of God, and (4) to shepherd the people of God in the Christian life.
Following this explanation, the minister is asked to declare that he believes God has called him to this ministry and he believes the Holy Scriptures to be the Word of God. Then he is asked to make the ordination promises: “Do you promise to discharge the duties of your office faithfully, to conduct yourself worthily of this calling, and to submit yourself to the government and discipline of the church?”
Where in this ordination ritual is the minister commissioned to be a pioneer listener on behalf of the church and world? No doubt that task is simply assumed under the first assignment: to preach the gospel of the kingdom. Just as children of the Reformation tend to shift from the apostle Paul’s “faith comes from hearing” to “faith comes from preaching,” something similar has happened here. If we assume that listening is included in the preaching task, we feel no need to take note of listening before speaking. But that assumption leaves hidden what needs to be brought out into the open between pew and pulpit — namely, that preachers are pioneer listeners on behalf of the community of faith.
Peter had to learn to listen before speaking. He is exposed in the Gospels as a disciple whose speaking Jesus frequently rebuked. The experience on the mount of transfiguration was stunning in its beauty and uniqueness for Peter. The three of them — Peter, James, and John — saw Jesus’ glory unveiled before their eyes as He spoke with Moses and Elijah. Peter loved the experience and wanted to make it permanent. He offered to make three booths, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But while Peter was still speaking, a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son … listen to Him” (Matt. 17:5).
The Gospel of Mark introduces what many have called the Parable of the Sower with a command from Jesus: “Listen” (Mark 4:3). And in spite of other differences, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all conclude the parable with the same words: “He who has ears, let him hear.”
A veteran teacher of preachers, Merrill Abbey, tells us about the importance of listening before speaking:
before we are interpreters of the Word, we are sinful men who stand in desperate need to hear it. On our hearing hangs our own salvation. But we are charged with the pastoral care of God’s people, and our hearing of their need is crucial to that ministry. Nor can we interpret a Word we have not first attentively heard; it is our occupational hazard that we are speaking men and may be so driven by the question, “What shall I say?” that we find little time to ask, “What is God saying?”1
And James Daane, whose understanding of preaching is controlled completely by the message of the text, emphasizes the importance of listening to the text before preaching:
There is another subtle temptation to be avoided. The primary concern with which preachers often approach a text is a concern for “what it means for the hearer today.” Eager to discover relevance, the minister never takes time to hear what the text really says. The desire to apply it takes precedence over hearing what it declares. Application dominates interpretation. Students are particularly prone to this folly — and folly it is, for how can one apply what one has not yet heard or understood?2
Preparation for each sermon requires a careful listening to the Bible text. The church through its seminaries prepares students to practice the art of listening to texts in disciplined ways. Tools are provided and skills are developed to enable the preacher to listen before speaking. Good listening to a Bible text requires that the preacher know what kind of questions to ask, what clues to meaning to look for, how to learn from comparing text with text, and how to distinguish and then bring back together the questions “What did the text mean for those who first heard?” and “What does the text mean for us now?” Listening to a text in order to speak from it requires that we carry on a discussion and even a debate with the text. Preparing to preach requires that the preacher wrestle with the text and not let it go until it yields a blessing worth bringing to the pew.
There are many obstacles to that kind of listening today. Besides the built-in obstacle of listening to a Bible text across the distance of centuries, the barriers of language, and the chasm of different cultures, there are two other obstacles to the kind of listening preaching requires: the church’s expectations of the pastor and the pastor’s familiarity with the Bible text.
Listening time is precious for the preacher these days not only because it is valuable but also because it is scarce. Using the terms of the Parable of the Sower, we might say that the preacher’s life bears enough traffic to harden a well-worn path right where the seed is needed most. The preacher shares that burden with the listening community of faith. The traffic of news, events, demands, and cares compels the preacher to experience in the privacy of the study what the listeners experience when they come to the pew. As a pioneer listener, the preacher can identify with the listening community of faith. The freedom to listen so that we can hear, believe, and call upon the name of the Lord must be protected against the odds.
But assuming the preacher can hurdle this first obstacle to listening to the Bible text, the second still remains: familiarity. The text for next Sunday is the parable of the Good Samaritan or the story of Moses at the burning bush or the story of David and Goliath or the miracle of healing the ten lepers. We know these stories. They are as familiar as an old pair of shoes. So the preacher rushes to find ways to apply them creatively and to make them interesting. Or she moves from the text to a church doctrine suggested by the story and then looks for illustrations or applications that will make the doctrine more attractive this time around. Instead of careful listening to the Bible text, the preacher searches for ways to make familiar teachings interesting.
The minister, however, is not called first of all to be creative; he or she is called to be a faithful listener so that others can hear the Word of God. Listening patiently and attentively to a Bible text, using available tools and skills, the pioneer listener can cut through the crust of familiarity and taste the bread of life afresh before breaking it for others.
As a member of the listening, journeying community, the minister listens in the place and on behalf of others. He brings the eyes and ears and lives of the community with him to the act of listening to the text. Thomas Long has noted that
some preachers find it helpful, as part of the process of interpreting the Scripture, to visualize the congregation that will be present when the sermon is preached. They survey the congregation in their mind’s eye, seeing there the familiar faces and the lives behind them. They see the adults and the children, the families and those who are single, those who participate actively in the church’s mission and those who stand cautiously on the edges of the church’s life. They see those for whom life is full and good and those for whom life is composed of jagged pieces. They see the regulars sitting in their customary places, and they see the stranger, the newcomer, the visitor, hesitating and wondering if there is a place for them. They see the people who are there, and they see the people who cannot be there, or who choose not to be there. When preachers turn to the Scripture, all these people go with them.3
Seeing the minister as a pioneer listener on behalf of the community of faith is, in part at least, an answer to a recurring question in the church: What is the relationship between preacher and congregation, or “clergy and laity”? At the extremes, some preachers have said, “Just call me Joe; I’m no different from you,” while others have said, “I’m the authority around here who dispenses God’s grace and truth.” But if the preacher is a pioneer listener, he or she is both identified with and distinguished within the community of faith. The preacher shares membership in the human family and the body of Christ but is commissioned to a task on their behalf.
Pioneer listeners need to listen to the congregation and with the congregation in order to listen for the congregation. Only then will they be able to speak to, with, and for them with grace and truth. As a pioneer listener, the minister will need to go on ahead to listen in advance, but she will take care not to get out of the range of the congregation’s hearing. She will listen to the scriptures within range of their voices so that when the sermon is preached, they will be within range of hers.
Frederick Buechner has seen that hearing the truth in order to tell the truth requires that the preacher experience this identity with the congregation: “the preacher must always try to feel what it is like to live inside the skins of the people he is preaching to, to hear the truth as they hear it. That is not as hard as it sounds because, of course, he is himself a hearer of truth as well as a teller of truth, and he listens out of the same emptiness as they do for a truth to fill him and make him true.”4
Another teacher is persuaded that preachers and listeners can be so united in their life concerns that the preachers can preach to their own needs and thereby address the needs of others. Listening to, with, and for the listening community must be intimate in order to risk following the advice of J. Randall Nichols: “we must add another piece of advice to students and ministers: preach to and for yourselves. If you as pastors are truly living the lives of your people, if you are tuning into their own situations and making them your own, then you should trust what what concerns you as their pastor is also their concern. Preach to that.”5
This kind of listening to, with, and for people is similar to praying. Leander E. Keck sees a clear parallel between the minister’s priestly acts of listening and praying: “the preacher listens for a word not only as a private citizen but as a representative of the church. The preacher’s listening and hearing is a priestly act. Because praying for people is a priestly act we understand, it is useful to compare this kind of praying with listening/hearing.”6 In the ordination liturgy I cited earlier, preaching and praying are tasks assigned to the minister. These are usually distinguished as prophetic (preaching) and priestly (praying). It may be helpful to note that listening to, with, and for the people is essential for both prophets and priests.
If we understand the preacher’s task as that of a pioneer listener whose priestly listening is similar to priestly praying, we may be able to understand better some other concerns of church members. An exchange took place on the subject of preaching some years ago between Nicholas Wolterstorff and Richard Mouw in The Reformed Journal that raised some important issues. The discussion began when Mouw wondered how we can explain the existence of bad sermons if we believe that sermons are the very Word of God. He described the problem, and offered a possible solution:
My problem with the high view [of preaching] is this: How, if we accept it, do we explain bad sermons? This view seems to me to picture the situation as involving a divide, with the congregation on one side and God and the minister on the other. But the picture doesn’t seem to hold up when, try as we might, we can’t hear in the minister’s words anything that sounds as if it is coming from the other side of the divide.
What would be wrong with this alternative picture: The divide is there, and God is on one side. We, the congregation, along with the minister, are on the other side; but the minister is standing out a little bit in front of the rest, peering across the divide, equipped perhaps with special glasses which the rest of us lack. Then, when what he says to us (over his shoulder, as it were) does not sound like an accurate description of what is across the divide, we can rightly conclude that he failed to get far enough ahead of us, or he hadn’t cleaned his lenses, or he had something in his eye.7
From there Wolterstorff and Mouw carried on correspondence that resulted in their reaching some agreement on how we can believe that God speaks through preaching and still not be inconsistent or guilty if we say that a given sermon is bad. Hearing bad sermons should not tempt us to give up the view that God can speak through preaching any more than bad parents should tempt us to give up the view that God works through parenting. Wolterstorff and Mouw also agreed that God speaks to His people in a unique way through preaching. Unlike casual conversation in which people talk about God or their faith, preaching takes place in the context of the church’s discipline, and this has significant implications for the character of what is said.
“I hold,” wrote Wolterstorff, “that by way of the preaching, God may speak. Therein lies the “highness’ of sermons, though not indeed their uniqueness. Their (relative) uniqueness consists in the fact that we characteristically must take them with more seriousness, as bearers of God’s Word, than we must most other situations, and that because of the context of discipline around them.”8 This view of preaching does not guarantee that there will not be bad sermons, but neither does it require that we abandon a high view of preaching when we hear a bad one. “A bad sermon is nothing more nor less than a sermon in which the minister not at all, or scarcely at all, speaks on God’s behalf, or in which he does so only in a vague and muffled manner.”9
Mouw’s misfortune in having heard some bad sermons opened up a very helpful discussion that should be revived now and again. It was unfortunate, however, that his first attempt to answer his own problem was left behind in the discussion that followed. His picture of a minister standing with the congregation on one side of the divide, moving on ahead with special glasses to see what he can see, and then speaking over his shoulder to the rest of us to let us know what he sees is a realistic view of preaching. Nor does it stand against the conclusions that Mouw and Wolterstorff seem to have reached about sermons. Mouw’s image of the minister as a pioneer seer has to do with the listening side of the preaching task. Their discussion shifted too soon to the speaking side of the preaching task. The quality of the listening is directly related to the quality of the speaking.
Thomas Long has offered a parable that changes and expands Mouw’s analogy:
Imagine that the biblical text for next Sunday’s sermon is not a piece of literature but a deep and mysterious cave. The preacher is a trained explorer of caves who descends into this one, flashlight and ropes in hand, filled with the excitement of discovery. Others have explored this cave before, indeed the preacher has read their accounts, studied their maps, been excited by the sights they have seen, marveled at the treasures they have discovered, and is impelled by their assurances that there are new treasures yet to be found. The preacher moves ever deeper into the cave, sometimes ambling easily through wide passageways, other times wedging his way through an opening barely large enough to squeeze through. He wanders down alluring grottos, only to find they end in cold, blank walls. He shines his light across chasms too wide for him to cross with the equipment he has. He inches his way down a high and narrow ledge, once almost losing his footing and tumbling into the black infinity below. Suddenly, he turns a corner and there it is, what he has been looking for all along. Perhaps it is a waterfall, tumbling from a great height to the floor below. Or perhaps it is an enormous stalactite, an icicle eons old which overwhelms him by its sheer size. Or maybe his flashlight has illumined a wall of gems, filling the dark space with dancing fire and color. He stands before the sight in a moment of awe and silence. Then, knowing what he must do, he carefully retraces his path, scrambles to the mouth of the cave, and with the dirt of the journey still on his face and his flashlight waving excitedly, he calls to those who have been waiting on him, “Come on, Have I got something to show you!”10
Long’s parable captures the spirit of adventure, risk, and discovery that can bring a pioneer listener to stand before the people on whose behalf he has explored. Being where we are on our journey, the suspense of waiting for the Word is a good way to hear the suspense in such words as these: “The kingdom of heaven is like ….”
For those who prefer severe obedience to joyful discovery, Jeremiah’s word about false prophets who speak without listening will do: “For who among them has stood in the council of the Lord to perceive and to hear His word, or who has given heed to His word and listened?” (Jer. 23:18).
Those who preach need to listen before they speak, to see before they say. Listening to, with, and for the listening community of faith will bring the preacher to the text ready to hear. Listening for that Word with priestly compassion will prepare the preacher to speak also with prophetic power.
Notes
1. Abbey, The Word Interprets Us (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967), p. 64; italics his.
2. Daane, Preaching with Confidence: A Theological Essay on the Power of the Pulpit (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1980), p. 61.
3. Long, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1989), p. 56.
4. Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 8.
5. Nichols, Building the Word: The Dynamics of Communication and Preaching (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), p. 40.
6. Keck, The Bible in the Pulpit (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), p. 61.
7. Mouw, “Bad Sermons,” Reformed Journal, November 1976, p. 5.
8. Wolterstorff, “Are ‘Bad Sermons’ Possible? An Exchange on Preaching,” Reformed Journal, November 1977, p. 11.
9. Wolterstorff, “Are ‘Bad Sermons’ Possible?” p. 9.
10. Long, “The Distance We Have Traveled: Changing Trends in Preaching,” Reformed Liturgy and Music 17 (Winter 1983): 14.
Excerpted from Pew Rights: For People Who Listen to Sermons by Roger E. Van Harn. Copyright (C) 1992 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 17-29. Used by permission of the publisher.

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