“I was listening to a talk by Mark Driscoll the other day, and he said…” In my last two years of working with a congregation of mostly university students and young workers, I have lost count of the number of times I have heard this kind of statement. It represents an increasing trend among Christians — a trend that will only grow as our use of technology continues to expand. Whereas once I had to wait several years for a noted overseas Bible teacher to come to town and preach the word (say at a Katoomba convention), now the wonders of technology mean that, with a few clicks of the mouse, I can have a daily diet of sermons by about anyone from just about anywhere in the world: Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Mark Dever, John Stott, Don Carson, and so on. And I can listen to them not just while I’m sitting at my computer, but while I’m running, driving or sitting on the train.
But what are we to make of this phenomenon? Is it a good development? Is it something we should be wary of? How can we use the technology to help us grow in our Christian faith?
On one hand, of course, we all know the benefit that comes from listening to good Bible teaching, for it is the word of God that teaches us the grace of the gospel and how to live the life of faith. Surely everything that equips us with a deeper understanding of the Scriptures is a good thing. Therefore, in this regard, listening to sermons could be likened to reading good Christian books. On top of that, Paul instructs us to think about the things that are true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise (Phil 4:8). If, on the basis of this instruction, we were to compare listening to a sermon with many of the other alternatives offered by the world, there really is no comparison: the sermon wins nearly every time.
So, given these things, how could you argue against people listening to more sermons? Well, I have several reservations. One of my concerns is that sermon listening is disconnected from the gospel relationship of pastor and congregation. A sermon is not (or, at least, it shouldn’t be!) some timeless exposition of a Scriptural text that is delivered irrespective of a particular group of hearers; it is a passionate and persuasive exposition of a Scriptural text that is aimed fair and square at a particular group of people, exhorting them to mature and active faith in Christ. This demands that the preacher know his flock (so that he may apply the word all the more stridently to them) and that the flock know their preacher (so that they can observe not only his teaching, but his godly life as well).
It also seems to me that the problem of guru-ism is a constant danger. There are several warning signs: for example, we find ourselves devouring the whole back catalogue of one particular preacher’s podcasts insatiably, or, in our conversations, we continually report what we have learned from Driscoll/Piper/Dever/Stott/Carson, rather than what we have learned from God as we wrestle with the Scriptures. A related problem may be that we experience growing discontent with the regular preachers and teachers that God has given us. But if God thought I needed John Piper as my pastor, I’m sure he could have arranged it!
My final reservation is the fact that some have replaced their own personal Bible reading with listening to sermons. Although this hasn’t happened to everyone who regularly listens to sermons, the fact that some have already come this far is a sure sign that the current generation of Christians faces more obstacles than ever when it comes to carving out good chunks of time for the diligent study of God’s word.
With all these concerns in mind, here are some suggestions for how to listen to sermons in a way that will help us to grow as Christians:
- Vary your diet of preachers, and, sometimes, why not simply listen to an audio Bible?
- Be wary of comparing the online preacher (publicly or privately) to your own God-given pastors.
- Don’t forget your responsibilities as a listener. Test everything. Never listen without your Bible open. Chase up the passages and write notes.
- Keep audio sermons in their place: like good Christian books, they can help us grow enormously, but we mustn’t let them loom too large. Nothing beats the godly discipline of reading your Bible.
- As with all preaching and teaching, don’t just listen to store up knowledge; listen to sermons in order to put the Word into practice. With the iSermon on the iPod, will we have an iHarvest of righteousness?