As a church we believe God’s voice is heard when God’s Word (the Bible) is taught. It is one of our values: Bible Saturated. Yet often it makes us bored, fidgety and unable to remember anything we heard (except perhaps a humorous story told by the speaker!). What can we do? How can we listen to talks from the Bible so we really do hear from God?
This was the question asked by a number of different people in a number of different ways following Sunday’s preaching. Peter told us that the Bible is a ‘living and enduring word’ (not dead, dying, temporary or passing!) and is laden with miraculous potential to cause change so radical it’s like being literally ‘born again’! (1Peter 1:22-25)
To answer those questions, and you may have them as well, I have reproduced the six hints and helps I think the Bible points us toward.
We are to listen to talks on the Bible expectantly because Jesus gives the authority of God himself to the speaker who teaches the Bible accurately, prayerfully and obediently. Of course it is good when people who can, study the Bible themselves privately or in smaller groups, but it is vital (if you want to hear from God) that you hear the Bible taught publicly. According to Peter the living and enduring word of God is the word that was preached to you (1Peter 1:23-25). He goes on to explain that if anyone speaks (and the context is the Bible being taught in church) he should do it as one speaking the very words of God (1Peter 4:11). In the Old Testament Bible teaching is described as a face to face meeting with God (Deuteronomy 5:4-5). Therefore when the Bible is reliably taught we should expect that God will speak and that we will be changed by his Spirit.
Action Point: We do not instinctively hear preaching as the voice of God. Our natural reaction is to take it simply as the voice of people and disregard it (especially if we don’t like them or what they are saying). This is why praying is vital: for the speaker during their preparations; for ourselves and others as we listen; for God’s Spirit to change us as we obey what we hear. Did you know we pray from 9-10am at the Beacon every Sunday morning, not least for God’s voice to be heard as we gather – why don’t you join us?
It is not always true that when we hear the voice of the preacher we hear the voice of God. Whether we hear the voice of God or not depends on one thing – is the speaker reliably teaching the Bible? Are they saying what the Bible is saying? Is the speaker’s main point built from the passage or are they just using the passage as a springboard for saying what they want to say? We are not asking how well or poorly the speaker communicated, but whether the message came clearly from the Bible.
Action Point: We should be looking at our Bible and asking the question ‘where did they get that from?’ and ‘is that really what the Bible teaches?’ That is why we have Bibles readily available in our gatherings and encourage people to have them open themselves.
If a speaker is teaching the Bible reliably then at some point it will hurt! We all come to God with our lives messed up; with prejudices, wrong beliefs, and confusion about God. This is true however long you have been a Christian. I come to the Bible as a thoroughly broken person who cannot think straight, act as I ought, or speak right. Therefore the Bible is going to tell me to do and change things I don’t want to do and change. I need to recognise that God knows best and should be obeyed. I need to listen humbly, admit the Bible is right, and that I need to change, to get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly except the word planted in me (James 1:21). I need to be ready to listen and obey.
Action Point: Work hard not to fall into the trap of criticising the speaker as a way of avoiding the Bible criticising you. Don’t spend lunch lamenting the speaker’s inadequacies or commending their excellence. Rather discuss the Bible truths and life-changes you are going to focus on from the talk.
The normal place for hearing the Bible taught is your local church. God’s purpose is not to shape a collection of individuals, but to form a community of his people. There is no such thing as a ‘virtual’ church. Though it is great that technology means we can access talks on the Bible from renowned teachers, this must never replace our being regularly in our local church (even if our pastor is not quite as good a speaker as those online!). When we listen to a talk online we are not really listening to what God wants to say to us, but to what God had to say to someone else. It is an echo. When we listen to a talk together we are accountable to one another to listen well. It is more difficult to doze off in church than at home alone. And of course at home, if the recorded speaker starts to address a topic we find uncomfortable, we’re in control to switch them off. That’s why Hebrews 10:24-25 says ‘let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good works. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.’ Though it can be supplemented, nothing can replace hearing the Bible taught in your local church.
Action Point: Make being at church a priority. Regularly going to church to hear your pastor speak to you as part of your community is vital to hearing God’s voice.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says (James 1:22). We need to be those who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering, produce a crop (Luke 8:15). We must not be those who hear words but do not put them into practice (Ezekiel 33:32). A great threat to obedience when it comes to talks in church is entertainment. We live in a world of entertainment and many of us come to church with an expectation to be entertained. Yet the role of the speaker is not to entertain you but, by God’s grace, to change you.
Action Point: Avoid asking questions about how the speaker could change to be more engaging. Instead ask questions about how you should change to become more like Christ.
It is one thing to listen to good talks – and the major part of choosing a church is to make sure whoever does most of the speaking reliably teaches the Bible. But how are we to listen to bad talks that do not explain the Bible reliably, or are so dull it is almost impossible to listen? Good listeners demand and encourage excellence from their Bible teachers.
Action Point: Encourage the good. Focus positively on aspects you want to encourage (which will be far more successful that a long list of complaints). Gently ask for clarity about things that were said which you could not see in the Bible passage. Earn the speaker’s confidence by regularly listening to them, obeying the Bible, and encouraging them where you can. When was the last time you helped one of our regular preachers by giving considered feedback? Or encouraging them in the task by showing how it has made a real difference to you?
*based on a blog post from October 9th 2012 and again in May 2014