Monday, January 31, 2011

Expositional Listeners?

A few years ago Thabiti Anyabwile wrote a book entitled What is a Healthy Church Member?  It is a sort of continuation of Mark Dever's thoughts in Nine Marks of the Healthy Church.  As I begin, let me say that I respect Anyabwile a great deal, enjoy listening to him speak, and appreciate his stand for the gospel.

In this post I'd like to take issue with one of Anyabwile's main points in What is a Healthy Church Member?

According to Anyabwile, "The first and most important mark of a healthy church is expositional preaching."  Anyabwile goes on to say that in response to this a healthy church member should be what he refers to as an "Expositional Listener."  He defines expositional listening as, "Listening for the meaning of a passage of scripture and accepting that meaning as the main idea to be grasped for our personal and corporate lives as Christians."

Now I certainly agree that we should be good listeners. Our society as a whole would benefit from more listening and less talking.  As the church gathers, may we all listen before we speak.

As we listen to someone teaching scripture, we should be trying to understand the meaning of the biblical text.  We hope that the person teaching is accurately teaching just that.  Up to this point I agree with Anyabwile.

The problem is that he stops there.  The clear implication is that the "expository listener" is to sit quietly and listen to what is being preached. Anyabwile fails to suggest that in any way the listener should also participate verbally (at least during the gathering).  The author appears to believe that although the listener should be active intellectually, he should be passive in terms of outward involvement.

Anyabwile continues by listing several ways that "members can cultivate the habit of expositiory listening."  One of his suggestions actually says, "Talk and pray with friends about the sermon after church."  Sigh.  So the vast majority of the church family doesn't get to participate in the discussion of the scriptures until after the gathering has concluded.

At one point in this chapter, Anyabwile mentions "benefits of expostional listening."  He lists as one benefit that  expositional listening "encourages faithful pastors."  He writes, "Those men who serve faithfully in the ministry of the Word are worthy of double honor (I Tim. 5:17).  Few things are more discouraging and dishonoring to such men than a congregation inattentive to the Word of God.  Faithful men flourish at the fertile reception of the preached Word."  The author appears to want us to sit quietly to encourage the preacher.

This chapter as a whole is extremely troubling to me for three reasons. First, Anyabwile appears to believe that "expositional listening" is the most important aspect of being a healthy church member.  Second, by emphasizing listening apart from active participation, he encourages a passive laity.  Third, this chapter stresses the difference between the preacher and the member.  It fosters the idea of a strong clergy-laity divide.

Thabiti Anyabwile is a solid Christian man with a true love for the Lord.  I have learned from him in many areas.  Despite this, his ideas on this particular topic (expositional listening) do not correspond to what we see in the bible.  The scriptures show us a church where every person was actively involved.  Participation was emphasized.  There was no clergy-laity divide.  Teaching was important, but preaching was for the lost.

If we desire to follow the scriptural model, we must let it speak and put away man-made ideas about church gatherings.  We must be scripture-driven people in all aspects of church life.


Al Shaw said...

Good response.

I agree that "listening" can be seen by many as a mark of orthodoxy or maturity, whereas it seems to me that "doing" has to be at least as important!

Aussie John said...


I have heard, an dread similar messages.

None of these mentioned that the hearers need to critique everything, no matter whom the speaker or writer is, in the light of Scripture.

During my preaching ministry I reminded people from time to time that they had a responsibility to hear/read what I said or wrote, but also to compare what I said with the Scriptures.

The more I see and hear today, the more I believe this is vitally important.

Richie said...

Eric, thanks for sharing.

I think having active church members that get up and speak and share their hearts opens us up to all kinds of problems, the congregation would devour itself, false doctr--erm, wait...

The scriptures has clear instructions on maintain order in our meetings, for a reason.

It was assumed that once in awhile, you'd get self-serving people speaking. I think it was through this process people would get the sense of who was speaking from the Spirit and who wasn't...

If anything, the chaos we fear so much -- would actually strengthen the church.

Eric said...

Al, John, and Richie,

Thanks for the comments. It seems that listening to a preacher is so ingrained that few ever question it. Sadly, it breeds passivity. I'm not sure what the answer is other than to begin talking with others about it and challenging them to ask questions. The church must become more active in order to make a difference in society.

Richie said...

I would also add that the best way to detect faulty preaching is so utterly basic, and could be summed up in 2 Cor 11:3. If the over-arching message isn't Christ, then it is rubbish.

No better way to distinguish the true from the false than to have a relationship with the truth, and time spent in the Word of God.

God bless, Richie

Tim A said...

Jay Adams wrote a book that I read 25 years ago when I was learning that "preach the Word in season and..." did not mean lecture the Word in season and.... It was called Consumers Guide to Preaching. It was a rant against lay folks for poor listening habits. At the end was his email for readers to reply to him. (I had never seen that in a book before.) I wrote Jay and showed from the Word and reasonable thinking that the institutionalized approach to preaching was corrupt and produced lethargy and over stuffed saints who never participate. His reply was that I didn't know what I was talking about.

He wrote the book on Competent to Counsel, how believers are to participate in counseling believers. If he really believes what he wrote, then he would know they are also competent to teach and preach, just like the Word says. Sad to say tradition was trumping the truth in his understanding.

Eric said...


I'm always amazed at how strong tradition is. It often causes inconsistency, as you showed with Adams.

In this case the predictable result is a passive laity. It's no surprise that the church has such little impact on our culture at large.

Joel Spencer said...

To put a spin on the cheesy church sign... What's the best vitamin for a church member? DON'T B1. Sorry, couldn't resist. :)

Eric said...


Nice. I like it.