Monday, December 29, 2014

Expository Listening by Ken Ramey (Book Review #123 of 2014)

Expository Listening: A Practical Handbook for Hearing and Doing God's Word

I agree with the author about the importance of biblical, expository preaching but disagree about his rigid adherence to a particular paradigm. Rodney Reeves is one preacher who has shown me you can use the Socratic method in expositing a passage-- asking questions of your audience, as Paul likely did when he reasoned with listeners and skeptics, as a powerful way to keep your audience engaged. Studies have repeatedly found that the "sage on stage" lecture method that Ramey tacitly holds up in this book is one of the least-effective ways to teach as measured by the audience's retention of information. If the preacher's goal is to get your audience to remember God's word and retain his exposition, then he should be more creative than simply following a traditional format. Ramey is like Mark Dever and others who pine for the days of the Puritans and hours-long sermons. Just because the Puritans did it, does not mean it's effective or even necessary. Ironically, Ramey understands James 1:19 ("Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak) to be remarking on the practice common in James' day of people commenting on and asking questions during the sermon. It appears James does not forbid this practice but rather seeks humility and patience among the audience. Since Ramey claims that text gives evidence of that practice, then I would point to it and Acts 17:17 as evidence that there is more than just a one-sided option to expository preaching.

Alistair Begg, for example, believes that expository preaching should be done in under 30 minutes, and he does it in about 25. But I have not found any other expository preachers that hold to that, most don't mind waxing on for an hour. (I got this book by recommendation of Begg's podcast, by the way.) Ramey holds up Begg as a model preacher but does not mention this.

Page 56 holds the best explanation of what biblical (ie: expository) preaching is all about:
"If after listening to a sermon you do not have a better understanding of God's purpose for your life, then you have not heard biblical preaching. You may have received a few practical pointers about how to get along with your spouse, raise your kids, or manage your finances. You may have laughed and even ried and left feeling encouraged and motivated. But what you heard did not truly qualify as biblical preaching. That's not to say the Bible was never referenced. But in the topical/textual style of preaching that has become so popular today, there is a tendency for verses to get skimmed over, or worse, ripped out of their context and used to make a good point but, unfortunately, not the point God intended...'springboard' preaching is the norm, Bibles are faithfully carried and reverently read at the beginning of the sermon but...are never referred to again. In churches where topical sermons are typical, few if any feel the need to bring their Bibles because they are never encouraged to use them since the verses mentioned in the sermon are conveniently displayed on a screen or some kind of fill-in-the-blank sheet in the bulletin."

One aspect I enjoyed was the reminder that sermons do two things: harden and soften hearts. Preachers who see the hardening aspect should not be discouraged, many prophets were told their words would fall on deaf ears and would be used to harden the hearts of the listeners. John Piper is quoted as saying
'Even when preaching the Word of God does not soften and save and heal, it is not necessarily ineffective. This preaching of the Word may be doing God's terrible work of Judgment. It may be hardening people, and making their ears so dull that they will never want to hear again' (p. 29).

The purpose of this book is to put the impetus on the listener both to be attentive and to be a "doer of the Word:"
"Listening is hard work because application is inherent in it. You have to connect the information to your life, to do something about what you hear...Failure to apply a sermon is not just lazy listening; it is sin (James 4:17)" (p. 87).

Ramey closes the book with some suggestions on how to come to church prepared. Ideally, your pastor follows a biblical preaching model of going verse-by-verse through the text so you know what's coming next week. You should already have read and spent time prayerfully meditating on the text, asking God to reveal more understanding to you through your pastor's exposition. Ramey includes tips such as "eat a good breakfast" (p. 112). But mental alertness is a function of many other activities, like mental and physical exercise, that are neglected by Ramey. Who doesn't understand that in order not to be hungry by noon one needs to "eat a good breakfast"?

Ramey writes as though one can never have too much biblical preaching, but this ignores the fact that being doers of the Word requires activities that are not listening to sermons. We can worship God through our work, our singing, playing with our children, etc. Ramey also writes as if people do not have access to expository sermons except by their own pastors on Sunday. I listen to a dozen or so sermons a week by various pastors via podcast (see list on the right). Those sermons can be sped up to save time-- all of us can think and process information faster than we can speak. I recommend that as a good way to get biblical preaching.

In all, this book preaches to the choir which is why it is recommended by so many proverbial choral directors. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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