With the prevalence of sermon podcasts and the free access to millions of hours of teaching and preaching, we need some practical discernment in how to listen.
I listen to about ten to twelve hours of sermons per week, sometimes twenty. That’s not to brag, as you’ll soon see. I’ve learned some things from being a so-called sermon junkie. Some good, some pretty bad.
Here first is the bad news, with proposed solutions.
1) Listening to certain sermon podcasts is NOT a badge of authenticity.
A buffet of famous preachers can make you extremely arrogant, super-fast. Not only doctrinally, but also the way we listen to sermons. It’s easy to review them, like the latest summer movie, and the language is nearly the same: “Did you see that one? It was so funny. Really deep. Yeah I hated the ending too, it went on too long. Overall I recommend it, you should watch it with your girlfriend.” And when someone hasn’t seen it or disagrees with you, there’s an elitist movie buff mentality: “Well he just doesn’t get it. He only likes the shallow stuff.”
To borrow a term from James MacDonald, some us listen to sermons like we’re “wine-tasting.” If there’s a taste of Calvin-Spurgeon-Luther-Piper, the doctrine police will approve. Anything else must call for a burning at the stake.
We consider having “seen that sermon” or “gone to that revival” or “went to that conference” as a mark of Authentic Christianhood. We hold up podcasts like trophies because it conforms to the Christian ghetto of Doctrinally Sound Super-Christian, which is really a secret fear of rejection from the piously religious. No one wants to be ran over by the wrath of the Reformed Calvinist, who is ready at every moment to stamp you with the heresy label. And if we are showing off enough, well hey: we don’t have to submit to the internal work of transformation.
Solution: We know this is stupid, but sin makes us stupid. I’ve had to stop bragging about the podcasts I listen to, instead just sharing those sermons that convicted me so that others might be convicted. And really, no one looks more lame than the guy comparing podcasts and gasping at the ones you don’t listen to. A movie-snob is barely tolerable; a sermon-snob is a Pharisee begging to be punched in the face.
2) It’s possible to listen to hundreds of sermons without a single ounce of transformation.
I’ve been able to listen to hours and hours of sermons as passively receiving information instead of embracing real conviction. I’m not proud to say so, but with all honesty, it’s our heart’s predisposed condition to critique things instead of really connecting with them. It’s not totally our fault: churches offer up services more like glammed up rockshows; modern conferences are more or less concerts with preachy morals.
I’ve heard a seminary professor once say, “What you win them with, you win them to” — and the mark of our era is that we want to be entertained with light non-offensive fluff for an hour to get on with our regular lives, and it’s easier then to keep a distance of treating it all as consumptive media. It’s also easy to say, “That was really good” instead of “God is totally good.”
Solution: I’ve had to actively seek God’s Word when I listen to preaching. To desire, hunger, and thirst for an encounter with God. This immediately filters out many popular pastors who hardly speak about God Himself, the ones who are so practical that it sounds like a shop class on fix-it-yourself mechanics. I’ve had to stop listening like a funnel, thinking “How-Can-I-Preach-This-Too” to my own church. It takes a deliberate effort to not listen for the preacher, but to hear the Word of God.
3) Famous preachers can easily spoil me about what I expect from a sermon and a church.
World class speakers are supernaturally talented, hardly stuttering nor lost for words nor unorganized. They are gifted. They have a clarity of thought and ease of stage like they’ve been seasoned for a lifetime. So we expect our local home-church pastor to be the same way, but most people who speak for a living are not this polished: because only a tiny fraction of the world is really this gifted.
Solution: We could really be more forgiving for the stutters, stammers, and halfway lost sermon points. It’s not easy to speak in public, and most pastors who do the gritty groundwork of ministry do not prioritize the honing of this single craft. A pastor who is best known for his speaking is not really doing his job anyway.
4) Every single pastor’s default setting is legalism, so listen with discernment and remember Jesus.
This might sound like an exaggeration, but every single sermon I have ever heard (including from myself) runs into some type of legalism. Famous preachers who sound like they “get it” are not above this. That’s not an attack on anyone, but just a claim on reality. Whether it’s subtle or overt, it’s there. It’s because there’s no perfect pastor and every human heart naturally wants to save itself.
When a pastor preaches practical steps or a “takeaway,” suddenly people latch onto the application and tend to forget Jesus. Again, it’s not always the pastor’s fault this happens, but simply the default mode of our hearts. People got mixed up with Jesus, too.
Solution: No matter how hard a pastor tries, the sermon will always confuse our work with God’s work. Most people think we have to do what the pastor says in order to be good with God, and even when the pastor yells grace the entire hour, we fall back to religious pragmatism. I’ve never found a pastor who successfully preaches grace, which is all the more reason we must continually remember that every ounce of empowerment, deliverance, and capacity to do what God requires comes from God alone.
Now for the good news.
5) I can disagree with certain points without yelling accusations of heresy, blasphemy, and apostasy.
Not every pastor gets it right. There is no inerrant pastor; only the inerrant Word. We should give room to disagree on secondary points that do not conflict with the primary core, and we can be gracious to pastors who are still learning, growing, and repenting: just like we all are.
To harp on this one more time, the Neo-Reformed Calvinist movement has done a great job of bringing us back to basics, but has done a horrible job of loving on real human beings. That’s called division, which is pretty much doing Satan’s work for him. I recognize I’m now doing what I’m accusing others of, but I really do grieve for unity.
The ivory tower of self-validating superiority is not only arrogant and alienating, but ridiculously hurtful to the church. I’ve never been more attacked online than by the Neo-(Nazi)-Calvinists. If we could all just sit down together over coffee and see that we are real human beings, at least a few of us would cut the crap and you know, maybe love like Jesus does.
6) With the right heart and humility, you can really grow from sermon podcasts.
Some sermons have changed my life. That’s certainly a cliche, but cliches come from the truth. In the car, on a lonely road, with my iPod playing a sermon on my tiny screen, I’ve felt the Spirit demolishing oppressive strongholds. It was in fact this sermon that convicted me to donate half my income to charity. That was on a regular day of the week on the way to eat dinner. Encountering God can happen anywhere.
No, listening to dozens of podcasts does not make you a better Christian. But listening can set up an opportunity to meet God and be transformed into the person He has called us to be. One single sentence or a sermon illustration can set us free by grace towards God’s greatness. Every real response to God is a greater humility: to see that we need Him, we need grace, we need His Spirit. I believe Scripture and prayer are the disciplines to get there, but sermon podcasts can move us there, too.
7) After a while, you really learn to love these people.
It’s easy to criticize pastors from a soundbite or their varying viewpoint on sexuality. We can dump on a pastor for that one controversial sermon, that one time he messed up on core doctrine, that one time he blew up.
But listening to these pastors talk about their families, struggles, conflicts, their heart for the church, their personal interaction with people, their life stories, and their testimonies really gives them a broader picture of who they are. They have kids. They have fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams, like all of us do. They become real people with real problems. It’s like breaking the illusion of a perfect parent or photoshopped celebrity: they’re just people, too. After hours of podcasts, I can sense their brokenness and humanity.
Of course, any pastor could fake this (and some do). You can tell. But that still doesn’t absolve us from loving on them: even the ones you can’t stand. Jesus loves them too.
Here are some preachers/podcasts I regularly listen to.
– Francis Chan, Timothy Keller, Matt Chandler, James MacDonald, Ravi Zacharias, David Platt, Andy Stanley, Louie Giglio, Craig Groeschel, Alistair Begg, John Piper, Hershael York, Jake English, SEBTS Podcast, Resurgence, The Gospel Coalition