Relevant biblical preaching: the art of double listening.

Relating God's unchanging Word to our ever-changing world.

John Stott, D.D., is the
founder, director, and
honorary president of
the London Institute
for Contemporary
Studies, and author of
more than 40 books.

Derek Morris is
professor of preaching
and pastoral theology
at Southern Adventist
University, Collegedale,

Derek Morris: Dr. Stott, I really appreciate your willingness to share with us your thinking about relevant biblical preaching. In your book on preaching, entitled Between Two Worlds, there is one sentence that particularly caught my attention: "Humble listening is indispensable to relevant preaching."1 Could we begin there?

John R. W. Stott: I'm glad you picked that out. Actually I would like to talk now about double listening.2 By double listening, I mean listening, of course, to God and to the Word of God, but listening to the voices of the modern world as well. Now, I make it clear that in listening to the modern world, we are not listening with the same degree of respect as that with which we listen to the voice of God. We listen to Him in order to believe and obey what He says. We listen to the modern world, not in order to believe and obey what it says, but in order to understand its cries of pain, the sighs of the oppressed. And it seems to me that relevant communication grows out of this process of double listening.

DM: Does this double listening begin by first listening to God?

JRWS: I don't know that it must be first. I think if we are listening to the voices of the modern world, we grow in an understanding and appreciation of their pain and their misunderstanding of the gospel. The more aware we are of the context around us, the more urgent becomes our listening to God in order to hear a word from Him that is relevant to their pain. So I don't know that it matters which comes first or whether you're listening to both simultaneously. The important thing is to listen to both and not only to one. Of course, the liberal tends to listen only to modernity, and the conservative tends to listen only to God. It is the double listening that seems to me to be most needed.

DM: Let's talk about some ways that you have sought to listen carefully to the modern world. One of the exciting concepts that you mention in your book Between Two Worlds is the idea of a reading group. Could you share with us about the focus of a reading group?

JRWS: Well, in this business of relevance, I felt that I myself, and probably my friends, spent enough time studying the Word and theological books that helped us to understand the Word. My major weakness was a lack of understanding of the modern mind, of what was actually going on around me. So the purpose of starting the reading group was very deliberately to oblige us to listen more attentively and intelligibly to the modern world. I invited about 15 young professional people in our congregation to join the reading group: a couple doctors, a couple lawyers, an architect, and a BBC person, etc., all of whom were committed to the gospel, the biblical gospel, and all of whom were modern young men and women eager to relate the gospel to the modern world. We used to meet every other month. And we still meet over 20 years later.3 We met only last week, when, for example, we studied a book on economics: The State We 're In, by Will Mutton.4 And the book before that was The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins.5

DM: What determines the books you read?

JRWS: It is spontaneous from the group, and we try to be up-to-date. We studied a number of New Age books. These are not Christian books about the New Age, but actual New Age books. We read them in order to understand what New Age is really saying and thinking. I normally let others in the reading group choose, because they are in touch with these books much more closely than I am. At the end of each evening we debate what will be next.

DM: So what is the focus of your discussion? Let's say you read this book on economics. What do you hope to get out of the reading besides an awareness of what the book says? Is there discussion regarding how to respond to it in a Christian way?

JRWS: Yes, we tend to begin by going around the room. Everybody is given maybe 30 seconds to identify the major issue they felt the book raises for Christian people. And then at the end of the evening we ask ourselves the question "What has the gospel to say to people who think like this?" The reading group doesn't always answer this question as sharply as I think they should, but that is the purpose, the aim of doing it.

DM: If someone were to try to get a reading group started, what suggestions would you make about the formation of a group?

JRWS: When I lecture on preaching, I often mention the reading group concept. I suggest that if you haven't got enough professional people in your congregation, then share with two or three other congregations, including two or three ministers. I think it could be done almost anywhere.

DM: In addition to your reading group, I noticed that you also utilized ad hoc resource groups from your series of sermons on issues facing Christians. This is another example of seeking to listen carefully to the modern world. Could you share with us why you formed these resource groups?

JRWS: Yes, it was the sense that in relating the Word to the world, I probably knew the Word more thoroughly and deeply than the congregation did because it was obviously my study. But I felt that the areas in which I was relating the Word to the world were in many cases areas about which I was ignorant. I recognized that there were professional members in the congregation who were much more knowledgeable than I, and that to have an ad hoc group of experts in their field would be very valuable.6 So usually my study assistant would gather the group together. He would gather about eight people, and very often on a Sunday afternoon we would have two to two and a half hours together. I would tend to ask them questions because I knew, roughly speaking, how I was going to handle the topic. And I would then sit back and listen to them as they debated the answer. For example, one resource group dealt with the issue of work and unemployment.

DM: Yes, and if I remember your book correctly, you had an employer, a personnel controller, and the chaplain to the Oxford Street stores as part of your resource group.

JRWS: And two people who experienced periods of unemployment and knew the trauma.7

DM: At this point you were not asking them how to interpret Scripture, but you were asking them to discuss an issue about which they were well informed.

JRWS: Yes, and there was a different resource group for each topic. Obviously, one couldn't do that weekly, but one could do it monthly or quarterly.8

DM: A third way it seems that you have sought to listen to the modern world is by soliciting feedback regarding your sermons. Where did you get the idea of asking certain people in your congregation to be "lay critics"?

JRWS: At seminary or theological college, as we call it in Britain there is a sermon class or homiletics group in which maybe a dozen of one's peers come and listen to one's preaching. Then on the following day they tear your sermon to pieces. So the idea of having critics is not new, but the idea of continuing the process after one graduates, I think, is fairly unusual. Most students are very glad when that time is over!

DM: But you chose medical students to serve as lay critics to give you evaluation and feedback regarding your sermons.

JRWS: Yes. I suppose a married man's wife is one of his best lay critics. But if, like me, you're a bachelor, then you badly need critics to listen. I deliberately chose the medical students. They are trained in unbiased observation, and I thought they would be in a position to be objective and detached in their evaluation. And of course, I made sure they believed the gospel.

DM: What kind of feedback did you receive from them?

JRWS: Well, obviously the practical things were there, about one's gestures, or one's voice, or one's demeanor in the pulpit all that kind of obvious stuff. But in addition, they were highly intelligent and evangelically well-educated young men, so I was quite happy for them to comment on how I handled the text, whether they thought my hermeneutical principles were sound and whether they agreed with the interpretation of the text.

DM: So you gave them freedom to respond in any way?

JRWS: Absolutely, to anything, and I asked them to put it in writing. The process was helpful.

DM: One fourth way that you have sought to listen carefully was in developing your preaching syllabus, or preaching calendar. How does that work?

JRWS: The staff goes away two or three times a year for a whole day a staff quiet day. And one of the topics on the agenda for that day is our preaching for the next six months, or whatever the time period is. Very often we invite two or three leading laypeople to join us. We ask ourselves the question "Where are we as a congregation in terms of spiritual development and pilgrimage, and what is it that we need?" Out of that debate comes a decision as to what we are going to do next. Normally it would be a choice of a book to expound. And one of the staff may go away and divide the book into sections and suggest titles and how it is to be handled. Sometimes that process will be done in the group. The laypeople are very important, then, because they get feedback from the wider laity. A box is also placed at the back of the church asking people to suggest sermons or given topics in given books. Guidance also comes through our own pastoral counseling with people, where we come to realize their misunderstandings or that there is a need for further enlightenment in some areas.

DM: This process of developing the preaching calendar seems to be sending an important message to the congregation: you want to listen to them. It could also indicate to the congregation that the church has a specific direction that it is seeking to take.

JRWS: Yes, that's right. And that we are taking the trouble to prepare and think about things, not operating in a haphazard way.

DM: What would you say to pastors who feel so overwhelmed in ministry that they believe they don't have the time for double listening or for the preparation of relevant biblical sermons?

JRWS: Well, I would say that every generation needs to relearn the lesson of Acts 6. While we are not apostles, some of the pastoral duties of the apostolate do devolve upon us, particularly in the handling of the Word of God. And it seems to me it's absolutely essential that we should concentrate on that and not allow ourselves to be distracted by administration. Preach on Acts 6 so the congregation can under stand it's their responsibility to set the pastor free to preach the Word!

1 John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The
An of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand
Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982), p. 192.

2 Dr. Stott amplifies this idea in a more recent
publication, The Contemporary Christian: An
Urgent Plea for Double Listening (Leicester,
England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992); the American
printing is also by IVP, 1992, and is entitled simply
The Contemporary Christian.

3 Because of Dr. Stott's increased travel, the
reading group now meets about four times per year.
4 Will Hutton, The State We're In (London:
Vintage, 1996).

5 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Dawkins is an Oxford professor who espouses atheistic and Darwinian views.

6 Dr. Stott suggests that if sufficient or
appropriate resource people are not available
in a particular congregation, people in the
community can be utilized.

7 One of these unemployed individuals had
applied for 43 jobs, had been granted only six
interviews, and was still without work.

8 This series of sermons, which utilized ad hoc
resource groups, eventually appeared in print.
The American version is entitled Decisive Issues
Facing Christians Today
(Old Tappan, NJ:
Revell, 1990). Prior to publishing these
presentations, Dr. Stott gave them in lecture form at
the Institute for Contemporary Christianity, an
educational organization affiliated with the All
Souls Church in London.

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John Stott, D.D., is the
founder, director, and
honorary president of
the London Institute
for Contemporary
Studies, and author of
more than 40 books.

Derek Morris is
professor of preaching
and pastoral theology
at Southern Adventist
University, Collegedale,

January 1997

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