Over the last few weeks I’ve listened to some great sermons: Alistair Begg on finding Christ in the book of Ruth; Tim Keller on the crossing of the Red Sea; James MacDonald on learning from and leaning on Christ; Conrad Mbewe on the coming Christ; Matt Chandler on remembering our Creator. With such an array of internationally-known preachers, you may wonder where I’ve been. I’ll tell you — in a little room in my house in Clydach! The power of the internet meant that whilst I couldn’t travel to Chicago for the Gospel Coalition Conference, I needn’t miss out on the blessing.
For the last few years my wife and I have included listening to a sermon (or usually part of a sermon) as part of our morning devotions. It’s been a real blessing, and I want to share with you some of things that we’ve learned about listening to sermons at home.
Like very Christian, I love listening to Christ-exalting, biblical preaching. So being able to listen to sermons each week, outside of church, is a real pleasure. Hearing preachers from around the world has helped give us a perspective that reaches beyond our own situation. That’s caused us to think through things we wouldn’t otherwise have thought. It’s made us more thankful that we don’t have some of the problems that others face elsewhere. And it’s made us glad to be part of a church that stretches across every continent, and unites people from hundreds of languages and nations.
Listening to preaching outside church has also increased the number of sermons we can listen to. Most days we set aside a short time to focus on a sermon, but we can download sermons onto our phones or MP3 players and listen in the car, or whilst doing mundane work — redeeming the time, and turn a boring period into an inspiring moment. It’s a great substitute for listening to music (and definitely for having the television on in the background).
Another joy has been the sheer quality of biblical teaching. We’ve listened to men whom God is particularly blessing, often preaching into situations where they’re being particularly held up in prayer. That combination — God’s people praying, and God blessing — results in glorious Spirit-empowered preaching that’s both immensely challenging as God points His finger at your own sins, and uplifting as we reflect on the glory of Christ.
But alongside the joys, we’ve also noticed some dangers, because preaching is best heard not over the internet, but in your own local church. Listening to preaching in other contexts is obviously not wrong, but it is second-best. So long as we remember that, we’re safe — but if we ever forget it, we could be in real danger.
Perhaps you’re not convinced that listening to the likes of Alistair Begg, Don Carson or Joel Beeke could possibly be second-best compared to hearing preaching in your own church (‘you haven’t heard the preaching in our church’, I hear you say!). But if you’re in a gospel church, that’s the best place to listen to preaching. Let me explain why.
One of the biggest dangers is that we become sermon tasters, listening to what our itching ears want to hear. Outside of church we can choose exactly what we want to listen to. Don’t like the theological challenge of Don Carson? Don’t listen. Don’t like the pointed application of Alistair Begg? Switch him off. Don’t like the contemporary engagement of Tim Keller? Click another button. Yet in church, the pastor and elders prayerfully consider a balanced diet of preaching. Christians faced with the whole internet to choose sermons from are a bit like children in the pantry when their mother’s away. We head straight for the cakes and don’t eat our greens. It’s not good for us.
This problem can be compounded if we only listen to preaching whilst we’re doing something else like cooking or driving. We have an incredible ability to not pay attention if something else grabs our focus. Has your wife ever surprised you by suddenly switching the television off or snatching the newspaper away and demanded to know why you didn’t answer her!? If we can do that when our spouse is speaking, we can do it with preaching. We’ll get distracted by the traffic or the pan bubbling over, and before we know it we’ve missed several minutes of the message. You might think we get distracted during the boring bits, but often we get distracted during the parts we need to hear most. Such is the sinner’s heart.
Sometimes we also forget that the sermon is only a small part of worship. God designed the church because He wanted to bring Christians together. We can listen to sermons at home — even sermons from our own church — but we’re still missing out on the blessing of being with our brothers and sisters, of praying, worshipping and sitting together with them under the word of God. Being part of a church means we receive the discipline of a church, it means we can serve other members and they can serve us. Listening to a sermon online can never substitute for genuine face-to-face interaction with those whom God has placed around us.
Finally, if we forget that listening to preaching at home is second-best, inevitably we start to think that listening to preaching at church is second-best. We compare our minister with the best preachers in the world, and he doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. How could he? But your minister doesn’t stand a chance not because the guys online are better preachers, but because the guys online are not real — or at least they’re not real to you. They’ve never made you sit through a really bad sermon — because they didn’t upload that one to their site, or if they did you skipped it after the first few minutes. They’ve never failed to understand you, and never upset you by personally challenging you. In short, the preachers you listen to online don’t care about you — but the preacher in your own church does. No matter how clever his alliteration, how profound his thinking, or how funny his illustrations, remember that the preacher online never looks you in the eye, and never silently prays for you when he notices sadness or boredom or joy come into your face whilst he’s preaching. He never returns home from church after a hard day’s preaching and brings you before the throne of grace. However gifted he may be, however much a blessing to his own church, remember that for you, the preacher you listen to online is always second-best.
I don’t want the potential dangers to put you off from listening to great preaching from around the world. So here are eight suggestions that will help you experience the joys and avoid the dangers:
- Never allow listening online be a substitute for being fully involved in your own church.
- Don’t be too narrow in what you listen to — you may reinforce your own prejudices and never hear what you need to hear. Listen to lots of preachers with many different styles.
- Be discerning in what you listen to — there’s more bad preaching than good out there. If you don’t know where to look, ask you pastor, or check the suggestions in the box.
- Speak to others in your church — particularly your elders and pastor — about the sermons you hear and the preachers you listen to.
- Don’t just listen to men preach at conferences — also listen to people preaching in their own church. Often that’s more helpful over the longer term.
- If you can, watch a preacher as well as listen. You’ll find that good preaching involves more than just the voice.
- If you can, stop and listen, rather than listen whilst you work. You’ll benefit much more.
- Finally, remember to pray about what you hear. You need the Holy Spirit to apply His truth to your heart.
Great sites to find good sermons:
- SermonAudio – one of the largest sites with nearly half a million audio sermons and several thousand on video. The preachers are nearly all ‘ordinary’ preachers, not preaching superstars, and all from conservative reformed evangelical churches. emw.org.uk/sa
- The Gospel Coalition – around 45,000 sermons from a wide variety of gospel-centred evangelical preachers. There’s great variety here, and many of the preachers will be familiar names – from Christopher Ash to E.J. Young. emw.org.uk/tgc
- Sermons from some well-known churches:
- Belvedere Road, Liverpool (www.emw.org.uk/brl)
- Bethlehem Baptist, Minneapolis (www.emw.org.uk/bbm)
- Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington (www.emw.org.uk/chbc)
- Grace Community Church, Sun Valley (www.emw.org.uk/gcc)
- Heritage Netherlands Reformed, Michigan (www.emw.org.uk/hnr)
- Mars Hill, Seattle (www.emw.org.uk/mh)
- Metropolitan Tabernacle, London (www.emw.org.uk/mt)
- Parkside Church, Cleveland, Ohio (www.emw.org.uk/pcco)
- Westminster Chapel, London (www.emw.org.uk/wcl — not free, though)
- Evangelical churches in Wales with large online sermon collections:
- Alfred Place, Aberystwyth (www.emw.org.uk/ap)
- Bethel, Clydach (www.emw.org.uk/bc)
- Bethel, Gorseinon (www.emw.org.uk/bg)
- Ebenezer, Bangor (www.emw.org.uk/eb)
- Ebenezer, Swansea (www.emw.org.uk/es)
- Emmanuel, Newport (www.emw.org.uk/en)
- Heath, Cardiff (www.emw.org.uk/hc)
- Highfields, Cardiff (www.emw.org.uk/hf)
- St Mellons, Cardiff (www.emw.org.uk/stm)
- Tabernacle, Cardiff (www.emw.org.uk/tc)