Expository Listening


In the Shema Yisrael, hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one[1], God’s people are commanded to hear before they are commanded to speak. In the Second Testament, there are several admonitions to hear what the Spirit says to the churches[2]. Jesus’ parable of the sower begins with Now Listen (Mark 4:3, CEV) and ends with, If you have ears, pay attention (Mark 4:9, CEV).

I have been hearing preaching nearly all my life. A product of a historic African American middle-class Baptist Church in the Bronx, NY, I was raised and nurtured on good preaching. When I was about twelve years old, I started listening. I started intently listening to everything the church presented. I was a sponge. Many of us have ears and are physically capable of hearing. Is it possible to be capable of hearing yet fail to listen to what is being presented? Is there a difference between hearing and listening?

In this blog I will (1) define listening, (2) Give a brief review of listener theory, (3) Argue for the importance of having trained listeners in society and the church, (4) Present findings from a ,survey I distributed to parishioners who hear sermons every week and (5) Articulate the challenges that come out of this research.


Hearing is a physical act wherein sound is received and detected by our eardrums and is then transmitted to the brain, where it is then processed. Listening is a mental act wherein the hearer decides to engage the sound(s) being made.

“Listening is distinct from ‘hearing’, but not separate. Although it can be useful analytically to distinguish between listening and hearing, the distinction is not a straightforward one, nor should it be mapped simply onto the problematic binaries of mind and body, culture and nature, cognition and perception. One definition of listening is the active direction of the sense of hearing.”[3] Whereas hearing is rather passive, listening is the difficult work of manipulating sounds until they make sense.“Listening is the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages”[4] Judie Brownell summarizes some other helpful definitions, referring to listening as the ability to understand spoken language or as the process of taking what you hear and organizing it into verbal units to which you can apply meaning. Brownell also sees listening as a process that includes hearing, attending to, evaluating, and responding to spoken messages[5]

Listener Theory

We actively speak. We actively write. We actively read. We passively hear. In nearly every speaking event which takes place, one is not hearer only. Rather, one switches roles and becomes, in the words of Claire Humphrey-Jones, a “speaker-hearer”.[6]  In a speaking event (sermon, lecture, monologue) the hearer alternates several times during the event. She is a first a hearer, then “speaks” by a response that may or may not be verbal. Then she is a hearer again and so on. As a preacher, I am, in the preaching event, a speaker. Simultaneously, I am listening to those to whom I preach. Some of their feedback is vocal/oral. At other times I am “listening” to body language as the listeners respond to me in varied ways. The listeners, by their responses to me, become proclaimers and we exchange places in the rhetorical/oratorical dance. In one of our colloquy sessions, students from two different traditions were comparing the absence and presence of vocal feedback during a sermon. The term call and response was used. Our instructor reminded us that every worship setting is a call and response setting. If a person falls asleep, he is responding. If a congregant walks out because the preacher went long, she is responding. In any given preaching event, the congregant is both hearer and speaker, as is the preacher. In some literature, this call and response is otherwise named. In his book I Got The Word in Me and I Can Sing It, You Know, Gerald L. Davis describes the give and take between proclaimer and listener. Davis describes the style of Anglo-European response to rhetorical presentations as linear. Davis would describe the African American validation model as marked by circularity. Whether the response is linear or circular, the listener is basing her response on that to which she has listened. There is likely no preaching setting in which a listener does not respond in some way.The quality of a listener’s response is directly connected to her/his ability to listen effectively.

“…a listening skill is a behavior, which, if carried out as part of a strategy, will most probably result in the listener perceiving with fair approximation of accuracy an aural message….A skillful listener is one who comprehends the context of the listening instance, produces from his or her repertoire a plan or strategy for selection of the appropriate skills, and executes those chosen skills”.[7]

Judi Brownell, professor of management and organizational behavior at the Cornell School of Hotel Management has written Listening: Attitudes, Principles, and Skills.  Brownell offers us the “HURIER” model, a behavioral approach to listening:

Hearing- Hearing involves the accurate reception of sounds. To hear, you must focus your attention, discriminate among sounds, and concentrate.

Understanding- The ability to understand what you hear- listening comprehension- can be greatly improved with practice. A number of processes involved in listening comprehension are intrapersonal; that is, they take place in your head.                           

Remembering- Remembering is essential if you intend to apply what you have heard to future situations.

Interpreting-When you interpret messages, you do two things. First, you take into account the total communication context so that you are better able to understand the meaning of what was said from the speaker’s point of view. Second, effective listeners let their partners know that they have been understood.

Evaluating-You listen from a unique point of view and are influenced by your perceptual filters- your past experiences, attitudes, personal values, and predispositions. It is therefore impossible not to evaluate, to some extent, everything you hear.

Responding- Your partner makes judgements regarding the quality of your listening based largely on the nature of your response…The HURIER model incorporates your response as an integral part of the listening process.[8]

The Importance of Having Trained Listeners in Culture and the Church

In an article in the journal, Listening Professional, Paula T. Bartholome addresses the civility of listening. She asks, “How differently- and more effectively- would we function as a society, community, organization or family if we genuinely practiced listening well? What common ground would we discover and be able to build on? How would behavior change when individuals were shown the respect of being given undivided attention while they spoke? What might we learn about our world, our conflicts, others and ourselves?[9] Literature aimed toward, and written by, the business community, speaks of the importance of leaders developing listening skills so that their enterprises flourish. I suggest that the culture in which we live and operate will flourish as well. Madelyn Burley Allen is correct: “There are few rewards for listening- mainly punishments for not listening….We are rewarded when we do well at reading, speaking, and writing, but listening skill wins little direct praise.”[10]If congregants are taught how to listen or are given a set of listening skills, ministry and congregational life are enhanced.Given the preeminence of preaching in the tradition of which this writer is a part, one could conclude that the emphasis should be on proclamation. Proclamation, however, has little weight unless received by hearers who have become (or are becoming) astute listeners. Listening with intentionality is a profound indication of how one values another person. The contemporary worship service is media rich and places significant emphasis on what the worshiper will see. However, if we see only and do not also hear, we will be spiritually malnourished.

The hearing ear and the seeing eye. The Lord has made them both. (Proverbs 20:12; NKJV)

Optimally, congregational life is transactional, interpersonal and intrapersonal. That is, when a speaker-hearer event takes place, something happens among us and in us. A mind is made more closed or open; an idea is espoused and embraced; a promise is made, received, broken or kept; a challenge is accepted and risen to. The metaphors we use to describe listening suggest that listening is not effortless. We pay attention, as if there is some cost to listening. We listen up, as if there is some aspirational/climbing aspect to the task. We give a speaker our undivided attention as if listening has a rival. We speak of getting the message through, as if a conduit is being used. We ask, “How did the sermon come across?”, as if some moat of comprehension had to be crossed in the proclamation event.[11] Perhaps more astute listening is not developed in our congregations because the settings in which we operate, allow listening without interaction with others. We often listen to sermons, lectures and speeches and are not obligated (or invited) to respond in any way. I maintain that we get a better end product, a maturing faith community, if we argue for listening as a communal event. That is, we receive the word of God together and that shared heard word enhances our lives together. In addition to our working diligently to become competent servant leaders, I maintain that we ought to work hard at better listening.

Survey Findings

The laboratory in which this research was conducted is the Crossroads Presbyterian Church of Stone Mountain, Georgia. Established in 1974 as an initiative of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, this church has had a relatively stable witness for 46 years. Situated for all its life on the southwest corner of Panola and Redan, the church was once all European. Today, it is an interracial, interethnic, international congregation of about 150. At last count there were people from eighteen nations represented in our church. It is as spiritually diverse as it is demographically and geographically. We have many who are maturing, growing, engaged disciples of Jesus. We have others who attend public worship out of habit and who do not participate in anything other than Sunday morning worship. Still others are somewhere between those two poles. Many in our congregation are seasoned worshippers and give themselves to every aspect of the worship experience. They take notes while the sermon is being preached. They sing the songs with great enthusiasm. They give substantially, to support the financial needs of the church. They listen to all that is presented. I have served as the Senior Pastor-Teacher of this congregation since January 1, 2014. The congregation listens well. Their body language suggests an entering in, during the preaching. As part of this research, I distributed a survey both before and after a seminar I presented, titled How To Become A Better Listener. Before the seminar, 54 respondents completed a survey about listening habits and preferences.

  • The majority of listeners (67%) described themselves as attentive.
  • 61% of respondents preferred a sermon or other verbal presentation to be 30-40 minutes in length.
  • Most (96%) said that they found the last verbal presentation they heard, to be engaging.
  • 90% of respondents could summarize the recently heard presentation, without notes, to a friend the next day.
  • Two thirds of respondents (66%) looked around the room and found others as engaged as they were.
  • A little more than a third of respondents (38%) were distracted by others talking around them. Another third (33%) found their own thoughts to be a distraction.
  • When distracted, 75% of respondents focus or re-focused their attention on the speaker or the presentation. Praying worked for another 10% of the respondents, while 7% closed their eyes and blocked out the distracting sound or person.

After the seminar, twenty-six persons completed another survey[12].

  • Nearly half the respondents (46%) identified comprehension listening as their dominant type of listening.
  • I was surprised to read that half the respondents (50%) marked pathos as the Aristotelian mode most important to them.
  • Of 25 respondents to question three, 84% stated that they, as a result of the seminar, listen differently.
  • 100% of respondents agreed that hearing is physical and listening is mental.

The Challenges

The challenge of this research is how to keep the implementation going. In the post-seminar survey, I asked if the subjects were listening differently as a direct result of the seminar. 84% of the respondents answered in the affirmative. Just as a preacher seeks to improve her/his skills as proclaimer, the ideal listener would want to continue learning how to listen well. I turn to the metaphor of the dance and suggest that the execution of the steps, the choreography of listening, must be practiced repeatedly. There is a place for a kind of listening that is not interpersonal or transactional, except in a very subjective, personal way. The congregant who would be a better listener will practice listening, alone or in community. She will engage oratory often. He will listen to the radio and aim to retain what he heard. She will rehearse the substance of the lecture, the sermon, the monologue. He will literally lean forward sometimes, trying to “listen”.

The poem, “Sermon”, by Herbert F. Brokering, articulates what I hope happens when I preach to and with the faith community called Crossroads.

It was a sermon.

Not the best but the only one for this day.

I could have slept, with some of the others

But I did not.

I never do.

I had to stay ready, waiting and ready for his sentence.

Ready for the one sentence that was worth it all.

I always come to hear all of it for the sake of the one sentence.

All his preparing and all my listening is for the one sentence.

When he says it, I will hear it.

There are thought gaps.

Things he leaves out.


I fill in the gaps as he goes along,

What he does not say to us I say to myself.

He does not try to say it all.

He leaves blanks and spaces for me to fill in.

I do.

He does not know when he says his big sentence.

I know.

It’s when all the words become one word.

When all the thoughts become one thought.

It’s when the words become like flesh and blood to me.

My flesh and blood, Lord.[13]



[1] Deuteronomy 6:4

[2] Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22

[3] Kate Lacey, Listening Publics: The Politics and Experience of Listening in the Media Age. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), 17

[4] www.listen.org

[5] Judi Brownell, Listening: Attitudes, Principles, and Skills (New York: Routledge, 2018), 52

[6] Claire Humphreys-Jones, “Make, make do and mend: the role of the hearer in misunderstandings,” in Language For Hearers, ed. Graham McGregor (Pergamon Press, 1986), 106

[7] Alice Ridge, “A Perspective of Listening Skills.” in Perspectives on Listening, eds. Andrew D. Wolvin and Carolyn Gwynn Coakley (Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation,1993), 4

[8] Judi Brownell, Listening: Attitudes, Principles, and Skills (New York: Routledge, 2018), 15-16

[9] Paula T. Bartholome, “The Civility of Listening”, Listening Professional Vol. 2, issue 1 (Summer 2003):9

[10] Madelyn Burley -Allen, Listening:The Forgotten Skill, A Self-Teaching Guide(New York:John Wiley & Sons,1995),37

[11] Andrea Vickery, “‘Listening Enables Me to Connect with Others’: Exploring College Students’ (Mediated) Listening Metaphors,” International Journal of Listening 32, no.2 (May-August 2018):69-84.


[12] The survey consisted of four questions and a statement with which the respondent could agree or disagree.

  1. Of the six kinds of listening of which Pastor Farmer spoke, which one is dominant in you?
  2. Of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion(pathos, logos, ethos), which one is most important to you?
  3. Do you listen differently as a direct result of having attended the seminar?
  4. Pastor Farmer suggested that hearing is a physical act and listening is a mental act. Do you agree?
  5. My listening skills can be improved, and I can become a better, more focused listener. (This statement then had an agree/disagree scale attached to it)


[13] Herbert F. Brokering, “Sermon”, from Uncovered Feelings (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 24-25


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