One of the most dangerous activities that Christians regularly engage in is passively listening to large quantities of teaching and preaching. There are few other habits of “good religious folk” fraught with such potential for the shriveling of the soul.
(In case you’re wondering, if you’re reading an article on a Christian blog, then you might fit into the category of “good religious folk.”)
The danger is not necessarily that some or all of that teaching and preaching is doctrinal unsound. Bad content presents a danger of its own, of course, but this particular danger exists even when the message passes theological muster. In fact, it threatens the spiritual health of the listener especially when she agrees with or enjoys the message.
Listening to teaching and preaching is a particularly dangerous activity because it is possible that we are listening in such a way that we being inoculated against the very transformation that the message of the Gospel announces.
In the most spiritual of ways, we can become like those who obsessively consume advice on healthy living, feel better about ourselves for doing so, but never allow that vision for healthier living to transform our actual lives.Listening to preaching can inoculate us from the very transformation of the Gospel. Click To Tweet
Becoming Inoculated Against the Gospel
We become inoculated against the Gospel when the truth we’re hearing is not allowed to sink down deep and take root in the grittiness of real, ordinary life. This looks like listening in a way such that lots of input is occurring without meaningful integration – accumulation but no transformation.
It’s not a stretch to surmise that most faithful church attendees take in more teaching and preaching than they are able to process meaningfully. By Tuesday of every week, how often are we still actively seeking to trust in concrete ways the Gospel truth we heard on Sunday?
We tend to hear and accumulate more content than we are able to live-out and trust. As our “hearing” continues to outpace our “trusting,” we slowly develop the dangerous habit of gorging ourselves on spiritual content and never doing anything about it.
Habitually hearing-without-trusting Gospel truth leaves no space for that truth to get real in the places that matter most, and when that happens, we are simply being preached to death.
The danger of Gospel inoculation is exactly what James gets stirred up about in the first chapter of his Epistle. His point is not simply that it’s preferable to move beyond hearing the word. The danger is more insidious than that. James warns that hearing-without-trusting leads to self-deception. We may feel good about everything we’ve heard, but we’re actually becoming increasingly unresponsive to God’s grace, and we probably don’t realize it.
Jesus, too, was acutely aware of the danger of Gospel inoculation. After casting vision for how to seek first God’s kingdom (Matthew 5-7), he invites those who want to become spiritual wise (not just spiritually bloated) to “build their house on” his teaching – that is, to respond by actively trusting Jesus with the whole of their lives.
The person who listens only, even with great interest, stands on unstable ground and is destined for collapse – not because they are being punished for being bad, but rather because they never allowed the Gospel to take root in the gritty places of real life.
The testimony of Scripture is clear on this point: there is no automatic correlation between consumption of content about God and growth in love for God. The point, in fact, is that we can become bloated with loads of great spiritual content, but without space to metabolize what we’ve ingested, we become hardened to the transformative power of God’s Word. The religious teachers of Jesus’ day are a perfect case in point.
How Do We Resisting the Danger of Gospel Inoculation?
One of the worst things we can do is stop listening. Slowing the flow of spiritual content might be in order, but spiritual transformation always begins with listening for God’s voice. Lopping off every opportunity for hearing the proclamation of the Gospel would only make us less sensitive to Gospel truth.
That means one of the best things we can do is adopt a new posture of listening: a posture that primes us to be responsive when we hear the Good News of God in Christ.
Some of us have learned to listen for accuracy. In this posture, the primary question we’re processing as we listen is “Do I agree or disagree?” We know we’ve listened well when we’ve successfully picked apart the theological errors or nuances.
Some of us have learned to listen for entertainment. In this posture, the primary question we’re processing as we listen is “Did I get something out of this?” We know we’ve listened well when heard something new, interesting, or even challenging.
Neither of these postures primes us to actively trust the word we hear. In fact, both postures misunderstand what the Gospel is for. They turn us into passive consumers of spiritual goods. We often walk away feeling better about ourselves without opening space for the Gospel to get real in our life.
But Jesus invites those who follow him and want to become more like him to listen for transformation. This is a complete shift of posture from the first two alternatives. When we listen for transformation, the primary question we’re processing is, “What is the Good News in Christ and how am I being invited to respond in trust?”Listen to preaching for accuracy or entertainment? Jesus invites us to listen for transformation. Click To Tweet
We know we’ve listened well when we walk away dialoging with God and others about how to surrender a concrete area of our life to God’s grace. Sometimes we leave feeling encouraged, but often we do not because the Spirit has disrupted our status quo and is leading us on the hard-but-good journey of heart renovation.
But it doesn’t stop there. Listening for transformation must always give way to creating space for learning to trust with our bodies what we’ve heard with our ears so that our hearts will continue to be molded in the shape of Jesus’ heart.
At this point is where we realize, given the limits on our energy and time, that transformation in Christ might break forth in our life in new ways if we simply slowed the flow of teaching and preaching in order to process and live out just one word from Jesus.