Archive for November, 2008|Monthly archive page

Preaching and the Lilly Endowment

[third in a series]

The Lilly Endowment is one of the largest, wealthiest private foundations in the United States. Last year, they awarded $333 million in grants.

The endowment supports community projects—but only in the state of Indiana; they support education—but only in the state of Indiana; and they support religion—all over the country.

Which is how and why I found myself engaged with the Endowment while on the faculty of Georgetown College. There I administered a $2 million grant as part of their “theological exploration of vocation” initiative. Georgetown was one of 88 schools in this grant program.

But when I grew restless at Georgetown and sought a new direction for my ministry, it was the Endowment that opened a way forward. In an unplanned and unprepared way, I described for them an idea that had been running around in the back of my head for two years—a national network of young people who aspire to be preachers of the gospel.

I called it The Academy of Preachers.

“What can we do to make this happen?” one of their staff asked and I did not have my wits about me even to speak the most basic form of request. When I stumbled he said, “Why don’t we give you a grant and let you do it?”

So I spent a good part of my summer writing a grant proposal. I turned it in on September 1st and on November 13th I received a call from the Endowment to inform me the proposal had been approved and on December 1, 2008, I could formally and officially begin my work with the Academy.

Of course, I could not wait, and had not waited. Throughout the fall, I have been traveling around the region targeted for the 18-month pilot project: Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Evansville, and Nashville, and all the territory within a 150-mile radius of Louisville. There are 60 private, mostly church-related institutions of higher learning: bible colleges, liberal arts colleges, universities, seminaries—such as Simons Bible College in Louisville, Trevecca Nazarene College in Nashville, Butler University in Indianapolis, and St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana.

I am recruiting 15-18 young people, students in high school, college, university, or seminary who will serve on a Young Preachers Leadership Team. To day, 11 have signed on, from eleven different schools in three of the four target states. The first week of December I am heading back to Ohio and Indiana to continue the task. We will gather for a retreat in January, convene for a week-long Preaching Camp in June, and host the first Festival of Young Preachers, in Louisville, in January of 2010.

My partner is this is the St. Matthews Baptist Church of Louisville. The Endowment does not give to individuals but to institutions, mostly. So we have collaborated on this vision and what a vision it is: inspiring young people in their call to gospel preaching.

I will keep you posted on how things develop.


The Significance of Preaching


During my days as Dean of the Chapel at Georgetown College I had the wonderful privilege of coaching many students as they wrestled with vocational decisions. Frequently the question was posed like this: Do I want to go to seminary or law school? Do I want to work in the church or go into Christian higher education? Do I want to invest my life in congregational life or social justice?

These dilemmas arise in the soul of a person who wants to life a life of significance, who wants to make a difference in the world, who wants to be, in some way, a person of influence. Often these young people have been shaped by the Christian gospel and have responded to the call to follow Jesus and take seriously God’s purpose for their living.

Working with young people like this is thrilling; it’s what keeps people like me working on campuses across the country.

But student wariness of working in the church is troubling; their ambivalence toward preaching is disturbing.

Over the past six months I have visited many of the sixty church-related institutions of higher learning within a 150-mile radius of Lexington, and my observations and concerns are widely shared by campus religious leaders.

The best way to phrase it is this: there has been significant erosion in the conviction that preaching is a vocation of significance, that it is an avenue of influence in the world. So intelligent, talented, and passionate young people are turning away from preaching toward careers as worship artists, public policy wonks, and NGO officials.

One attractive young preacher at the college got enamored with technology. He moved from the podium to the sound board. “One hundred kids,” I told him in a mild rebuke, “can manage the sound and lights. You can do what they can not. You can stand up in front of a crowd and speak passionately and persuasively about Jesus. Don’t give it up.”

This is what undergirds The Academy of Preachers.

The Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis—and I will write about that later in this series—caught the vision of what the Academy can do for young people struggling with a call to preach. They have provided the funding for the venture.

On January 1, I will formally begin my work launching this opportunity for young people.

The Academy will revolve around The Festival of Young Preachers, scheduled for January of 2010, in Louisville. We will send out an open invitation for aspiring preachers to come to preach, young people from age 16 to 28. We expect more than 100 young preachers and we anticipate a crowd of more than 1000 gathering to hear them.

We shall see what God can do with such an event to inspire a new generation of preachers.

So You Want to Be A Preacher–first in a series

If you are like me that could happen at the age of 15; which it did, when I walked down a church aisle, told the preacher God was calling me into the ministry, and the congregation promptly voted to license me as a young preacher.

License is a form of endorsement and is meant to begin the process toward ordination. It was 12 years later before the ordination happened: after high school, college, and seminary.

But in between my pastor paid little attention to me; an elderly woman in the church gave me money to buy books; a pastor during my college days took me under his wing. Other than the guidance of my parents, this was about the only mentoring I had during those dozen years.

It would have been different if I had declared an interest in farming. I could have joined Future Farmers of America, attended all sorts of events, and tried my hand at one project after another, including annual trips to the State Fair.

If I wanted to play percussion in, for instance, the Boston Pops, I could have worked toward that goal by playing in a whole series of musical groups, from the high school band where I did learn to play the drums to the youth symphony that performs as part of Governor’s School of the Arts.

But for the young preacher there was nothing.

Young boys in the independent Christian church denomination can sign up for an annual preaching competition held every year at their North American Christian Convention. I have a nephew who did that.

If I were African American, I might get the opportunity to preach in the middle of the night at one of their many national gatherings—long after the men finish preaching (and they don’t finish until midnight). And once I got to seminary I could enter a sermon manuscript in the competition sponsored by the African American Pulpit.

True: I did get to speak to the youth prayer meeting and one or twice on Sunday morning when the church had Youth Sunday. When I got to college, they were always looking for young preacher boys to lead a weekend revival team of students; and I did that a lot.

But I never took a class in preaching; I don’t remember anyone talking to me about preaching; I am sure I did not ready anything about preaching. Given this, it is a wonder than anybody had the grit to sit through one of my so-called sermons.

Which is why—partly—I am launching The Academy of Preachers.

Another reason is this: for eleven years I have been teaching the “Communication for Ministry” class at Georgetown College. Kids knew it as the preaching class. I have a decade of experience with students who have a passion for preaching.

So I am using some of them—and a dozen others—to help shape this new opportunity for young people who want to preach. St. Matthews Baptist Church of Louisville is sponsoring it; the Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis is funding it; and I will take the rest of this week to tell you how The Academy of Preachers has come to be the focus of my life work.

A Revival of Eloquence

A key element of the Obama presidential bid was his rhetorical skills. Beyond question, he has been the most eloquent speaker on the national stage since Martin Luther King, Jr. Not even Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, or Billy Graham had the impact on the general public that the new president has had.

The truth is, Obama has raised the bar for those who would lead the American people. For too long we have settled for leaders with mediocre speaking ability. In fact, it may be that we have in this one election gone from the least able speaker to the most able speaker, just as we have gone from the most conservative to the most liberal. If Obama governs as well as he speaks he will have altered the course of public speech in America.

Just like Lincoln.

The 16th President of the United States pushed aside the standard style of his day: flowery, full of allusions and quotations, pompous and very long. Lincoln was plain, simple, brief, and artfully worded. Garry Wills wrote a book about the transformation of rhetoric by Abraham Lincoln.

We could wish the same for Obama. While critics decried his style as “nothing but rhetoric” and “style without substance” the American people were moved by Obama’s soaring eloquence and learned again that the ability to inspire people is the chief element of a leader.

Obama’s skill as an orator surely is rooted in natural ability, disciplined intelligence, and—let’s be honest—the influence of preaching. True, Obama had to adjust his ties with his long-time pastor, but not before the flamboyant Chicago minister embodied for the future President what strong, simple, soaring language can do to mobilize a people.

Obama may have intentionally mimicked Lincoln in another way: including in his emerging circle of advisors people who were once his staunch critics. The book Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln published in 2005 by Doris Kerns Goodwin describes this presidential strategy. It remains to be seen whether Obama can implement it as successful as did Lincoln. That has to do, again, with the ability to govern.

But one thing is for sure: Obama has reinvigorated public speech. People are glad; they voted for him. University professors of rhetoric and high school speech coaches will both be thrilled; perhaps the President’s success will bring into this ancient discipline a new generation of talented young people.

But I represent another legion of people who must take note and give thanks: those of us who mentor and teach young preachers. A seminary president said to me as we lunched together on Election Day: “This is good news for preaching.” I think he is right.

The irony is this: the very person critics once accused of being Muslim, who at a critical time in his march on Washington found it necessary to disavow the rhetoric of his own pastor may turn out to be one of the most influential persons in shaping gospel preachers of the 21st century.

China and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Our local paper carried a story over the weekend describing how China enforces its strict family-planning policies. Hundreds of mothers heavy with child are forced into hospitals for late-term abortions. Chinese authorities frame their justification for such brutality in terms of the wider social good—an effort to control population growth; population size, they contend, impacts basic quality of life, including availability of food, shelter and work.

But the matter once again brings attention to China as a major violator of basic human rights. Jane Deren, Senior Advisor to the Roman Catholic Center for Concern in Washington, D.C., listed twenty areas in which China fails to measure up to basic human rights.

On December 10, the world will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the most important document of the twentieth century: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 30 brief articles, this 1772-word document sets forth the moral consensus of the post-war community of nations. Increasingly, the document functions to establish a behavioral norm by which governmental action is judged.

The Declaration was frequently quoted before, during, and after the games of the 29th Olympiad held in Beijing. Human rights activists widely protested the 2001 decision to allow China to host the games. But, as is often the case, money trumps morality; China is the fastest growing economy in the world, an important trade partner with all industrialized countries. An estimated $42 billion dollars was spent on the 2008 Olympics

Working conditions are high on the list human rights concerns in China. The Declaration sets forth the ideal in article 32, which says, in part: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment… to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity… the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

The Declaration also declares that everyone, including the citizens of China, “has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…to change his religion or belief, and …to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Christians, especially, have been denied this right and there is widespread repression of both political and religious freedoms common in most places in the world.

While the Olympics brought increased media attention to these abuses, so also will the thousands of students who are flocking to China. Of the 241,791 Americans who studied abroad in 2006-7, more than 11,000 were in China, a one thousand percent increase from one decade ago. Many of these students will stumble upon occasions of human rights abuses; some will become grass-roots reporters in the campaign to hold China responsible for its manifold indifference to basic rights.

None of these will be more tragic, more traumatic that forcing mothers to abort their children. Decisions about marriage and family are fundamental to human rights, as the Declaration states: “Men and women of full age…have the right to marry and to found a family….The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

China has a long way to go—economically, politically, and morally—before it is able to celebrate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.