Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

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.

A Word Fitly Spoken

November 4, 2008 will be remembered as a turning point in American history: like Pearl Harbour, the moon landing, or 9/11.

On that day I arrived early at the polling place, waited in line, and cast my ballot. Then I drove to Wilmore, Kentucky to attend worship at Asbury Seminary followed by lunch with their president, Dr. J. Ellsworth Kalas, a seasoned Methodist minister old enough to be my father. We sat in a small diner in Nicholasville, Kentucky and talked about the campaign for the presidency. On many things we agreed but especially this: Barack Obama has dramatized anew the significance and success of public speech.

Rhetoric is often denigrated as empty and useless; give us policy, we say to the candidate; be practical, we plead with the preacher. But when a holy and hospitable vision is carried along by a simple and soaring eloquence, what comes forth is a transformational power that organization, ideology, or effort can not match.

Part of it is technique: cadence, language, inflection, tone, posture, countenance. “A word fitly spoken,” the Bible asserts, “is like apples of gold in pictures of silver”—rare, to be treasured, and able to captivate the imagination.

“When I come to church,” a woman said to me a few days ago, “I want to be inspired.” Taught, perhaps; warned, sometimes, consoled, when needed—but mostly inspired. What she confessed was the need to be lifted above ourselves, outside of ourselves, beyond ourselves by an appeal to our better natures and our nobler virtues, by connecting us with the spiritual currents of the universe, by instilling within us the possibilities of human endurance and achievement. Such also is the task of preachers.

“My heart is stirred by a noble theme…” the psalmist rightly wrote and sang, perhaps after hearing a preacher extol the greatness of God, the grandeur of love, or the glory of life.

This is the other part of effective rhetoric—a message. Not all rhetorical ability is tied to a good and just theme: think Hitler. But when a generosity of spirit, a wideness of mercy, and a genuine delight in the common good flow out of a speaker into the minds and imaginations of those who hear, transformational things can happen. It is the hope and prayer of all who preach the gospel.

Others will study this historic campaign and learn things about voting and vetting, organizing and mobilizing, friend-raising and fund-raising; these are all important. But as a preacher I am interested in the power of persuasive speech. Obama’s gifts of substance and style have brought him to the White House and have given to us a leader of inspirational power.

Other skills are needed in the White House: discernment, courage, humility, humor, etc; it remains to be seen whether he can govern. But his success as a public speaker has the potential to rejuvenate the vocation of rhetoric. Nowhere is this more needed that in the pulpits of American churches.

Red Church, Blue Church

For many years Sunday morning has been the most segregated hour in America: blacks in one church and whites in another. While the gospel vision of humanity devalues such division of God’s people into this color or that, there is a redemptive element in this fallen situation: namely, that the black church has sustained it distinctive culture and practices and has done so in a way to bless the entire human community.

But in recent years a political segregation has made its way into the church of Jesus Christ. On one corner is the Blue Church, full of people who are voting a straight Democratic ticket; on the other corner is the Red Church, crowded with people who punch the Republican bottom. People in blue churches cannot understand how Christians can vote red; likewise those in red churches swear that Jesus himself would vote only a red ballot.

The division of the country into blue and red has made its way into the church.

This ought not to be. The entire vision of the church of Jesus Christ is set fore square against such barriers—“neither Jew nor Gentile, free nor slave, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

If Paul the Apostle were writing that text today rather than 2000 years ago would he include political divisions in his list of categories that are trumped by the gospel? Would he not add: “neither Democrat nor Republican, neither Protestant nor Catholic, neither capitalist nor socialist, neither northerner nor southerner”?

If this is true of God’s kingdom and Christ’s church, should it not also be true of our congregation?

Of course, some will protest: Democrats support civil rights and protest war—isn’t this the rule of the kingdom? Other will insist: Republicans fight abortion and judge the lawless—isn’t this the way of Jesus? It is so easy to equate the gospel message with a party platform; from there it is a short step to rejecting fellowship with those who vote the other way.

But human community depends upon civility, respect, conversation, hospitality, and hearing the heart and mind of the other person. What better place for such things to happen than in the circles of a believing congregation. A house of worship can take the lead in transcending the bitter divisions that have plagued church and community and country for thirty years.

Burn your red banners, all you Republican congregations; discard your blue flags, all you Democratic congregations. There is something bigger, grander, more glorious, more significant, more eternal than party affiliation and national elections. John the Prophet gets very close to this when he writes in Revelation, that “… from every tribe and language and people and nation you have made us to be a kingdom and ministers to serve God…”

I will be glad with all the red and blue politics is over and we can get back to being the church of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.