Archive for the ‘Preaching’ Category

Launching the Academy of Preachers

[Fifth and last in a series]

On Election Day—November 4—I drove to Wilmore, Kentucky to hear Shane Claiborne speak in the chapel of Asbury Seminary. Shane is the young man, now living in the Philadelphia are, who wrote the best-selling book, “Jesus for President.” I read it, liked it, and used it as a text for a church discussion class this fall.

Shane is from the Jim Wallis-Tony Campolo stream of Christian living and thinking. Plus the book picks up the Kingdom-Empire theme popularized by John Howard Yoder and John Dominic Crossan. I find both of these influences compelling, which is why I read the book and attended the talk.

Shane is young—just past thirty years old—dresses more like the Jesus freaks of 30 years ago, wore his hair long and covered with a bandana. His voice is high-pitched, his message only barely structured, and his presence less than impressive.

None of that mattered: the chapel was packed—I sat in the balcony and the aisles were cluttered with students. All of which illustrates a fundamental principal of public speaking (or preaching)—when a speaker has a strong, compelling call to a radical vision of life and when the speaker actually embodies the message he or she is describing, it will draw an audience.

After chapel I went to lunch with the president of the seminary, J. Ellsworth Callis. He is an elderly, dignified man, with a wonderful voice and an attractive disposition. He is a Methodist preacher, and a professor of preaching; he is president only for the interim. It is easy to see why people tell me is an outstanding preacher. He was easy to listen to in the diner and I am sure he is easy to listen to in the pew.

We talked about my new venture, The Academy of Preachers; and he was immediately and thoroughly supportive of it. One of the students at the seminary—Georgetown College graduate James Bush—is on the Young Preachers Leadership Team, which will help me design and launch the Academy.

But mostly we talked about the election—it was Election Day, remember—and whether the rhetorical skills of Barack Obama would fuel a renaissance of interest in both public speaking and preaching. It certainly demonstrates, I suggested, the power of pubic rhetoric and its value in establishing vision, mobilizing people, and achieving purpose.

Whether or not statistics will bear out any renewed attention to these things, The Academy of Preachers is carried along by the conviction that gospel preaching is a vocation of enormous social and spiritual significance and that it is worthy of the best energies of the most gifted young people.

I now have recruited 18 of these young people from schools in a four-state area: Anderson University, Oakland City University, St. Meinrad Seminary, Christian Theological Seminary, and Hanover College, all in Indiana; Cincinnati Christian University in Ohio; Trevecca Nazarene University, Fisk University, Vanderbilt Divinity School and Libscomb University in Tennessee; and Georgetown College, Asbury College, Asbury Seminary, Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, plus two high schools in Kentucky.

We are ready to get this Academy off the ground!!

A Festival of Young Preachers

[Fourth in a series]

When I was fifteen I thought I could preach; I couldn’t, of course, and when I look back on those speeches I gave at high school speech tournaments I cringe. Most were slightly camouflaged regurgitations of something I had read in a Billy Graham book, such as World Aflame. But that’s the way I started, way down in west Kentucky halfway through the seventh decade of the 20th century.

I could have used a mentor, a guide, a coach—although it was many years before I was a coachable minister. There was no opportunity to hone my skills as a preacher in the same way there was for a musician, an athlete, or a future farmer. Still—to this day—I know of no such track for young people—male and female—who sense a call to gospel preaching.

My son-in-law works for the YMCA and organizes state-wide conferences for young people who aspire to public service: they learn how to craft a law, form interest coalitions, debate a proposition, manage a campaign, and run for office. It is all good, and many leaders in our state—in business, education, government, and service—have been decisively shaped by their experience at these leadership camps.

But nothing targets young preachers; it is as if preaching is considered sectarian, secondary, and unworthy of serious attention from top notch students. Yet: remember the presidential campaign, when both candidates had to clarify their relationships with a preacher? Such controversy is an indirect signal of the potential of preaching—the potential to inspire a vision and shape a career.

Preaching is transformational: in the life of an individual, a congregation, a community, even a nation. After all, the most effective public person of the last 50 years was a Baptist preacher from Alabama. February now boasts a holiday in his memory.

Which is why I plan to host a Festival of Young Preachers.

No me, really, but the Academy of Preachers, which is being sponsored by the Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis and St. Matthews Baptist Church of Louisville. Over the next year we will be seeking the endorsement and engagement of one hundred congregations and fifty educational institutions, all within a 150-mile radius of Louisville. And the Festival will attract, we hope, one hundred young people—high school, college, university, and seminary—who will take their stand at a pulpit and give it their best shot.

The Festival will be held in January of 2010, somewhere in the Louisville area. We actually know where, but not all the details have been worked out with the hosting churches, so that announcement will need to wait.

A press release is on the way—within the next week, perhaps. I suspect the Louisville Courier Journal will be the first to publish the story. And I have in my mind a couple of more blogs about this initiative.

So, stay in touch, and let me know what you think and if you are willing to help.

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.