My Theory of Preaching

Last week, more than one hundred young adults gathered for the 10th National Festival of Young Preachers. I was there and, like always, I came away inspired and hopeful.


Over this past decade, more than 900 different young people have preached at these annual festivals; and an equal number have participated in the various campus, denominational, and regional festivals inspired or sponsored by the Academy of Preachers.


I am proud to have been a part of this movement to “identify, network, support, and inspire young people in the call to gospel preaching.”


This open call to young preachers moves against the current of contemporary ministerial culture. While survey after survey details the desire of lay people for better preachers and better preaching, class after class of incoming seminarians confess their passion lies elsewhere.


A professor preaching told me a few years ago that he is forced to spend the first two weeks of his homiletics class convincing his students that preaching is important.


I once stood before a preaching class of 37 seminary students and asked how many were attracted to the ministry because of their desire to preach. Two hands went up. The others? Social justice, sacramental ministries, and pastoral care.


Twelve years ago, working with a hundred or more college students interested in a career in ministry, I noted that only a handful included preaching in their vocational discernment. I thought this was a problem only at our majorly white, Baptist student population. But when I discussed it with friends at the Lilly Endowment, they recognized it as a problem all over the country.


Thus, was born the Academy of Preachers. You design it, they said to me, and we will fund it. And so, it came to pass. Glory to God!


The AoP, as it is known around the country, and our festivals, now scattered from Harvard Divinity School to Northwest Nazarene University, may be the only initiative in the country that puts preaching at the center of the discernment process.


Others use mission trips, or reading groups, or worship services, or social advocacy. They never hear what we hear time and again: “When I stood to preach, I felt the call.”


Even as I write those words, I hear the echo of Eric Lydell’s famous testimony in Chariots of Fire: “When I run, I feel the pleasure of God.”


Here is my theory.


Fifty years ago, the context in which so many of us were called to the ministry was a preaching event. We attended revivals, retreats, conventions, and summer conferences which featured the very best public speakers, the very best preachers. And every such public service included an invitation to, in the lingo of my Baptist tradition, surrender to full-time ministry.


These word-rich events, with their appeals to commit talent and life to gospel work, appealed to verbally-gifted young people—youth who wanted to use their speaking abilities for the cause of Christ, for kingdom work, for the gospel and the church. The seminaries were, therefore, full of young men who wanted to be preachers. There were four “preacher boys” in my high school graduating class (’68), and we all went on to become preaching pastors.


But today?


Not so much. Churches take their youth, not to conventions, but on mission trips. It is not what they hear (except for the music) that calls them to pour out their lives on the altar of Christian ministry but what they see: poverty, trauma, addiction, pregnancy, slavery, homelessness, sickness.


They spend a week in a city center, in the Appalachian Mountains, on an Indian reservation, in a shelter for the homeless shelter, or in the aftermath of a flood. And these sights appeal to an entirely different kind of young person: not the member of the school debate club, standing to speak what she thinks or feels, but the community organizer, responding to human need.


Thus, the typical person entering seminary is as likely to end up running a non-profit ministering to runaway teens as leading a church preaching to a congregation.


There’s more.


When was the last time your preacher, your pastor included in a worship service a strong and clear appeal for young people to listen for the voice of God calling them to a lifetime of preaching the gospel?