I preached my first sermon on a bright Sunday morning in front of the youth group at the age of 17. I accepted the call to ministry when I was 16, and my youth pastor supported me every step of the way, even to the point of inviting me to preach. I will always be grateful for the opportunity. In my talk, I compared the Christian life to the life of a tree. I observed how the tree draws nourishment from the soil through its roots, harnesses the rays of the sun through its leaves, protects itself by a tough outer bark, and flowers in due season. I made a connection between the parts of the tree and those of the Christian life, from how we must be rooted in the Word to how we must display the “fruits of the Spirit.” For all that, my talk still did not amount to what one might call a full-length sermon. It lasted 7 minutes 23 seconds – from the opening scripture passage to closing prayer. As it turns out, I had much to learn in the way of preaching.
What amazes me now as I think back is the trust and confidence my youth minister placed in me when he gave me that precious gift of the pulpit. My sermon was the rough-edged scribble-scrabble of a beginner, which my youth minister must have known in advance, but knowing this did not stop him from asking me to do it anyway.
The sermon, whether before a group of 40 youth or a church of thousands, is a sacred thing. The proclamation of the Word of God carries a weight of authority and a burden of holy responsibility that should not be assumed lightly or handled carelessly. For this reason, most pastors are reluctant – and wisely so – to let anyone in the pulpit other than themselves or a staff member.
Even so, I want to appeal to North Carolina churches on behalf of young persons called to Christian ministry that they create opportunities for preaching. Pastors: sit down and help a youth shape a sermon manuscript. Deacons, elders and church leaders: work with your pastor to find appropriate venues for “preaching practice.”
If it is not practical or possible for an individual other than the pastor to deliver a full sermon on a Sunday morning, set up a special time on Sunday evening or at a Wednesday mid-week service.
You might even create an event out of it – promoting it as a chance to see the fresh faces of preaching and the next generation of Christian pastors.
I have had the privilege as a professor of theology at Campbell University to talk with ministry students from different churches all over the state and beyond.
To my surprise and great disappointment, very few of those students have had the opportunity to declare the Word in their home churches – or anywhere for that matter – even though some of them answered a call to ministry when they were in middle school.
If you want to impact the next generation, if you want to encourage young people to give their lives to vocational ministry, if you want to foster the call to full-time ministry, give the ultimate gift: your attention.
By carving out a space and a time for student preaching, and then giving your attention to listen, you will do more for that young individual than you can know. Sometimes all a body needs is to be given a chance.
It is a shame when a student answers a call to serve while in high school, then attends college, and finally enters divinity school having never preached a sermon. By that point in his or her personal development, preaching will seem insurmountably intimidating, hopelessly antiquated, socially irrelevant, or just not interesting. Early on the individual begins to form ideas about ministry and vocation, about gifts and talents, about goals and aspirations. If preaching is not part of those early experiences, it’s not likely to figure into one’s goals or aspirations. The individual will say, “I just can’t imagine myself preaching.” It can’t be imagined because it’s never been experienced. It’s never been experienced because it’s never been offered.
Now more than ever churches need to give youth opportunities to interpret and preach the Word, especially since “preaching” and “sermonizing” have taken on pejorative connotations in popular usage. Why would anyone want to become a preacher of sermons when, to many, “preaching” is synonymous with “harping,” “nagging,” and “criticizing,” and “sermon” has become another word for a dry and monotonous lecture? More than ever we need to find ways to counteract this stereotyped misperception.
We need to celebrate preaching and encourage candidates for ministry to see its beauty, relevancy and power. We have a chance to inspire the next generation of ministers, but only if we invite them into the pulpit.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Adam C. English is associate professor of theology and philosophy in the Department of Religion and Philosophy, Campbell University Divinity School.)