Maybe my title is overly dramatic; time will tell. But I heard some things last week that settled in my soul and sparked a resolve to reshape my future. Let me tell you about them.
What I heard came from young preachers. "We are not the future of the church," Christian Smith, a rising sophomore at Northern Kentucky University, said in a sermon during Preaching Camp. "We are the church now." They all preached four times, and as the week progressed the sermons got better: better ideas, better delivery. I listened; I was touched; I made up my mind to change some things.
Hanover College junior Krista Phillips preached a sermon from the commandment, "You shall not steal." What she said to a room full of preachers was this: failure to preach is stealing from the people. "I got it from Calvin," she explained later. But it struck me profoundly. I have largely given up preaching, but these words confirmed a growing sense that I should not abandon my calling just because I am now "identifying, networking, supporting, and inspiring" young preachers. What I need is a preaching post: jail, street corner, sanctuary, or house. This is my renewed prayer: "Lord, give me a place to preach."
Duke Divinity School student John Jay Alvaro preached a sermon from the commandment, "Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy." He was not the only one to take this theme, but his words stuck in my memory. "Put the books in a case and zip it up." He was describing now he, a graduate student, had practiced the day of rest. It triggered notions of similar strategies in my head: turning off the computer, putting down the cell phone, even closing the preaching books and hanging up the car keys. I know it sounds legalistic, but I think I need such rules to help me benefit from the change of life that the Sabbath is designed to bring. Which is why I did not write this column when it first came to my mind.....during the Sabbath.
Finally, recent Fisk University graduate Brandon Perkins made this off-hand remark, not in a sermon, but at the dinner table. "I have lost 55 pounds this year by making one change in my habits," he said. "I quit eating pork and beef: nothing else." He looked slim and healthy and preached well, especially his final sermon, "A Lesson from Aaron" (which we will post in print and video format in our soon-to-be-unveiled new website). I don't want to lose 55 pound but perhaps 5-10 pounds (in part to combat high blood pressure). So I have determined to give his diet a try.
Good things come out of preaching camp, and these are just three of my fresh commitments. But there is much more, and already I have read many comments posted on Facebook by these young preachers. How I wish there would have been such opportunities when I was but 22.
We are gathered at Camp Kavanaugh, some 22 of us, tucked away in Crestwood, Kentucky, on the outskirts of Louisville. We are here for what I have called preaching camp but what the young preachers wish to call something else: what, exactly, they are not quite sure.
They began preaching Monday morning, sermons on the Ten Commandments. All afternoon they met with coaches, after attending a workshop on vocal dynamics. They stayed up past midnight to prepare. Then Tuesday morning they were at it again, preaching, all of them, a second sermon on the Ten Commandments.
This is the second year we have done this, and it is one of the most rewarding, enriching things I have ever done. Very soon, you can watch interviews with some of these young preachers over on our Facebook site.
Why do we do it? The best answer came in an email to me Tuesday afternoon. It was from a man who had come out to visit our camp. He sat and listened to several sermons then joined a lunch table full of young preachers. This is what he wrote to me:
"Two things stuck out to me; at least they were expressed by the folks at my table. (1) They wish they had more support from home. They said their parents and their relatives were not very encouraging about their calling. (2) All they want is an opportunity to preach."
This man heard the sad truth, and that sad truth has propelled the Academy as a place to "identify, network, support, and inspire" those who are called to gospel preaching. Unfortunately, many of these young people rarely get the opportunity to preach, even though each one of them is a powerful witness developing a compelling presentation of some piece of the good news.
It is an awesome week, and I rarely use that word. Today we visit the sites of our second national Festival of Young Preachers, and Thursday and Friday they preach sermons #3 and #4. Then we scatter; but we all hold each other in our hearts. We are a network of gospel preachers!
I have just returned from a road trip that took me to the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis, Anderson University and School of Theology in Anderson, Indiana, Earlham College and Bethany Seminary in Richmond, Indiana, and United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
It was a wonderful, productive trip and I will report on it in a series of articles; but first here is the news about the preaching camp at Richmond.
The camp is scheduled for June 13-18. Housing and meals will be in the Quaker Hill Conference Center near the campus of Earlham College. Earlham College has a long and honored connection with the Quaker communities in the United States. It was the home base of the influential writer and theologian Elton Trueblood and more recently the institutional home of Richard Foster.
Quakerism was at the forefront of the abolition movement a century and a half ago; Earlham and vicinity were important stops on the Underground Railroad. So part of our mid-week excursion during the preaching camp will be to visit the Underground Railroad reenactment center called "Follow the North Star."
Official host of the camp is Bethany Seminary, a school of the Church of the Brethren. Daniel Rudy is one of their second year students; he preached at the inaugural Festival of Young Preachers this past January and was later accepted onto the 2010 Young Preacher Leadership Team.
The daily preaching will be in the chapel of the seminary; and I will post some video of that chapel and the seminary on our Facebook page. All the Dogwood trees were in spectacular bloom this week and the sun was bright and warm. The campus is beautiful and the facilities are perfect. Adjacent to Bethany is the Earlham School of Religion whose staff and facilities are also available if needed.
Two Bethany students, Katie and Parker Thompson, will serve as our Camp Coordinators, arranging our field trip, planning the worship services, and managing the registration table. Like Daniel Rudy, they are from Pennsylvania. Katie and Parker will also participate in the camp as young preachers.
We have other young preachers coming from Atlanta, Indianapolis, Chicago, and perhaps Cincinnati and elsewhere. Registration is still open for the Richmond camp and registration forms can be found elsewhere on this web site. Cost is only $200 for the week. Richmond, Indiana is one hour west of Dayton, Ohio along Interstate 70.
I was 15 years old when I walked the aisle of a Baptist church and announced my call to the gospel ministry. Today on my 60th birthday I celebrate 45 years of gospel work.
After serving as a young minister, pastor (in three churches), dean of the chapel on a college campus, and guest preacher for many congregations I have the rare and wonderful pleasure of launching and leading the Academy of Preachers. I spend my days now working with young people of all Christian traditions toward their ambition as preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What possibly could be a better way to celebrate my 60th birthday?
I am in Nashville meeting with officials of Belmont University preparing for our first preaching camp this summer, May 23-28. Later this week I will be in Atlanta visiting Morehouse College and preparing for the preaching camp in Atlanta June 6-11.
My son Ike is with me, and when we leave Atlanta we will drive to Birmingham, then Memphis and Paducah, before returning home to Lexington and Louisville. Only the presence of Sam, his son and my grandson, would make it a more pleasant trip. We stopped at the Book Store in Horse Cave, Kentucky and bought 10 used books for Sam, including Curious George.
Even in the delight of this day, I remember my good friend and colleague in gospel work Philip Wise, who died one year ago today, at the age of 60. Earlier this month a group of his friends, including me, published a book of essays in his honor: For Faith and Friendship.
Tomorrow morning I will go to morning prayers at Christ Church Cathedral, just around the corner from our hotel in downtown Nashville. A blessed Holy Week to all of you.
Our first experience with a preaching camp (in 2009) brought to our attention the power of peer coaching. We had provided seasoned coaches for all of the young preachers and we also brought to the camp a different speaker each day.
But by far the most powerful element of that camp was the influence and inspiration that each of these young preachers exerted upon the other young preachers at the camp. Long after we old preachers went to bed these young preachers stayed awake advising, coaching, helping, mentoring and inspiring one another as they prepared to preach the next morning. We expect the same sort of dynamic at all three preaching camps this year.
This past week I experienced again the power of peer mentoring. I traveled to Birmingham Alabama to meet with 6 other preachers with whom I have been meeting for almost 20 years. We are all Baptists; we are all preachers; and we are all teachers, some full time and others of us part time. We spend 48 hours together, most talking and eating; but because it is March, we also watched a little basketball (Kentucky and Alabama) and played a little basketball.
But mostly we talked and listened. We shared stories from life, family, church, and school. We talked about the challenges we faced as well as the opportunities. Over 2 decades we have shared the normal spectrum of life experiences: hiring and firing, children and grandchildren, success and failure, faith and doubt, life and death.
One year ago, Philip Wise died. He was in many ways the power and personality of our peer group. He was diagnosed in May of 2008 and died in March of 2009. He was 60 years old. We missed him terribly as we gathered in Birmingham.
But during our gathering we presented to his widow, Cynthia, the first copy of our book of essays, written with Philip and dedicated to his memory. It is called, FOR FAITH AND FRIENDSHIP. Each of us, and a few others who could not make this 2010 gathering, wrote chapters reflecting on our work as ministers and our experience as friends. My chapter is entitled, "On Meeting Again an Old Friend: Reading C. S. Lewis After 30 Years."
I have a few copies of the book and we are selling them for $12 each. I will be glad to sell you one but I tell this story mostly to raise up the importance of friends: ministerial friends with whom you meet to laugh and play, speak and listen, read and write, pray and hope. These men are my mentors, my coaches, my advocates, my encouragers, my friends. I hope each of you has a group of people like this. It makes life and work--including preaching--more blessed and more successful. Such a group is the grace and mercy of God.
Kate Bringardner of Louisville, Kentucky, will be a featured coach and presenter at all three preaching camps this summer. She promises to bring an original and powerful element to the learning dynamics of the camps.
Bringardner has studied at the Conservatory at Point Park in Pittsburgh and graduated from Georgetown College in Kentucky. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in performance from DePaul University in Chicago. She now is a vocal dynamics coach and consultant for professionals. From her home office, she publishes a blog on the subject entitled Word Juice.
"She is teaching me things I never learned at Vanderbilt Divinity School," says client Dave Emery. "I am working hard to change engrained patterns of breathing and speaking." Emery is pastor of Middletown Christian Church in Louisville and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Academy of Preachers.
"Most public speakers, including ministers, are not introduced to these critical issues," explains Bringardner. "They are taught content development, illustration, opening and closing a speech or sermon. These are important, but they ignore the single most important ingredient of successful communication: the voice."
Besides bringing attention to the central role of the voice, Bringardner specializes in drills that allow a young preacher to understand his or her voice, to recognize its strengths and weakness, and to make significant improvement in how the voice is used to communicate a message.
And, oh, as a matter of full disclosure: Kate is my daughter, so she has heard plenty of preaching, most of it in dire need of her professional assistance!! She also attended the inaugural Festival of Young Preachers in January and heard her share of that preaching.
"I can help these young preachers," she said to me; and I believe her. Become her Friend on Facebook.