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.
I just finished reading the 2008 book "Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What can be Done about it." It was writing by Julia Dunn, religion editor for the Washington Times.
It is at the same time both an easy book to ready (I read it in a day) and a difficult book to read (I am a life-long church-goer and spend my energy these days encouraging those who want to lead churches).
However, I confess that much in the book resonated with my own experience as a church leader and church-goer.
Millions of people are quietly, slowly dropping out of church: not the young adults we hear so much about, but their parents, people my age, people with my attachment to the church. Church attendance, Dunn asserts, citing reasonable and apparently reliable data, has decreased by 20% in the last decade.
If she is right then I am wrong when I frequently say that in a given week more people hear a sermon than engage in any other public activity (like movies, or sporting events, or political rallies).
Preaching is still important and still a powerful force in American public life; but if Dunn is correct the place and influence of preaching is bound to change. Fewer people will gather on the first day of the week to hear a person recite a prepared text about God and Jesus and life and death.
Preaching may, in fact, become much more like biblical preaching.
Very few of the sermons recorded in the Bible occurred in the context of what we today call a church, or a congregation. Some were written and distributed (John from Patmos, the entire book of "Hebrews"); many were delivered in public places to public audiences (Jesus on the mount, Peter on Pentecost); a few were preached to very small audiences (a prophet to a king, an inmate to a jailer).
Giving a theological interpretation to life and history is the calling of a preacher:
* what is God saying to us in this episode of life?
* how can we obey God in the midst of these circumstances?
* how can Christ be formed in me given who I am and where I have been?
* where does Christ ask me to follow given the chaos in the world and even in my life?
* when must I abandon self-interest and embrace the welfare of the human race?
These questions will persist even if the fairly modern pattern of Sunday church life dissolves into irrelevance. And these are the questions that good preachers will address even if the platform is shifting under our feet.
Anyone who speaks with clarity, intelligence, and passion addressing the deepest questions of soul and society will always gain an audience. That is the good news for young preachers who are responding to what they think is the direction of almighty God.
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.
Frank Viola and George Barna teamed up several years ago to publish a book entitled Pagan Christianity. It contends that most of the forms, structures, and practices of modern Christianity are not intrinsic to Christianity, are not rooted in Scripture but in some element of pagan culture, and in fact, are detrimental to authentic discipleship.
The list of inauthentic elements of modern Christianity is long: buildings, liturgies, sermons, pastors, tithes, baptism, communion, clerical salaries and robes, and organized Christian education. Frankly, I am trying to figure out what is left!
The idea that something is worthless if its origin can be traced to a non-Christian source is a silly and insubstantial idea; it can be easily dismissed. After all, the true test of a ritual or idea is found, not in its point of origin, but in whether it reveals or conceal the true and living God, whether it promotes or prevents personal holiness and social justice, and whether it cultivates or subverts the likeness of Christ in individuals and communities.
But in the chapter on the pagan roots of preaching they assert five things that all young preachers need to consider carefully. It comes under the rubric, "How Sermonizing Harms the Church."
1. The sermon makes the preacher the virtuoso performer of the regular church gathering. Congregational participation is hampered at best and precluded at worst.
2. The sermon often stalemates spiritual growth. Because it is a one-way affair, it encourages passivity.
3. The sermon preserves the unbiblical clergy mentality. It creates an excessive pathological dependence upon the clergy.
4. Rather than equipping the saints, the sermon de-skills them. The contemporary sermon preached every week has little power to equip God people for spiritual service and functioning.
5. The sermon is often impractical. Preachers speak as experts on that which they have never experienced.
These are serious charges arising from extensive personal experience. All have significant merit and all young preachers will be wise to meditate long and deep upon these matters.
The staff of the Festival of Young Preachers has read through more than 100 evaluations submitted by young preachers, mentors, exhibitors and volunteers. Among the most frequent recommendations is this: provide some evaluation of the sermons.
This appeal has come through my email and Facebook messages as well. More than one young preacher has written to say: "Tell me what you think, Dr. Moody."
Here is my response.
First, watch your DVD and write out your own assessment. Before anybody else gives you feedback take the job yourself. A great deal of what needs to be addressed in the style and substance of preaching can be observed by the young preacher.
Second, take your DVD to your mentor. We estimate more than 60% of the young preachers at the festival were accompanied and introduced by a mentor. Sit down with your mentor (even at a distance, since most of the sermons are now on YouTube--and have been viewed over 3,000 times) and discuss the sermon.
True, I have made notes on all 92 preachers. I am willing to provide some feedback but only after these first two steps of this process have been completed. Already I am setting up a schedule to discuss the event in general and any sermon in particular. In the near future, I will be in Texas and Ohio meeting with young preachers who were at the festival. I hope to visit several of the universities and seminaries in the Louisville region for the same purpose.
Here is the bottom line. This festival (including all of the preaching) was a truly remarkable and inspirational experience for me. Yes, there are avenues of improvement down which we all need to walk; but I was overjoyed by the seriousness with which the young preachers engaged in this festival preaching and the also by their compelling advocacy of the lordship of Jesus Christ. Good job, one and all; and let's come back next January: twice as many, twice as good, twice as much inspiration!!