I have seen the future of preaching, and it's a beautiful thing.
As the producer and host of the "Day 1" radio program, which gives outstanding mainline Protestant preachers an international pulpit on 200 stations and online, it was my privilege to attend the second annual National Festival of Young Preachers, an initiative of the Academy of Preachers.
Through my work with "Day 1," I hear many more preachers than most people ever do. But I can tell you that I am now more hopeful about the future of preaching than I ever have been.
Nearly 130 young men and women--high school and college/university students, seminarians and graduate students--came together in early January with their mentors (usually a pastor or teacher or other church leader), some family members and friends at the Seelbach Hilton in Louisville, Kentucky for three days of nearly non-stop preaching. The event is designed to encourage young people who aspire to be preachers of the Christian faith by giving them a platform and feedback from peers, mentors, and other evaluators.
The purpose is to identify these young people and sustain them in their call, organizers explain, "cultivating within them the conviction that gospel preaching is a vocation of great social and spiritual significance and is worthy of their very best."
It's not a competition--there are no "American Preaching Idol" judges here. Rather, "it's a celebration, an inspiration, an occasion of mutual edification and encouragement." And it is an authentically ecumenical enterprise--certainly one of the most ecumenical endeavors in American Christianity today.
Participating were young preachers from across the country of nearly every race and tradition: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant (including United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, United Methodist, Christian Church/Disciples of Christ), Pentecostal, every sort of Baptist you can think of (Southern, National, Progressive, Cooperative, General, Alliance, Independent), Church of Christ, Church of God, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Nazarene, Ethiopian Orthodox, independent and nondenominational. And I'm sure I missed some. It truly couldn't have been more diverse.
In plenary sessions we heard from some, shall we say, more mature church leaders--who proceeded to school us all in how it is done. The Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Rev. Dr. Teresa Fry Brown, professor of homiletics at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, the Rev. Dr. Robert Smith, associate professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, and the Academy's founder and president, the Rev. Dr. Dwight A. Moody, connected powerfully with the word of God and the enthralled listeners.
At a fun evening banquet dubbed "Preachapalooza," attendees enjoyed bluegrass music, Kentucky cuisine, and a stirring message from Dr. Craig Dykstra of Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis, Indiana, whose generous grants have helped the Academy and this National Festival explode in the first two years of their existence.
But the highlight of these three days by far was experiencing the preaching of these young men and women. (You will be able to see them on the Academy's YouTube channel.) Four sessions occurred simultaneously throughout the conference. I sat in on nearly 30 sermons and evaluated nine of them, and I was profoundly impressed by each one I heard. No matter what their denomination or background or preaching style, their respect for the text, their creativity, their passion, and their wisdom came through in fresh, meaningful, and exciting ways.
The assigned focus for this year's sermons was the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). So you had sermons from nearly 130 young people on pretty much the same texts. No two sermons were remotely similar.
You can imagine how difficult pulling off such an event would be, particularly in this age of such political and religious division. You had members of a number of faith traditions that believe women should not be heard from a pulpit, listening attentively to gifted women preachers. You had white women and men who have never been in an African-American church experiencing the moving cadence and energy of that style of preaching. You had conservative Christians hearing, possibly for the first time, an impassioned, faithful, biblical message from a much more progressive preacher.
And it worked. Beautifully.
Well, there was one troubling moment early on in one of the first preaching sessions. Conveners had been selected to keep all the sessions moving along, introducing the mentors and preachers, managing the clock, and so forth. Among the announcements they read before every preaching session was this one: "The Festival is one of the most ecumenical endeavors in American Christianity today. We believe this is God's gift to us. We encourage you to have eyes to see and ears to hear the remarkable diversity of these messengers of the Gospel and the message they bring to us."
But despite that goal and plea, one of the conveners--a local pastor--took it upon himself to "correct the theology" of a progressive young preacher, who had self-identified as gay, following his sermon. It was quite a devastating judgment. A couple of mentors in the audience stood up and took the convener to task because he was out of line, and a tense encounter followed. After a serious discussion between staff members, mentors, and the convener during the break, the latter chose to withdraw and another person volunteered to assume the role.
Later I told the preacher who caused the havoc, "This is what happens when prophets speak." Several other young preachers around him at the time said, "That's exactly what we've been telling him!"
But the sessions quickly returned to their harmonious diversity, and I heard many more young "prophets." For instance, right after that troubling experience, it was a rich blessing to sit in on a sermon by a 14-year-old white Presbyterian girl, which elicited numerous amens and other enthusiastic responses from her African-American brothers and sisters in the audience.
As event leader Dwight Moody wrote in the program book, "The wide spectrum of Christian experience represented at this Festival means that all of us will hear things, see things, and feel things that will push us out of our comfort zones. Do not fear. Receive this celebration as a teachable moment."
The vast majority of those in attendance did just that. And that can give us all hope for the future.
Over these three days I sensed the Spirit of God at work powerfully in these young lives. I wish I could share their names, because you will be hearing from many of them in the years ahead. I'm sure many of them will be heard on "Day 1" one of these days! Perhaps not all of them will end up as preachers, but my guess is that they will all make an incredible impact on our society, for the glory of God and the common good.
[A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post Religion page.]
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