When I was in high school I was captivated by the art or preaching. I loved listening to a good preacher, thankfully I was in a church that had a great one from whom I’ve learned much! I loved the storytelling, the comic timing, the intentional use of words. It would be that preacher that I listened to for three years who would give me my first opportunity to preach and that man’s encouragement that pointed me down the path I am on.
In college I slowly and painfully learned the nuts and bolts of preaching as I did a B.A. in the subject (you probably didn’t know that existed huh?). I remember preaching classes where we would deliver sermons that would be instantly critiqued by our peers and the two preaching professors (one gracious and gentle, another more like a lion) although I loved and respected them both. I’m not sure how many bad sermons these guys have had to listen to, but I’m fairly sure it amounts to more than the bad singing Simon Cowell has put up with. Plus Simon doesn’t have to listen to someone dying for 30 minutes at a time!
As the college years went on, my friends and I started doing “pulpit supply” on Sundays which basically meant we were rented out to small, dying churches who couldn’t afford a full time pastor. It was in these small country Illinois churches that I started to learn what it meant to “die to self”. One time I remember preaching at Irish Grove Presbyterian Church to four people, all in the front row! (one of which died about three weeks later). A second memory I have is a church where the same woman would get up every week, someone would start the tape and she would sing “Majesty”. Strangely it seemed that people enjoyed it just as much every week.
But there were moments of glory as well! Getting asked to preach at Focus (a midweek student led service) was a highly sought after gig and strangely now, I don’t even remember it. I do however remember my senior sermon which i still have a tape of. At the time it was the largest group I had ever preached to and probably the longest I’ve ever preached. Apparently I thought should milk every second for what it was worth. Unfortunately, that same day I also borrowed a pair of pants from a “friend” which were much too thin and revealed way too much! Longest 45 minutes of my life!
After that I did a preaching internship in Florida for 6 months and then moved to New York City where I would preach about 8-10 times a year (including one failed attempt at a first-person narrative of David). And now of course, at Evergreen I’m the primary teacher at the Hawthorne gathering. If I’ve learned anything about preaching in the last year it is this: it is a lot easier to preach when you are the “breath of fresh air”, that is, when you are the one preaching once every six weeks. Because, regardless of whether it was good or not, the fact that it was a change from the norm excites people, it gives them the variety they need now and again and you receive tons of compliments! But something clearly changes when you become the norm! Now, suddenly you find you’re not near as exciting as you used to be (nor as funny), you’re simply the baseline, and that is HARD work.
One of my favorite quotes about preaching comes from Reinhold Niebuhr when he was 22 years old and just getting started:
“Now that I have preached about a dozen sermons I find I am repeating myself.A different text simply means a different pretext for saying the same thing over again. The few ideas that I had worked into sermons at the seminary have all been used, and now what? They say a young preacher must catch his second wind before he can really preach. I’d better catch it pretty soon or the weekly sermon will become a terrible chore.”