This week I will listen to around 21 student sermons preached in our Seminary’s Chapel. Borrowing a phrase from the Academy of Preachers, I have come to call this annual exercise our Calvin Seminary “Preach-a-Palooza” event. The sermons will come mostly from students finishing their second year of studies and for most of them this week comes just ahead of a summer-long internship in a congregation where the students will preach up to ten times between now and Labor Day. For many, that will easily represent the most concentrated season of preaching ever. So before they go, a last practice session in front of their peers and me to get some pointers on what to work on and brush up on in the coming few months.
I have been doing this kind of thing with students for a while now. On July 1 I will hit the ten-year mark of working at Calvin Seminary both as director of our Center for Excellence in Preaching and as a faculty member who teaches preaching and a smattering of other things. One of the more surprising facets to this past decade is something I have come to see in some—but by no means all—seminary students. I find it a rather striking phenomenon and wonder where it comes from. What I have observed is this: few if any students arrive at a place like Calvin Seminary thinking they already know theology very well. Most know they have lots to learn about Greek and certainly Hebrew and most recognize that they don’t have hermeneutics or exegesis or church history all cased. They are coming to seminary, after all, to learn.
But here’s the thing: some do arrive at seminary convinced they already know how to preach. Most of the new students who believe this admit to never having preached before. They’ve never before had a class instructing them on homiletics, its history, its craft, its art. Still, in what will become one of the central areas in which their ministry will be scrutinized in the church for years to come, some (again, by no means all) students believe they have a huge head start. Needless to say, when my faculty colleagues and I encounter students like this, we invariably find them to be impatient with the homiletical instruction we do proffer. At Calvin we encourage students to use the Paul Scott Wilson template of “Four Pages” as an early and useful way to adopt a certain “grammar” for preaching, as a way to see down to a sermon’s deep structures. But some students chafe at this and ask that they be allowed to preach in their own “style” and not be stifled by what they regard as the Four Pages artifice.
It always reminds me of Stanley Hauerwas’s snarky dismissal of the movie Dead Poets Society. In the film the prep teacher at an elite boarding school encourages his teenaged students to be free thinkers, to seize the day, to make up their own minds. Hauerwas observed something quite the opposite in that he has always made it his #1 job in teaching college freshmen a simple truth: “You are in college because you do not yet have minds worth making up.”
Similarly, I don’t know how students who have never before preached nor been instructed in preaching can conclude that somehow they already possess a style all their own. It certainly does not make instructing them a lot easier. I am not writing this to belittle any such current or former students but only to say that in preaching, as in so much else in ministry if not in life in general, humility is so vital a trait to have. Preaching is such a mystery, and few who practice this craft every week doubt the daunting nature of the task. We never stop learning. I routinely pull out old sermons from my years as a twice-a-Sunday preacher and find them to be lacking, to be in need of overhaul and tinkering (and this includes the sermons that at the time seemed decent and that were received by the congregation warmly and well). I have been doing this for the better part of thirty years now and yet know I have much to learn from others. (It reminds me of the anecdote about the renowned cellist Pablo Casals who, when asked at the age of 90 why he still practiced for hours every day, replied “Because I think I am getting a little better.”)
And so I will hit the ground running this week in listening to student sermons. Some will be really good, all will be really sincere, and some will need work. I will learn a lot from the exercise myself and truly hope the same will be true of the students. For the students ultimately headed to a pulpit ministry, no task is so vital as proclaiming the Gospel. It is a privilege in ministry that needs to be approached with wide-eyed wonder and no small amount of humility, and that ought to be true right from the start of one’s education.
Published with permission. This blog was originally posted on The Twelve at blog.perspectivesjournal.org/
Speaking as one of the (former) students you are referring to, I would be VERY careful confusing which of your students arrive at CTS thinking they 'already know how to preach,' with men and women who are just longing to bring their unique voice to the proclamation of God's Word. We didn't just chafe at a man-made-form being imposed on the preaching of God's Holy Word, we also didn't think we should be forced to preach the text like you would. If we as a Denomination can agree that World Missions/Home Missions should be combined because North American has become a mission field much like that of Africa or Asia, then the way in which we proclaim God's Word should be contextual to the environment we are called to. Keep in mind that the diversity in the 'styles' of preaching you hear from your students may be the exact thing God plans to use in order to grow His Church. Perhaps we seemed impatient with your methods because our heart's desire was only to use our diverse voices to introduce God to the people surrounding a small church in Iowa, or a campus ministry in Seattle, or even a thriving church plant in Paw Paw Michigan.
This is an intriguing post, as is the first response to it. It raises, again, some questions for me that I have wrestled with ever since I first took preaching classes at CTS in 1977.
The following verse serves as a background for my comments: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (Matt.7:28,29 NIV)
Were the crowds amazed because of the words themselves, or because the words were accompanied by signs and wonders?
Were the crowds amazed because Jesus spoke words that had immediate application to their lives, whereas the teachers of the law spoke in academic generalities?
Were the crowds amazed because Jesus addressed the urgent questions of their hearts and minds, whereas the teachers of the law had their own agendas?
Were the crowds amazed because Jesus structured his remarks in a manner consistent with the CTS syllabus on reformed preaching, whereas the teachers of the law seemed disrespectful of the rich traditions surrounding the preaching of the Word?
Were the crowds amazed because Jesus spoke the truth as he saw it, whereas the teachers of the law were careful to be politically correct?
Were the crowds amazed because Jesus spoke from the heart, whereas the teachers of the law had a paycheck to protect, or at least their reputation?
Were the crowds amazed because it was clear that Jesus loved them, whereas that wasn’t always self-evident with the teachers of the law?
Were the crowds amazed only at Jesus, or did they appreciate anyone who was somehow able to share the hope that was within him/her?
Were the crowds amazed because Jesus had a compelling message, whereas the teachers of the law seemed indifferent to the impact of their words?
Were the crowds amazed because Jesus was just more entertaining than everyone else, and the teachers of the law were more like “regular programming”?
Were the crowds amazed because Jesus was able to work them into a Hitleresque frenzy, whereas the teachers of the law turned boring after a few minutes?
Were the crowds amazed because somehow they sensed that the words Jesus spoke came from God, whereas the teachers of the law merely revealed which school they had attended?
And, finally, would Jesus be able to draw a crowd today?
A few more questions…
What, exactly, do we think we are doing when we teach students how to preach?
What are we inserting into them that wasn’t there before?
What enables a person to “be ready to share the hope that is within you?”
At what point does a person become a suitable conduit to be used by God to communicate with earthlings?
Who decides when a person is ready to be used by God in such a manner, and based on what criteria?
Who or what are we protecting when we limit access to our pulpits to those who have demonstrated that they conform to a certain standard?
Are earthlings better off when they are protected from people who humbly share the hope that is within them, all the while revealing deep love for the listeners.
Should we require those who stand up at AA meetings to talk about learning to live life with their higher power to have classical approval?
Is God somehow more pleased when men stand up in front of a crowd and “speak knowingly about God and God’s ways with earthlings”? (see Job 42)
Is preaching overrated?
Perhaps the time has come for the Church to hand the keys of the Kingdom back to God. Do we really know enough about the mystery of God and His unfathomable ways with earthlings in order to handle those keys with integrity?
John Vandonk CTS ex 78 M.Div FTS 1980
We love your comments! Thank you for helping us uphold the Community Guidelines to make this an encouraging and respectful community for everyone.