By Carol Younger
My most helpful, humiliating classroom experience happened in a college poetry workshop. An award-winning poet turned professor asked why I had written a certain line. I naively said, “I wanted it to sound like a poem.” His face flushed with “wrong answer” written all over it. His voice boomed for the first and only time that semester. Apparently my response reflected all that was wrong with writing and the world. “You turned down the chance to discover a truth, explore an experience, and feel genuine emotion—so you could try and sound like someone else?” My professor was furious, which seemed like an overreaction at the time. Years later I know that he was right.
At last week's Mercer Preaching Consultation, Lillian Daniel addressed “The Importance of the Church in a Culture of Narcissism.” As religion becomes more trivialized in American culture, she explains, the prevailing view becomes, “we don't need someone to tell us about God.” On the other hand, “we long to hear genuine stories.” When our words reflect testimony and transformative experiences of God, people are responding. King Lear's lines hold true, “The weight of this sad time we must obey. Speak what we feel and not what we ought to say.”
Daniel challenged us to consider why we preach and write. Preaching and writing are forms of prayer that help Daniel see God in her life, learn to pay attention, read the Bible, confess and repent. They help her redeem bad experiences, say something she wants large numbers of people to hear, start conversations or change them, and make people laugh.
Surrounding Daniel's lectures were six presentations and a sermon that challenged preachers and their audience to offer genuine words. During Sunday night worship at First Baptist of St. Simons Rob Nash preached 1 Corinthians 2, “Does Preaching Matter?” Do we rise to the occasion and say what matters most, or do we fail to say what's needed? Do we get to the heart of faith matters, or do we let opportunities pass?
Bill Shiell's “From 'Slow of Heart' to 'Burning Heart(s)': Preaching that Overcomes Forgetfulness” used the Emmaus story to model how we might help listeners picture, imagine, experience and remember.
In “The Power of a Healthy Pulpit,” Bill Wilson described the impact our words have when they move from the sermon into the congregation's heart, imagination and vision.
“The Treachery of Sermons” was Jake Hall's reminder that our words have to come off the page into our hearts and lives. “This word work we do is dangerous. It makes us vulnerable. We think it's ours, but even at the heart of our preaching we don't know exactly what we're saying. Sermons are not made by us.”
Shaun King used “Every Sermon I'll Ever Preach, Ever,” to pose the question, “At what point in your homiletical journey will you discover the voice that is always you?” He shared the struggle of attempting before age 42, “to preach in a voice not my own,” trying on other clothes and recognizing that they don't fit. He reminded us to discover and preach out of the voice God created for us.
Ruth Perkins Lee spoke to those who preach to a variety of congregations one time. “If You Only Preach One Sermon. . .” showed why every service matters. Every sermon can become a place of worship, an experience of joy, a word of God for the people of God.
In “What I'm Learning About Preaching from Seminarians,” Bill Coates explained, “True preaching is always about God and what we know about God.” He shared stories of seminarians who are showing him that our work is about helping God repair the world and telling those stories.
Whenever I'm tempted to offer a sermon that I have not lived, I plan to go over some voice lessons from St. Simons. May first-hand faith experiences always shape our preaching and writing. And as we preach and write, may we hear a voice larger than our own.
Carol Younger is a writer and editor for the Center for Teaching Churches. She has taught classes as an adjunct professor at McAfee School of Theology and writes numerous devotional books and Christian Ed. curriculums. She is a gifted wife, mother, writer, teacher, and preacher.