Listen To Article
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.