An Emerging Young Preacher (EYP) faces unique challenges and opportunities in their development. In particular they face some identity temptations unique to the early years of preaching development.
Few things mess with your identity like preaching. A ministerial student who had never preached once asked me what it felt like to deliver a sermon. I answered, “Sometimes it feels like taking off all of your clothes and going on stage with only a Bible in hand for thirty minutes.”
I am still considered by some to be an emerging young preacher. Though I preached my first sermon nearly 20 years ago, I’m not yet 40. Many in my own church still think of me as the “young preacher.” I preached every week right out of school, and (learning mostly “what not to do”) and now I serve on a large church staff, preaching more sporadically, which is a situation most EYPs find themselves in. All this has helped me reflect on the unique situation we EYPs find ourselves in, and I’ve dialogued with many of my peers who are frustrated and tempted to get off track in their focus, and I have as well.
Preaching is disconcerting. We don’t know how much stock to put into the encouragement we receive, or the criticism, for that matter. Mr. Fallsmith in the back row says, “Good sermon, Pastor” every week regardless of what we said. We put a great deal of emotion and energy into the sermon, then it is delivered, and then everyone goes back to their lives like before and we may feel spent and used, as if we just stood on stage naked for a half hour and at the end people say, “That was nice” or worse, “You seemed nervous.” Thanks, everyone, I know you mean well but I think you missed the point.
In the first decade or two of our ministry we Emerging Young Preachers (EYP) are figuring out our identities as preachers—or we are not doing so and should be. Even those of us who have preached every week or preach regularly to large crowds sort out our identity over decades, not weeks. During this long season of self-assessment and self-alignment we face many temptations:
- We are tempted to classify ourselves too early (as a preacher or non-preacher.) It’s tempting, after a few false starts, to say: “I’m not a preacher—I’m more about relationships.” Or, to say, “I’m a preacher most of all—I love to communicate.” When we say this anyone older and wiser just smiles and tells us to not make up our minds too soon.
- We are tempted to eliminate experimentation. After a few short term wins, like some sermon that seemed to click—we lock into that delivery style or prep system—and we lose out on one of the great advantages of being emerging young preachers: the grace given us to experiment.
- We are also tempted to put too much pressure on each preaching moment. We exhaust so much energy, emotional and otherwise, that we can come across as over-wrought and trying too hard. Our nervousness is actually causing this internal pressure, and unfortunately it can tempt us to call people to overly intense commitment at the end of messages. We must remember: this sermon is one of 52 they will hear this year. We are tempted to preach each shot like it’s the Super Bowl, when they are closer to the pre-season.
- We are tempted to miss the forest for the trees. Because we don’t usually preach as much as others, we are tempted to preach a sermon in a vacuum, and misunderstand how each Sunday or service fits into the whole. Mother’s day is different than Lent. The Sunday after Christmas is different than October. It may be that the teens have just come back from youth camp or a mission team to Haiti is being commissioned, and those church-season experiences should be a factor in our preparation.
- We are tempted to miss our preaching role in the local church. This is particularly true of we EYPs who are not preaching every week. We must consider how we dovetail with the senior pastor if we are on staff, and how our gifts match this particular church—what it can receive uniquely from us.
- We are tempted to impersonate. One of my mentors in my teens was a preacher who often had one key prop for each message. I loved it. So I once preached to a youth group in rural Indiana and every 2 minutes of my sermon I brought out another massive prop to make the point. I had a bunch of backpacking equipment in one corner. A huge “spare tire of prayer” in another. I had a big rope tied to my waist and about five other things. I was the “Carrot Top” of preaching—prop comedy at it’s worst, since they were laughing at me, not with me. We may find preachers to emulate and learn from, but we should never try to co-opt their style. This is what the old-timers mean when they say we need to find our own voice and “be yourselves.”
- We can be are tempted toward narcissism. Preaching itself is easily contorted into self-focus. In what other field would you say that every person connected with that professional, regardless of age or stage of life, should gather in one room once a week and not only listen to them talk for a long time but also commit their lives to following those instructions, with the possibility that not doing so will mean the Creator of the universe will be displeased? This is why a pulpit can become the greatest seat of manipulation on earth. While we need to be ourselves—we must understand that creating some super-ego inflation of our character for people to follow will be sinful along the way and unsustainable in the end.