Hershael York is Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching and Associate Dean of Ministry and Proclamation in the School of Theology of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Senior Pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church. He is married to Tanya and they have two sons.
I often have to answer the strangest question anyone could ask a preaching professor: “Do you think preaching can be taught?” I always want to respond, “No, I’m just going through the motions for the money.” Of course I never do, not only because it’s best not to say the smart aleck things I sometimes think, but because I know what they mean when they ask. It’s not really an unfair question.
No one denies that a preaching class and some coaching can help anyone become better. What we question is the possibility that someone with no natural giftedness and ability can be taught well enough that he can become really good.
For the last sixteen years I’ve sat in a seminary classroom, listening to student sermons on an almost daily basis, and I’ve heard every kind of sermon and every level of preacher. I’ve seen guys so nervous that they had to stop and vomit during the sermon, and I’ve been so moved by a student’s sermon that I felt I had been ushered into the presence of the risen Christ. I’ve seen guys who were no better the fifth time they preached for me than they were the first time, but I’ve seen guys whose initial sermon was depressingly awful turn it around so radically by the end of the semester that I almost couldn’t recognize him as the same preacher.
On the first day of the semester or the first time I hear a student preach, I have no way of knowing if he has what it takes or is willing to do what he must to be the preacher he needs to be, but I can usually tell by the second sermon if he does, because that is when he has to act on what I told him after his first sermon. What makes the difference?
The most frustrated preacher is the one who has a sense of duty but not a burning calling. Preaching is not just another helping profession, a Christian version of the politics or the Peace Corps. The call to preach is a definite demand issued by the Holy Spirit that ignites a fire in one’s bones that cannot be extinguished by the hard-hearted, stiff-necked, or dull of hearing. A preacher who has been called must preach what God has spoken simply because God has spoken it. The success of one’s ministry will depend on the strength of his calling. His willingness to work at his preaching will be proportional to his conviction that God has called him to preach and to be as fit a vessel for God’s use as he can be. The Holy Spirit must undergird everything else from preparation to delivery, and that will not happen apart from that calling.
Being a preaching professor is like getting paid to tell a mother that her baby is ugly. It might be the truth, but it’s not a truth anyone wants to hear. Most guys I have taught dread my comments and cringe when I tell them they missed the point of the text or seemed unprepared. They tire of hearing me tell them they lack energy or failed to establish a connection with the audience. Every now and then, however, someone smiles gratefully as I offer corrections and suggestions. Someone may even say, “I want you to be really tough on me. Tell me everything I’m doing wrong because I really want to do this well.” That guy is going to be fine because his spirit is teachable and he’s willing to pay the cost of personal discomfort in order to be effective. He understands that he is a vessel in service of the text and his feelings are not the point.
Almost all my students are passionate about Christ, about reaching the lost, and about the Word of God. The problem is not that they don’t feel passionate but rather that they do not show passion. What I feel is never the point, whether good or bad, but rather how I act. If my delivery of the Word does not convey that passion, then my audience will not be moved to be passionate about it either. The prophets were all passionate. The apostles were passionate. Jesus was passionate. Why else would farmers, fisherman, and housewives come stand in the Galilean sun for hours just to hear Him?
I once heard a missionary preach at the Southern Baptist Pastors Conference. He was dynamite, preaching a great expository sermon with incredible energy and moving the entire audience by his treatment of the Word and his testimony of baptizing tens of thousands of Africans. Astonished by his great preaching, I approached him and held out my hand to introduce myself. “Hershael.” he said, shocking me that he knew my name, “we went to seminary together.” Embarrassed, I admitted that I did not remember him. “You had no reason to,” he explained, “I was very quiet, never spoke in class, and never went out of my way to meet anyone.” I asked him to explain what happened. “When I got on the mission field, no one would listen to my preaching of the gospel. I was putting them to sleep. When I came stateside and preached in churches, they were bored to tears. Finally I realized that the only way to be effective was to preach the Word in the way it deserved to be preached, so I became willing to go beyond my natural personality and comfort zone and allow God to make me effective. I prayed for the Word to so grip me in the pulpit that I would never be boring again.” His teachability led him to show a passion that was not natural to his introverted personality. It was supernatural.
4. Reckless Abandon
The generation of students I now teach have grown up with the written word—on screens, smart phones, blogs, Kindles, and now iPads. Through video games they have raced cars, built civilizations, won wars, destroyed zombies and killed hundreds. They communicate orally far less than any previous generation, and when they do so, they typically do it with less passion. Yet God still uses the preaching of His Word—an oral event—to edify the church, encourage the saints, and engage the lost.
So to preach the Word, a young man has to be willing to get completely out of the comfortable cocoon he’s built in his personality and habits, and recklessly abandon himself to risk being a fool for Christ. I tell my students, “That little voice inside your head saying ‘That’s just not who I am’ is not your friend. Sanctification is the process by which the Holy Spirit overcomes ‘who I am’ and shapes me into who He wants me to be. So if I need to preach with a reckless abandon that is foreign to my natural way, I will beg the Holy Spirit to help me do it for Christ.”
Pay the Price
Frankly, very few students I teach fail to get the meaning of the text. They often demonstrate an exegetical and hermeneutical sophistication that astounds me. They are serious about the Word. But they make the mistake of thinking that if they just feel that way, and if they just say the words, the preaching will take care of itself. And if they keep thinking that, if they insist on “data dump” sermons that just concentrate on the content and not also the delivery, there’s not much I can do for them. They will be the kind of preachers they want to be.
But if someone has a burning calling, a teachable spirit, a passionate heart, and a reckless abandon to pay the price to preach well, then not even the limitation of their own background, personality, or natural talents will keep them from preaching the Word of God with power.
*Editor’s Note: For another helpful post on preaching, check out our interview with Jared Wilson and Tony Merida.