SECOND OPINION: Teaching laypeople about preaching -- and rediscovering its beauty

If I were being completely honest, I would tell you that the whole idea was a little, tiny bit self-serving. Having recently completed my doctor-of-ministry degree in preaching, I, strangely enough, managed to maintain my passion for the subject even through all the pain of slogging toward graduation. I love preaching; I feel an urgency about how it should and can be done; and, most of all, I love to talk about it with other people who feel the same.

If I were being completely honest, I would tell you that the whole idea was a little, tiny bit self-serving.

Having recently completed my doctor-of-ministry degree in preaching, I, strangely enough, managed to maintain my passion for the subject even through all the pain of slogging toward graduation. I love preaching; I feel an urgency about how it should and can be done; and, most of all, I love to talk about it with other people who feel the same.

Amy Butler
All of those factors, combined with pastoring a congregation of radical Baptists who believe they all have something to contribute to the gospel ministry in this place, birthed the idea of offering a six-week preaching class here at Calvary.

For laity.

Honestly, I didn’t know if anyone would be interested. I observe that most normal people don’t really need to cultivate the skill of preaching in the same way that they would, say, the skill of cooking. But, I figured at least a preaching class would manufacture a captive audience that would have to talk about preaching with me for an hour and a half every Sunday afternoon for six weeks. And, maybe, if I was very lucky, a few people would become passionate advocates for overworked and underpaid pastors everywhere.

I think members of the class learned a lot, but I know that I learned the most. And that leads me to wonder when I will ever learn that when God shows up somewhere, my expectations should always be the first thing to go.

Eight Calvary members signed up for “Preaching: An Introduction.” For four weeks we read books about preaching and argued over the eternal question: What is good preaching? We talked about the relevance of preaching in the larger life of the congregation. We explored techniques for researching and preparing a sermon. We learned how to exegete a passage. We debated sermon form and the ever-pressing preaching-from-a-manuscript-versus-an-outline controversy. We talked about and practiced standing at the pulpit, reading Scripture, and various other issues related to sermon delivery. And, finally, we were each assigned a passage and told to write a sermon. (Well, I wasn’t; they were. I got to sit back and watch!)

Here’s what happened:

I learned that Calvary members take good preaching almost as seriously as I do, and they have distinct opinions on the matter (why church members having opinions and feeling compelled to share them should surprise me, I have no idea). And, furthermore, I learned that there are a whole lot of really, really gifted preachers in our congregation. These realizations, as you might imagine, led to mixed feelings. On the one hand, if I suddenly got laryngitis one Sunday morning, I now know that there’s a pool of well-prepared preachers who could step in at the last minute. On the other hand, whatever illusion of indispensability I harbored before has now been completely obliterated.

The class learned that preparing and delivering a sermon is hard work (if you want to do it well, that is). As I watched them struggle with their texts, discern their messages, and soldier through their creative processes, I developed such admiration that they took this so seriously that they would even expend this kind of effort.

And, we all learned that the opportunity to engage the biblical text and listen intently for a word from God, combined with the holy honor of voicing that word aloud, is one of the most profound spiritual experiences around. One class member said, “I hate to admit that I hardly ever read my Bible before. I just was intimidated by the thought of even opening it. Now ... I can’t wait to see what God might be saying to me and to our community. It’s like an adventure!”

And that was it -- the holy honor of it all. That was what took me by surprise the most. I was just playing teacher for a few weeks; I didn’t expect to be bowled over again by the knowledge and urgency of God’s call in my own life. But what a gift this experience was -- a gift far beyond my own original self-serving intentions. To remember the thrill of believing the message of redemption and hope so deeply that it becomes like an adventure to proclaim it -- that’s why I got into this business in the first place!

Now I remember.

Amy Butler is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington. You can also read her thoughts regularly on her blog, Talk With the Preacher.