By Daniel Schantz
I paused by the open door of a Bible college preaching class. A nervous young man was delivering his first sermon. The video camera glared at him like an electric dragon, and the students were busy filling out evaluation forms on his performance.
Thanks to accreditation, Bible college is now all about evaluation—meticulous, relentless evaluation. It may be a boon to bureaucrats, but it can be brutal to a tender young spirit.
As I watched the boy, my mind drifted back to my own first sermon, when I was just a 15-year-old preacher’s son, attending the Sabina (Ohio) Church of Christ.
“Would you deliver the sermon on youth night, two weeks from now?” the youth sponsor asked after church. “It should be about 20 minutes long, and any topic you like.”
I was flattered, but I was also in shock.
Many of our best preachers learned to preach before they even got to Bible college, and with good reason. What beginners need most is not formal instruction and close evaluation, but rather the freedom to fail in an atmosphere of support. Creativity flourishes in an environment of acceptance, and it suffers under scrutiny.
Inspired by the sponsor’s confidence in me, I labored on my sermon for 10 days straight, in every spare moment.
By Thursday it was done, but I needed to rehearse it, so I marched next door to the church.
The church was unlocked. Most churches were unlocked in those days, seven days a week.
The janitor was the only person in the building, and I approached him, timidly.
“I wonder if I could use the auditorium to practice my sermon for youth night?”
“Sure, we can do that!” He seemed truly happy for me. He flipped on a couple auditorium lights and then quietly disappeared.
I stepped up onto the platform. It felt like the top of the world. The empty building was eerily quiet, and had a musty, woody smell to it.
I reached for the microphone, an old clunker as big as a toaster and as heavy as a shot put. I snapped it on.
“Good evening. My text tonight is from Hebrews five. . . . ”
My adolescent voice rattled around the room and bounced back to my face. It didn’t sound like me, and I didn’t like it. I turned it off. Back then, if I had been forced to watch myself on a videotape, I might not be a minister today. Too much feedback can be overwhelming.
I looked at my notes, a scribbled mess of revisions. Then I took a deep breath and said a silent prayer. Had I known I would be preaching almost every Sunday for the next 55 years of my life, I might have bolted for the door at that very moment, but blindness to the future is a gift from God.
How to begin, I wasn’t sure, but I had long admired the style of Cecil Todd, a tent evangelist from the Kiamichi Mountains, who had preached a revival at the Sabina church not long before. Cecil had a voice like a trumpet.
So I began to shout, pacing back and forth as I yelled. A half hour later I ran out of steam, my throat burning, my face flushed. I stopped to catch my breath.
No one in the auditorium laughed at me or fell asleep or walked out. No audience at all was the perfect crowd for a beginner.
I walked down in front of the Communion table and envisioned someone coming forward to accept Christ, and I practiced taking his confession of faith. Then I climbed the steps to the baptistery and pretended to be baptizing my convert. Finally, I strode down the center aisle to the foyer, where I practiced shaking hands with the departing crowd.
Sunday night arrived much too soon. I sat on the platform, rehearsing my fears. What if I put them all to sleep? What if I say something wrong? What if I have a breakdown?
And then it was time. I stood up and began shouting, the way I had rehearsed. No one moved, no one laughed. Instead they listened, nodded, smiled, and my confidence grew.
Sixteen minutes later it was over. I made my way to the foyer, where I stood there in a daze, wondering what my victims would have to say.
“Good work, young man.”
“I loved your stories.”
“You kept it simple; I like that.”
No one said a single negative thing, and I nearly threw up with relief.
The building was almost empty, when a deacon motioned to me from the front pew, where he was counting the offering. I sat down next to him. He was a quiet, gentle man, with a rich sense of humor, and I adored him.
“Danny,” he began, softly, seriously, “I want to commend you on your sermon tonight. You put a lot of work into it, and it showed. It was super.”
I nodded and waited for the other shoe to drop.
“But you know, Danny, there is only one Cecil Todd, and there is only one Danny Schantz, and frankly, I like Danny just the way he is.” He smiled and gave me a one-arm hug.
It was the gentlest of criticisms, coined as a compliment, and I “got it.” Never again did I yell in a sermon.
My story could be repeated by a thousand preachers, with only minor variations.
Like Olympic athletes, good preachers are usually recruited early in life, and early reactions to their work can make or break them.
Here are three things a congregation can do to nurture new voices:
• Engage young men in service early on. Ask them to read Scripture during worship. Let them give the Communion meditation. Call on them to pray at the church dinner. Invite them to give devotions at the start of a board meeting. Give them a class to teach.
• Give specific suggestions after their performance. “Loved your stories” and “you kept it simple” were helpful to me, because I could repeat those things. “Good work,” was OK, but a bit vague.
• If you must criticize, be as gentle as a brain surgeon. A little evaluation is a lot of evaluation. Always end on a positive note. “I loved your sermon, in spite of that one little glitch.”
I bless the members of the Sabina church who gave me early accolades. And I bless the janitor who turned on the lights to my future.
Dan Schantz is retired professor emeritus at Central Christian College in Moberly, Missouri.