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National Festival of Young Preachers: Hope for the Church's Future

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A year ago I attended the National Festival of Young Preachers, an initiative of the Academy of Preachers. And I reported here that I had seen the future of preaching, and it's a beautiful thing.

I returned to Louisville, Kentucky for this year's Festival Jan. 2-5, and my hope for the future of the church has only broadened and deepened. But we still have some work to do.

As the producer and host of the "Day 1" radio program, which gives outstanding mainline Protestant preachers an international platform for messages of grace and hope on 200 stations and online, I was asked to participate in the festival again by its founder and "gospel catalyst," the Rev. Dr. Dwight Moody.

Again more than 120 young men and women -- high school and college/university students, seminarians and graduate students -- came together with their mentors (usually a pastor or teacher or other church leader), some family members and friends in Louisville for three days of nearly non-stop preaching.

The event is designed to encourage young people who aspire to be preachers of the Christian faith by giving them a platform and feedback from peers, mentors and other evaluators (and I was privileged to evaluate 12 preachers this year). The purpose is to identify these young people and sustain them in their call, organizers explain, "cultivating within them the conviction that gospel preaching is a vocation of great social and spiritual significance and is worthy of their very best."

It's not a competition. This isn't "American Preaching Idol." Rather, "it's a celebration, an inspiration, an occasion of mutual edification and encouragement."

And it is an authentically ecumenical enterprise--certainly one of the most interdenominational endeavors in American Christianity today. Participating were young preachers of many races from 30 states representing 30 denominations: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, Pentecostal, every sort of Baptist you can think of, Church of Christ, Church of God, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Nazarene, Ethiopian Orthodox, independent and nondenominational. And I'm sure I missed some. It couldn't have been more diverse.

Along with plenary sessions featuring powerful messages by Matthew and Elizabeth Myer Boulton, the Rev. Reginald Sharpe, Father Jeff Nicolas and the Rev. Dr. Safiyah Fosua, the young preachers also enjoyed this year's Preachapalooza banquet, huddled in peer support groups, and visited with the many exhibitors -- organizations (such as ours), seminaries, publishers, and others.

But the highlight of these three days by far was experiencing the preaching of these young men and women. (Once again you will be able to see them preach on the Academy's YouTube channel.) The assigned focus for this year's sermons was the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). So you had sermons from over 120 young people on pretty much the same texts. No two sermons were remotely similar.

An event with such diversity isn't particularly easy to pull off in this age of such political and religious division. You had members of some faith traditions that believe women should not be heard from a pulpit listening attentively to gifted women preachers. You had white women and men who had never been in an African-American church experiencing the moving cadence and energy of that style of preaching. You had conservative Christians hearing, possibly for the first time, an impassioned, faithful, biblical message from a much more progressive preacher. And it worked beautifully.

As Dr. Moody wrote in the program book, "Regardless of your tradition -- Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox, Protestant or Pentecostal -- I can assure you [that you] will hear, feel or think something outside of your comfort zone every day of this ecumenical event. As you experience these things, adhere to a command at the core of the Gospel: Do not fear! Receive all of this as the voice of God and open your mind and soul to what God wants to say to and through you."

The vast majority of those in attendance did just that. And that can give us all hope for the future.

As courageous as these young preachers were, it still can be a troubling and uncomfortable experience to encounter a different tradition. For instance, one dynamic African-American preacher, preaching boldly at his third Festival, told me that he was a bit saddened and curious that no white participant came up to him afterwards to thank him for his message.

I had found his sermon to be powerfully biblical and personally helpful, and I enjoy the lively style and the energetic call and response with the audience. But to some attending, this was a new and disconcerting experience. I told him perhaps they needed to process what they'd experienced, as well as the insightful content he'd shared. He thought that might be so, because the next day he did start to get more feedback.

This opened up a conversation between this young preacher and me about the differences between the African-American preaching style and what most Caucasian congregations experience. I said that I really believed this event enables young women and men from all sorts of traditions to experience different styles of worship, which they may otherwise never encounter. He agreed, adding that there is a great need for whites and African-Americans to enter into deeper conversations on what we can learn from one another, and how better, together, we cab proclaim the Good News in our world today. I couldn't agree more.

Over these three days once again I sensed the Spirit of God at work powerfully in these young lives -- as well as in the lives of those who heard their sermons. This National Festival of Young Preachers is one way that the body of Christ can come together, learn from one another, and share in the work of proclaiming the gospel together. God knows we need that in this world more than ever.

Next year in Atlanta!

Check out Reginald Sharpe, one of last year's fine young preachers from the conference:

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