Freedom to Flunk

By: Matthew Wesley Williams
January 07, 2011

I started in the preaching ministry at the age of 15. Fifteen is a strange age. At least it was for me. I was just old enough to have my own ideas about this and that. And I was just young enough to be very certain about my ideas. But I was also just “green” enough to believe that what I had to say might be useful to God in a preaching moment. I preached my first sermon on a chilly spring day in April 1992 in Chicago, IL. This was the pulpit in which a master preacher got up each Sunday to “break the bread of life.” However on this Sunday, this people and this preacher let the young people “run the service.” And they let me preach the morning message.

I preached a sermon entitled, “Lions, Bears, and Giants,” exploring David’s declaration of faith, “God has delivered me from the hand of lions, bears, and giants. God will also deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” When I finished that sermon the church went wild with applause and expressions of praise. At the time, I thought it was because I had preached a brilliant and powerful sermon. I went back and listened to that sermon recently. My God, that sermon was awful! In the vernacular of preachers who rate performance, I “flunked” that day. My initial sermon was a genuine disaster.

So what was this congregation clapping for? In retrospect, I believe this community of faith loved God enough to love the young people God had entrusted to them. I believe those shouts of “Hallelujah” and “Thank you, Jesus” were shouts of gratitude for the fact that God’s good news in Christ had been transmitted to another generation. Now that next generation had begun to take up the responsibility of communicating the gospel. My experience in that church also suggests that their support was also an expression of commitment. They made a commitment to walk with me to facilitate my growth and learning. That freedom they provided came with responsibility. The community held expectations of excellence. Beyond that moment, through study, modeling, and mentoring, I was able to develop greater facility with the practice of preaching.

That church was a grace-filled space in which I had the freedom to flunk. With that freedom I was provided the space to identify, explore, and reflect on my sense of call to ministry. I think that grace and freedom are indispensible qualities of a community of faith that will nurture vocation in young people. Here, performance and expertise are not what is most important. Faithfulness and willingness to learn, even through flunking, are what’s most important. I think this is some of the stuff vocational discernment is made of.

These memories came back to me like a flood this week as I accompanied a group of our Fellows into the National Festival of Young Preachers in Louisville, KY. Hundreds of young people from teenagers to late twenty-somethings are mounting the pulpit to practice preaching with one another. From a wide array of traditions including Methodist, Baptist, UCC, Ethiopian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Pentecostal, these young people are standing up to preach in a community that holds the space for them to try on this aspect of the mantle of ministry. Some preach as though they have been in the pulpit for longer than they have been alive. Others have, like me, flunked. But I am encouraged about the future of the church, when all God’s children can get together in a space like this to share from their hearts and reason together. May we continue to create these kinds of communities where young people have the freedom to flunk, learn and grow.

Tags: Inspired Leaders, Thinking Out Loud, Shaping the Future


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