Altar Call - Opelika-Auburn News
November 5, 2000
During my 18th year I began to nurse the notion that God wanted me to become a
preacher. At first I was afraid to tell anyone. Then I told my pastor and a few close friends.
My pastor affirmed the idea and, in the same sentence, scared me to death. He invited me to
preach in our church the next Sunday night.
Quickly I discovered that being called to preach, and writing a sermon, are two different things. I had no idea where sermons came from. And I was certain I did not know how to write one. Fear seized me and held me in its terrifying grip.
My saintly grandmother, Neva Carmichael Johnson, came to my rescue. She had given me a book of "Gospel Sermons" written by great old evangelists like Billy Sunday and Dwight L. Moody. Not knowing any better, I picked out a sermon on "Happiness" and preached it in church that Sunday night.
Why "happiness" appealed to me I donít know. Perhaps it was because I was simply happy to have something to say. In later years I derived some humor from remembering that my very first sermon was a good one, so good it was already in print!
But I realized that night that I had a lot to learn. For one thing I was so nervous that I could not stand still. My friends thought it was neat that I moved around a lot. What they didnít know is that my knees were knocking so that I could not stand still. Then I read most of the sermon. I am embarrassed now to think about what an ordeal it must have been for the congregation - to endure a nervous, 18-year-old boy standing in the pulpit reading someone elseís sermon.
What is worse, there was not an honest person in the audience that night for everyone took the time to tell me what a good job I had done and how proud they were of me. I must admit that I enjoyed their lying, but now I realize that most of them probably went home muttering under their breath, "Lord, if the future of the church depends upon the likes of that poor boy, then heaven help us!"
For the next few years, as I pursued my education at API, now Auburn University, I was invited occasionally to preach at small country churches. Gradually my preaching got better, for I discovered books of sermons written by Clovis Chappell and Charles Allen. I would learn later that Clovis and Charles were "helping" many other preachers with their sermons also.
Three years of seminary training convinced me that I could, and should, learn how to write my own sermons. So gradually I learned how to weave my own life experiences into my sermons. Only then did I learn the power of being real, of sharing the raw truth about my hurts and feelings, my fears and dreams.
This taught me that sermons are more helpful when people can identify with the preacher, when they can feel that the preacher understands personally how the scriptures impact their lives. The listener wants to be able to think, "The preacher understands how I feel and what I am going through." Effective preaching accomplishes that rapport. You know it has happened when someone says after listening to you preach, "Pastor, you have been reading my mail."
In these days I donít succeed in preaching such sermons every Sunday but that is always my goal. One of my friends remarked to me one Sunday, "Some of your sermons are better than others." I got a good laugh out of that as I thought, "Thank God, because some of my sermons just taxi down the runway and never get off the ground." Every preacher knows the pain of preaching such a sermon.
When the preaching is especially poor, the agony of the listeners is almost unbearable. It is little wonder that some people go to sleep - in self defense. As one who has now been preaching for half a century, one of the great mysteries of life is that people can sit still long enough to hear someone else preach a sermon.
On behalf of my fellow preachers, I ask your forgiveness for those times when our sermons bore you out of your mind. And I thank you for your patient willingness to believe that now and then you will hear a sermon that will be worth your time.
Do know that without your love and encouragement none of us could ever find the nerve to stand up and preach Sunday after Sunday. Your encouragement fuels in us the hope that God may be willing to take the poor thing we offer him and use even it to touch someoneís heart.