Ernest Brooks on Inspiring Young People to Become Preachers
The Academy of Preachers identifies promising young preachers from all Christian backgrounds and brings them together to explore and develop their preaching gifts.
In this Strengthening Preaching conversation series, preachers from a range of Christian traditions and denominations reflect on their growth as preachers through their involvement in the Strengthening Preaching initiative of Lilly Endowment Inc., which is coordinated by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. At the heart of the initiative are preaching peer groups, sponsored by various seminaries, which engage preachers in reading, discussion, preaching, and feedback—all within a collegial circle of support.
In this edited conversation, Ernest A. Brooks III, president and CEO of the Academy of Preachers, discusses the mission, joys, and challenges of his organization’s work with young people and shares his insights on the future of preaching.
Tell us a little about the mission of the Academy of Preachers.
The mission of the Academy of Preachers is to identify, develop, network, and inspire young people in their call to gospel preaching. That’s a big mission, and we do that in a number of ways. We work through our partners—congregations, undergraduate institutions, seminaries, and other institutional partners—to identify young people between the ages of 14 and 35 who have expressed a call to ministry or who show the promise of a potential call.
We identify these young people from all over the country, from various walks of life, from a plethora of denominational perspectives and cultural backgrounds, and bring them together to give them an opportunity to explore their preaching gifts. Participants may range from young people who have never preached a sermon before and who haven’t even considered ministry as a calling but whose youth pastor said, “You should try this; you’d be good for this,” to young people who may be in seminary or have some professional ministry experience.
We bring them together and build communities and networks of support for them. The central way we do this is through events like the National Festival of Young Preachers and regional preaching festivals. Our festivals are experimental spaces, and the Academy of Preachers itself is an entrepreneurial ministry.
What are the greatest challenges you face in inspiring young people in their call to preaching?
The first challenge and opportunity is emphasizing preaching as a vital and vibrant part of Christian ministry in an environment—both within the church and within the theological academy over the past twenty years—where there’s been some question as to how significant pulpit preaching ought to be in one’s ministerial toolkit. In some traditions, there’s a sense that we have emphasized the preacher and the charisms of personality and the individual agency of “the sage on the stage” too much and have started to emphasize other aspects of ministry instead.
The Academy of Preachers was created in large part to be a player in that conversation—to say, yes, ministry is multifaceted, and we need more people with a commitment to a variety of forms of ministry and to the operational aspects of organizations. But we don’t need to de-emphasize preaching in order to elevate these other aspects of ministry.
A second challenge is the diversity of perspectives and traditions—the various ways that people approach the question of what preaching is, not to mention what effective preaching is. Those differences usually are defined by culture, by tradition, by theological framing of different traditions. We have intentionally created an environment in our national festival that brings together all these traditions and focuses not on what tradition is best or most effective, or what methodology is most appropriate, but on meeting young people where they are and giving them an opportunity to preach however they define preaching.
Then we provide evaluation, coaching, and feedback that doesn’t focus on the cultural and theological distinctives of their tradition. We enter into a conversation around how they see themselves as preachers and how they would like to grow and develop.
We recognize that many of the young people who participate in our events will not go into full-time pastoral ministry or preaching ministry. Some may come and preach at a festival and end up in a career in teaching or medicine or law or social work, and part of our work is asking how we can do both of these things well: How do we identify gifted and talented young people who have callings and giftedness for professional Christian ministry and provide supportive structures for them to continue to discern that, but also, for those who may go in another professional direction, how do we broaden our perspective on Christian vocation?
What encourages you the most about this work?
I think it’s the eschatological tension between the already and the not yet. Part of our work is renewing the church, and it’s lifegiving to be a part of a movement that identifies young people who have the energy, ambition, skills, and talent that the church needs for its vitality in the world.
But part of the conversation is focused not just on the institutions, systems, and structures that we already have—the Christian church, Christian ministry as it’s been traditionally defined—but on emerging models of spiritual engagement and ministry and ecclesial life that are taking us places we’ve never been before.
The Academy of Preachers has a unique opportunity as we work with young people who are navigating this call. Many of them say, “I’m called to preach, I’m called to ministry, but I’m not sure I want to be a pastor in same way my pastor was.” Or, “I’m not sure that the type of community I want to lead is going to look like the Sunday morning 11 a.m. assembly I grew up in.”
So being able to journey with them and be a bridge between these two worlds is probably the most exciting part of our work.
From a ten-thousand-foot view, how is preaching changing and how is it staying the same?
I think two streams are emerging. The first is a renewed interest in the art and craft of preaching, and I think that is spurred by new modes of communication—podcasts and video blogs and YouTube and Facebook. Technology has revitalized the opportunity for communities to rally around the spoken word and for preachers and other communicators to really hone their craft. And people are being introduced and exposed to so much diversity that you see more preachers being open to trying various styles of teaching or preaching.
The second stream is a renewed focus on the life of the preacher and on how who the preacher is as an individual comes to bear in their sermons and their preaching. I think we’re witnessing a renewed attention not just on the silver-tongued, sterling speaker who preaches with power and conviction; people are asking, “What is it about who you are and how you live that gives you the authority to preach that? Who you are Monday through Saturday—and is that reflected in what you’re preaching on Sunday?” I think that’s also reframing how we teach preaching and how we think about how preaching is connected to the rest of our lives.
How does the Academy of Preachers relate to seminaries and denominations?
The Academy of Preachers is not a denominational body. We don’t ordain people; we don’t authorize them for ministry. Neither are we a seminary, so we don’t provide a rigorous curriculum that certifies them for ministry. But we connect young people to institutions that have both of those functions. We are a bridge, and part of fulfilling that role is asking: How can we augment what is being done in each of those spaces? and What liberties do we have as an independent nonprofit to go a step beyond what might be comfortable or feasible in an ecclesial institution or a theological institution?
We think there’s some cutting-edge work we can to do push the questions a bit further for the benefit of those institutions and in a way they may not be able to do in their day-to-day frames.
Watch young preachers in action at the Academy of Preachers’ YouTube channel.
Learn more about membership in the Academy of Preachers.
Read The Missed Opportunity: My Festival Story, an article by Nick Bettis based on an interview with Ernest Brooks.
Read Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga Jr.