Generalizations are tricky, and they are always somewhat wrong. Having taught preaching at one of the schools affiliated with the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ recently, I had difficulty recruiting college-age men into the preaching discipline. In this article, I want to examine some of the reasons for the smaller numbers of people interested in preaching today and offer some suggestions for what to do about it.
I. Factors that Interfere with the Study of Preaching
Ben Mandrell offers three reasons why the preacher population is declining. The first reason he calls the fear of failure, that refers to the growing belief among many young adults that the traditional church is locked into rigid forms and seems unwilling to innovate. Many young adults do not believe they can fit into the traditional church. Thom Rainer amens this idea in an interview with Michael Dudit in which Rainer says: “This generation is not going to take Churchianity as usual. This generation is determined that if it is going to be part of a local congregation, that congregation has got to be changing the world…These young adults are frustrated with church as usual, with local church actions, business and what they perceive as irrelevancy. So they’re starting churches.” Frustrations with traditional churches reduce the appeal of preaching to many of our young adults.
A second reason offered by Mandrell regarding the scarcity of preaching students is what he calls a lack of exposure. Simply put, many young people feel disconnected from the pastor of their churches—instead they identify with the youth or college minister. Bob Russell, a well-known minister of the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ agrees with this idea. He says many senior pastors no longer actively recruit preaching students in their congregations, unlike yesteryear. Youth ministers seem to be modeling powerful ministry to our young, so the idea of becoming a senior pastor is not on the radar for many of our ministry students. Lack of exposure is also seen in the fading away of Christian service camps in which the final invitation of each week was directed to inviting young people to consider ministry. Simply put, the church in many ways is not recruiting young people to preach these days.
A third reason Mandrell offers for the lack of interest in preaching is a fear of a dysfunctional family. Particularly, women today view the tradition of a pastor’s wife with suspicion and fear. So when young men feel a call to preach, their girlfriends are very discouraging. The pulpit seems a dangerous place for a man who wants to be fully present and fully engaged with his family.
There are other discouraging factors to the call to preach. One of those factors is simply a lack of respect for ministry that is currently in vogue in our culture. Brian Baldwin, professor of youth and family ministry at Kentucky Christian University said that when he was campus minister at Murray State University, some parents were not supportive of the call to ministry for their children. In this secular age, Christian parents do not support their children entering ministry, because “there is not enough money in that profession.” Some Christian parents also try to talk their children out of ministry.
Another discouraging factor to collegians studying preaching is the diversification of the college curriculum in most ministry schools today. Rob O’Lynn, the current professor of preaching at Kentucky Christian University said some senior pastors counsel their ministry students to take youth ministry in college in order to get a job—and focus on preaching later. Obviously, if young men who are interested in preaching never study the craft while in school, then they will not be as skilled as they should be when it comes time to preach later. In previous generations of training students for ministry, there was only one ministerial track available to ministry students which required at least two semesters of preaching for all males interested in ministry. Today, youth ministry courses are often in competition with preaching courses in many ministry programs.
Financial debt is another reason some college students do not pursue preaching. The amount of college debt is overwhelming today, and I personally have seen several young men who were interested in preaching pursue a community college education rather than Christian college due to the difference in tuition costs between public and private education. I believe churches should be more proactive in supporting the preaching ministry by investing in scholarships for preaching students.
Also, in denominations that permit women to preach, there is still a stigma attached to women serving in pulpits; so some talented women will not pursue this ministerial calling while others will have difficulty being hired by local churches. Most women interested in ministry will pursue educational or youth ministry positions in the local church rather than preaching. With all these negative factors that interfere with the study of preaching, the discipline of preaching seems to be in trouble.
II. Possibilities for the Recruitment and Training of Preachers
One way to improve the exposure of ministry students to the preaching discipline is to better balance credit hours within college curricula between youth ministry and preaching tracks. Most undergraduate ministry schools have youth ministry or preaching concentrations or majors that generally require nine to 12 hours for each emphasis. Because we live in an age of specialization, it has seemed natural for ministry to specialize in the past few years rather than go in a general direction in terms of preparation. Yet I would argue that as most male ministry students begin their ministry with youth minister positions, and many will end up preaching by the end of their careers, it makes sense to balance youth ministry and preaching training. I am not saying that all specialization needs to cease in terms of ministry preparation, but I think a general approach to ministry needs to be a possibility for ministry students. In this program, students would take at least six semester hours in youth ministry and preaching. I have found that at least two courses in any subject are required in order to attain competence in a skill set. Two semester courses in preaching was the standard preaching prep when I was in Bible college, and I believe this curriculum would better serve many of our male students who are pursuing ministry in a Christian school setting.
I think senior pastors also have to do a better job of recruiting talented youth for the preaching ministry. The number one job in ministry is preaching. Every church wants a preacher regardless of all other concerns. One thing I have learned about ministry is that preaching teaches you the Bible as no other method of scriptural study. This fact came as a surprise to me personally in my life, and I think this blessing really needs to be promoted by preaching ministers to their youth. Because the act of preaching requires the greatest amount of preparation of any ministry act (more than teaching), preaching immerses you in the text, and your retention of Scripture is great. It is the discipline of preaching that truly makes a person a master of Scripture even for Bible college graduates who have majored in Bible. I thought I knew the Bible through taking multiple Bible classes in my educational career. I truly discovered the Bible through preaching. We need to tell our students that if they want to truly learn the Bible: Preach!
One final motivation to study preaching. Preaching is blessed by God (
Mandrell Ben. “Finding Timothy: Raising the Next Generation of Preachers.” Preaching, 26(6), pp. 18-21.
Duduit, Michael, “Reaching the Millennials: An Interview with Thom Rainer.” Preaching (27) 4, p. 9.
Author’s notes. National Preaching Conference, March 2011, Indianapolis, IN.
Mandrell, p. 20.
Baldwin, Brian. Assistant Professor of Youth Ministry, Kentucky Christian University. A private conversation with the author, 2010.
O’Lynn, Rob. Assistant Professor of Preaching, Kentucky Christian University. A private conversation with the author, February 2011.