A survey carried out for the Evangelical Alliance just over a year ago found that the average age of full time paid diocesan clergy is 52 years and that 23% of full-time clergy are aged 60 or over.
With this in mind it is somewhat refreshing and fascinating – that two of the finalists of the 2016 Sermon of the Year competition being held this week at Christian Resources Exhibition (CRE) in London are aged just 16 and 17.
The competition is a joint initiative by The London School of Theology (LST) and Preach Magazine which aims to celebrate and raise awareness of the art of preaching sermons. We decided to add an ‘under 21’ category in order to see if there were younger people out there who had the desire (and ability) to write sermons which would grab people’s attention.
Jess Mackin, 16 is one of the finalists. I asked her if preaching was still a good way to engage people, she said, ‘I believe the sermon will always be relevant, for me it is the best way to build my own interpretations on parts of the Bible.
‘My friend’s dad is a Vicar and before the second sermon I ever did, I asked him how to write a good one. He told me that you have to take the congregation on a journey of understanding, making it relatable to the congregation, like how Jesus did.'
Some find the idea of a competition for preachers controversial. As Jo Swinney, Editor of Preach Magazine explains, ‘There are those who find the very idea offensive: surely the power and efficacy of a sermon is a matter of the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit, who takes the almost incidental words of the preacher and sets them alight in the hearts of those hearers ready to hear and respond to the voice of God?
'Anyone who has sat through a sermon however will recognise a good one from a bad one, a mediocre trudge through three points beginning with P from soaring oratory that changes your life forever, a carefully honed diamond of a homily from a hastily assembled excuse for a blessed thought for the day. Preaching is an art form, and excellent art honours God.’
The other ‘under 21 finalist of the Sermon of the Year’ is Philip Hutch, 17.
‘For many years, I worked tirelessly to share the message of Jesus with anyone who would listen,' he explains.
'I and my friends ran Alpha courses, prayer groups, interfaith groups; we ran assemblies and managed to initiate a pop concert with the Message Trust. It was these experiences that forced me to develop my ability to communicate who Jesus really was. A small village church was brave enough to give me, a 14-year-old child, the opportunity to preach. It was simple and short and lacked anything profound or exciting, but by the second and third opportunity, I was aware that God’s Spirit was using me more powerfully than I had expected.'
Let’s raise the profile and standard of preaching in the UK
One of my favourite Theologians J.I. Packer once said: ‘We complain today that ministers do not know how to preach; but is it not equally true that our congregations do not know how to hear?’ It is certainly our hope that by running The Sermon of the Year it will encourage those who attend churches to be expectant of a good sermon.
The ‘top 10’ shortlisted sermons from the competition have been collected into a book, imaginatively entitled – Reason For Hope, The Top Ten Sermons of the Sermon of the Year 2016. Those who attend the live final at CRE today (Fri 20th May) will receive a free copy. It’s also available at cpo.org.uk. This ‘best of’ makes inspiring reading and gives me hope that there are some great creative, engaging preachers out there.
Let’s raise the profile and standard of preaching in the UK, and let’s not let age be a barrier. I love the account in Luke of Jesus at age 12 preaching in the temple: 'All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished.’ (Luke 2:47-48)
This adolescent Jesus already shows a real sense of his mission and calling, born out of his unique relationship to God but actioned in a way that made it accessible to those around him. I find this to be a fantastic example and encouragement that we should give young people more chance to lead and preach in church. Yes they will need guidance and training, but the passion to share God’s word effectively is the core driver that should be ignited and developed.
I’ll give the final word to Jess: ‘So at the heart of ‘sermoning’ is making the glory of God expressed in the Bible relatable to the people listening to you ramble.’
Be encouraged and hone your preaching skills whatever your age!
Matt Adcock is director of communications at London School of Theology (LST)