I spent the last couple of days in what’s called The Triangle of North Carolina (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill), leading a cadre of students from the Duke Divinity School in a workshop called Sermons That Pop & Series That Stick.
The reason that is moderately interesting is that I am an alum of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. And in the realm of theological education & ministry preparation, Asbury & Duke are sometimes viewed as … frenemies.
Collegial, but guarded. Respectful, but wary.
Here’s the deal: historically, Asbury represents the strand of Methodism that blossomed on the American frontier in the early 1800s, full of revivalistic focus, calls to salvation, and preaching that includes, if not bible thumping, at least bible lifting (if you attend Good Shepherd, you know what I mean by that). Duke, on the other hand, embodies the strain of Methodism that more closely resembles our Anglican roots, with reverent liturgy, scholarly preaching, and persistent invitations to holiness of heart and life.
The paragraph I just wrote paints two schools with an extremely broad brush . . . but I think most within the denomination would agree with the contours I’ve described.
So I was invited to by Brad Thie, former ministerial colleague in southwest Charlotte & current director of the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative at Duke, to share my experience and perspectives with 20 or so students under his care. Brad believed that his students would gain by hearing from a “different” sort of UMC congregation AND he thought they would be interested in how it came to be that Abingdon Press has turned so many series into books.
When I talked about how our sermon series at Good Shepherd have become more than a series of sermons (remember how the Home campaign raised $400,000 to fight human trafficking?), I was able to share the art that makes each series come alive.
When I told the students that I typically prepare message eight weeks out, I encountered some pushback. “What if something happens in the news that you need to preach on?” “Well,” I answered, “On extremely rare occasions we’ve done that, but in general I don’t want to be held captive by the latest news cycle. Nor do I want to talk about subjects about which I have amateurish knowledge at best. I try not to be reactive.” I could tell that answer encouraged some students and frustrated others.
I could sense a bit of “did he really say that?” when I talked about Good Shepherd’s enthusiasm for baptism-by-immersion. A tiny bit of “that’s not the way I’ve heard it” when I suggested that that our recent, raucous Night Of Worship was actually more in tune with what it means to be “Methodist” than sponsoring a local chapter of United Methodist Women.
Ultimately, I talked about where series ideas come from — literally, from everywhere if you are looking around and taking notes — and then I told them about some that are upcoming in the life of Good Shepherd: Love Handles, Chiseled, Unhappy Campers, Hell Or High Water, Bouncebackers, and Where Apples Fall.
And that’s when things got most fun. I gave the students a series of prompts — a Baby Ruth bar, Close Up toothpaste, a belt, an umbrella, an ironing board, and a set of keys — and asked them to look at the prompts for five minutes. Then, get a pad of paper and a pen and devise a sermon series based on one or more of those prompts.
The results really took me by surprise. And I think they even impressed themselves with their creativity and moxie. Some of my favorite series titles to burst forth from the group include “Don’t Make Me Get My Belt!,” “Do You Kiss Your Mother With That Mouth?,” “Whisper Sweet Somethings,” “Washed & Pressed,” and, the most memorable, a series on the plagues in Exodus called “It’s Raining Gnats & Frogs.”
I think that’s the kind of response any teacher or seminar leader would want: students who take your good ideas and make them better.
Whether those ideas come from Asbury or Duke.