“Everywhere, in every place, and to everyone”: SVOTS senior reflects on Young Preacher's Festival
Over the first weekend of 2013, two students from St. Vladimir's Seminary journeyed to Atlanta, GA, to participate in the National Festival of Young Preachers, and after the event, third–year seminarian Harrison Russin offered this reflection.
In 1913, Fr. Leonid Turkevich (later Metropolitan Leonty) published a proposal for Orthodox Theological Education in America, addressed to then–Metropolitan Platon. Father Leonid wrote that the goal of a North American seminary would be to form its students into apostles; necessary for this formation is "the constant preparedness, ability and inclination to preach Holy Orthodoxy everywhere, in every place, and to everyone."
St. Vladimir's Seminary takes this commission seriously; we offer two semesters of instruction in homiletics, plus additional electives like rhetoric. Most recently, SVOTS has taken the initiative to send student representatives to the National Academy of Preachers' "Festival of Young Preachers." The 2013 Festival, held January 2–5 in Atlanta, was the fourth such festival, and the Seminary has sent students to preach at three of the four.
This year the Orthodox Church offered five representatives, four of whom are associated with St. Vladimir's Seminary. The newly ordained Fr. James Parnell, Andrew Boyd (SVOTS '12) and I attended as Young Preachers, and Fr. Sergius Halvorsen, our professor of homiletics, attended as a homiletics coach. Anna Vander Wall, a college student, was sponsored by the OCA's department of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministries, as the winner of their YouTube Challenge.
Five people may sound like a solid representation, but there were 120 Young Preachers in attendance, mainly from various Protestant backgrounds. Having spent my entire life on the Eastern Seaboard, I was in for a bit of culture shock. I had no clue about the diversity of Baptist groups, or about responsive preaching (when the congregation responds orally to your word), or about the plethora of Protestant seminaries sprinkled across the South. Besides confessional diversity, the conference attracted both men and women, black and white, and young and younger ("Young Preacher" is defined as between ages 14-28).
Sure, I felt out of my skin for most of the conference. Every morning opened with a Protestant–style worship service, featuring a spectacular sermon by a professor of homiletics at one of the representative seminaries. Sometimes the theology felt off–kilter—what gospel are you preaching, exactly? Why didn't your sermon mention the name of Jesus Christ once? But the fundamentals of preaching are the focus and emphasis of the conference. Preaching, after all, isn't simply an exegetical speech or theological lecture: it's the articulation of the Word of the Gospel, focused in order to change your life. Father Sergius likes to point out that the average American watches about 4-6 hours of advertisement per week on TV; most Sunday sermons in an Orthodox Church will be between 10–15 minutes. That's stiff competition.
With that in mind, I take every opportunity to improve my preaching. The most important part of that is listening to and reading other preachers, Orthodox or not. We heard plenty of good preaching at the festival: ten sessions with two or three Young Preachers each. We also had the opportunity to attend workshops on different topics like "pastoral care and preaching," "effective storytelling," or "streamlined prose." As Christians, we accept four different presentations of the gospel: it is always "the gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John," not "Matthew's Gospel." As preachers, we strive to mine and expose what that gospel is at the heart of every reading, the good news that has inspired Christians to take up the cross for twenty centuries. There will always be countless vehicles to preach the gospel (cf. John 21:25), and the Festival of Young Preachers has opened me up to several imaginative, creative, and inspiring ways.
Furthermore, the five of us represented the Orthodox Church to an audience largely inexperienced with our tradition. SVS received a featured article in the festival's program as the "partner spotlight;" in the article, the director of the festival says "Who would have thought the Orthodox Church would have been interested in preaching?" Whether this is true or not, that is the reputation we Orthodox have earned in America. Reversing that stereotype begins not only with good preaching, but popularizing, publishing, and proclaiming that good preaching at events like the Festival of Young Preachers.