The real art of sharing your faith is knowing when to open your mouth and when to shut it.
My struggle has always been a tendency to speak about Christ when I should keep silent, or to keep silent when I should speak up. It’s hard, sometimes, to ﬁgure out the appropriate moment to initiate a spiritual conversation. What makes matters worse is that it’s hard to know when to say certain things period, whether it’s talking about God or sending an undercooked steak back to the chef. Knowing what to say, and when to say it, is an art.
I’ll never forget my first preaching class at Cincinnati Christian University. Lisa and I had just gotten married and moved to Cincinnati so that she could finish the final year of her undergrad degree at the University of Cincinnati and I could finish my degree at CCU. I was new to the school and felt a little nervous about not knowing anyone. Fortunately, when I walked into my First class, Advanced Preaching, I made a few friends and began to feel more comfortable.
Our ﬁrst assignment was rather intimidating: Deliver a twenty-ﬁve-minute sermon on a Bible passage of our choosing, and then receive evaluation from the rest of the class.
The day came when we had to preach our ﬁrst sermons. Since I was new to the school and had never heard my fellow classmates speak, I didn’t know what to expect. The professor passed out our evaluation forms as we sat expectantly, waiting to begin.
Five minutes into the ﬁrst student’s sermon, I looked around and thought to myself, Is this a joke? What the heck is going on here? It was like when a horrible singer auditions for American Idol and the judges start laughing and hiding their faces.
It was that bad.
As I looked around, I couldn’t understand why everyone else couldn’t see what I was seeing. They hung on this guy’s every word—smiling, nodding their heads, and laughing really hard at his horrible jokes.
It was obvious that he had spent two years of his life trying to become a preacher, and no one ever cared enough to tell him the truth. He fell over his words. Incoherent statements shot out of his mouth. Awkward pauses littered his entire talk.
I realized I had a decision to make—say something or keep silent.
I chose to say something. This was about to become a moment of encouragement.
As he walked off the podium, I began filling out my evaluation form, starting with the positive comments first:
- This is the ﬁrst time I’ve ever heard you preach—it’s nice to meet you.
- I love the fact that you want to preach.
- You had a nice suit on. (By this point I scratched my head, trying to ﬁnd more positive things to say.)
- Good job reading the passage before the sermon started.
- You ended on time. That’s really tough to do! Good job.
Then I went on to my “constructive” comments:
- I have to be honest—that was really rough to listen to.
- You didn’t maintain eye contact with anyone. You looked down the whole time.
- I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I still have no idea what you were talking about—did you have a point you wanted to get across? Maybe it would help to simply say, “Here’s what I’m trying to say,” and then say it.
- Jokes weren’t really funny. (Then I wrestled with whether or not I should say any more. In the end, I decided I needed to be honest.)
- I say this as lovingly as I can—you might want to consider whether or not preaching is something you really want to do for the rest of your life. You were in a LOT of pain up there. It was hard to watch. Is there something you could do in ministry you would enjoy more?
Our professor asked the student who preached the sermon to leave the room, and then walked to the front of the room.
“Please pass your evaluation forms to the front of the class,” he said. After collecting the forms, he stood silently for a moment, staring at the back wall. Seconds later his eyes welled up with tears.
“I want you to know that I consider that message nothing short of a miracle!”
“When he ﬁrst came to this school, he couldn’t stand up to speak without throwing up beforehand. But he came to me one day and said, ‘I want to preach the gospel, will you help me?’ I said, ‘Son, God can use anybody with a heart like yours.’”
Oh no, I thought, and started to slide down into my seat.
“I took him under my wing and had him take every class I offered.”
“Please, God, no,” I murmured under my breath as I recalled all the comments I had just written down.
“His ﬁrst sermon, he almost fainted.”
“When he gave his second sermon, he ran out afterwards and threw up in the restroom.”
I’m feeling sick to my stomach myself, I thought. I need to get my form back.
“But he kept working. Before class—after class—late at night—it didn’t matter; he put his heart and soul into preaching and has become my most committed student.”
Dear God, kill me now, I closed my eyes and prayed.
To cap off my misery, the professor slowly wiped a tear from his eye and said, “Class, the sermon he just delivered was without question one of the highlights of my entire career teaching young preachers to preach. I am so proud of that young man. Now, let’s read those evaluations together as a class!”
I closed my eyes and slowly put my face down on my desktop.
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