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persuading and convincing

During my time at Liberty the School of Religion (and as far as I know, the seminary) had its own chapel service, so those of us in the college of Arts and Sciences (or General Population, or whatever) rarely saw the future pastors. One exception was during the annual preaching contest, when we saw the three finalists do their contest sermon. If I remember correctly, what we saw was an exhibition, not a competition, so we didn’t get to vote (or bet) on the winner.

From what I remember of these they were relatively simple sermons covering well-trodden Scriptural territory and followed the three-alliterating-points pattern that was pretty familiar to me from my fundamentalist days but that I rarely find on the radio nowadays. I can’t think who preaches sermons like this today. D. James Kennedy, for example, died three years ago, and I think he preached sermons like this, but I can’t think of anyone else. They’re pretty much out of fashion today, for better or worse.

It’s probably not fair to judge an entire school by three sermons a year, but that’s pretty much what I did as an undergraduate, and I’m not sure my opinion has shifted in the intervening twenty-plus years. These sermons tended to be long on style and short on content, and were constructed more to be persuasive than convincing. They didn’t rest firmly on premises and proceed to conclusions; they were rendered in “pulpit voice” and weren’t generally finely reasoned. I think as a result, because I had spent some time in Logic and Modern Geometry classes I instinctively picked them apart, looking for fallacies and appeals to authority or emotion. To this day I’m not sure whether this was fair, but I think it helped in my formation as a critical consumer of pulpit product.

I wish I could say that most of the sermons I heard at Liberty, in chapel or in campus church, were solid as rocks and bolstered my faith, and these preaching-contest sermons were outliers, but I think in retrospect they were pretty typical if a bit tacky. I came away with the conclusion that most of the preachers we heard were either there to collect a fee, to pad their resumes, or they’d been asked to pinch-hit in one of Jerry’s pulpits while they were in town. Liberty still had then the fundamentalist social construct in place that distinguished between preachers and laymen (laypeople? layfolk?) as if preachers were different in kind from the rest of us and beyond critical examination or criticism. I have to hope that in the post-Jerry era, when the chancellor is a lawyer and not a preacher, Liberty has moved past that mindset, at least a little.

From what I’ve heard from earlier generations of Liberty graduates, the Liberty faculty was sort of a dumping ground for out-of-work preachers. The story that came to me was that a disused preacher would manage to catch Jerry somewhere and mention being out of a job, and Jerry out of the goodness of his heart would install them on the faculty. Sometimes they’d end up teaching something they were qualified to teach; sometimes the connection wasn’t so clear. These men were usually pretty easy to spot: their educational history, given in the faculty listing, would include a D. Min. or a Th. D. Or they’d announce the first day of class that they were just slumming teaching classes at Liberty until The Lord called them on to something better. The classes they taught were generally guts, but they tended to be a bit authoritarian and didn’t go much for class discussion. And of course they’d eventually eventually obtain their pound of flesh in the form of a red-faced shouty sermon about a subject at best tangentially related to the class subject matter.

I actually had English Composition with a gentleman who fit some aspects of this story: he was a former (but so far as I know not a future) pastor, he did an at best workmanlike job at teaching writing, he gave a pretty easy A, and he subjected us to one rather peculiar sermon, on among other things the fact that the city of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory was named as part of an evolutionist plot.

I believe most of these gentlemen, if they ever really existed, have vanished in subsequent years, due to institutional changes to meet accreditation criteria, old age, and demand for preachers in the greater Lynchburg area.

I want to do several posts on what I learned during my time at Liberty and how cultural points of reference like preaching contests, preacher-professors, and the treatment of pastors within the community changed my view of Christianity. But that will have to wait until another day.

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  1. Babylon's Dread
    July 22, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    As a former Baptist…I see that hand…thanks for this piece.

  1. July 20, 2010 at 11:15 pm

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