Perhaps the dilemma I’m expressing, one which has caused me untold agony, will not seem important to many. Yet, I must express myself. It has to do with the practice of binding speakers to set topics in conferences.
- I don’t believe it is possible for me to really know what God might want me to say so many months out. In fact, I have often wondered if it is possible to really know what is best for my audience until I meet them. In earlier days, when speakers were invited without having to give their topics ahead of time, I often found myself seeking God for just the right thing to say during the meeting. Sometimes I prepared a sermon with those people in mind after I arrived there and saw what the needs really were.
- Though I believe church leaders can determine a topic for the brochure ahead of time that is spiritually sound, I sometimes wonder if far more thought is given to what will attract people to the conference than what is God’s will for those who are to hear. Conference leaders are fast running out of “extreme” words to use to promote conferences as if the catchier the title, the more God will be pleased. But this is not necessarily so.
- When asked for titles, veteran speakers often rack their brains to figure out how they can preach what they know and can present well under a new title that fits the brochure. We want to give the people something that will change their lives. But sometimes the topics we’re assigned do not fit anything we are adept at offering. Not everyone, for instance, is a good marriage and family speaker, or can address worldview issues, or relates well with children.
Once I was given the overall title for the conference, the exact title for my message and the specific text to preach. It was a statewide denominational meeting and everything was airtight. The problem was that the text and the title did not relate—one went west and the other went east. It was somebody’s idea of what the text meant, but to me it was a total miss. To make matters worse, I was to speak with three or four other men who had been assigned similar titles, all beautifully interconnected and alliterated. I lost lots of ministry time, days of it, working that over and over. Finally, I found an ingenious way to mention his title, point out a thing or two about his text, then scamper over to another text to preach a heartfelt sermon. It cost me ten minutes of my precious time during the conference to sweep his ornamentation out of the way and get to preaching.
- When I conform to what is being asked of me, I often give the people either something that I’m not really skilled at presenting, or something not as much on my heart as other subjects. You must understand something about many of us. We usually have only about ten subjects that are warm to us at any given time. There is also an “inner circle” of messages that will be preached every time we can preach them because they are, more or less, a life message for us. We know how to preach more than this, of course. I pastor a church as well and preach new material throughout the year, but there is something different about those home church messages and what we feel right about preaching in a church or conference outside of our own. Itinerant preachers have always had only a handful of messages that are suitable to them at any given time, whether you are a Whitefield or a Billy Graham. A new message will overtake an old one every so often, and an old one will drop off, or pieces of it will be used for a new one, but we simply cannot be ready for a hundred subjects at once. Likely we have one or two messages that have been preached many years and are still exciting to preach, usually because we are aware that those subjects meet real needs almost anywhere.
When I was a younger man, for a short but insane period, I thought I should preach something brand new each time I spoke. That about killed me. In fact, it just about killed the people I spoke to. It was certainly naïve. Even Jesus repeated himself, and certainly Paul did. I believe it was Benjamin Franklin, though not a true Christian, who said that he could always tell when Whitefield was re-preaching a sermon because it was so much better. I hope it doesn’t disappoint people to hear that we speakers do not always preach brand new messages, but that is the fact nonetheless. Of course, when I’m asked to preach on a topic for which I have nothing substantive to say, then the message will, of necessity, be brand new. Sometimes God blesses that, but often I wish I could be preaching what I know so much better.
- I sometimes think, “My title might be the very thing that keeps people from coming.” Now there’s a dilemma indeed. What if Jesus had entitled his conference message on Matthew 23, “Woe to You Hypocrites”? Would that have brought those who needed what He had to say?
- I also wonder why we have to do this when the Apostle Paul never did. I often reflect on this as I’m painfully trying to come up with yet another message title to fit the brochure. In days before so much advertising as we know it, I even had that luxury, though I’m considerably younger than Paul.