Culture At Large

What Does a Preacher Look Like?

Mary Hulst

I teach preaching for a living, and my students not only preach in class but are required to go out to all the nations, or at least to local West Michigan congregations, and preach the gospel.  They have to preach a certain number of times in parish settings during the academic year.  This is a requirement of the degree program, not a class requirement.  Our field education office (now called the mentored ministry office) serves as the match.com between preachers who need placements and churches who need preachers.

Because of this system, I hear back from my students about their experiences in local congregations (note that "local" can include churches near the tip of the lower peninsula, all around Chicago-land, the suburbs of Detroit, etc.).  This week I had conversations with two students about their most recent experiences with this kind of preaching.  Both conversations gave me pause.

The first student is a young man who grew up in LA.  His parents are Korean immigrants.  He mentioned to me that one of the comments he'll often get after the service is that his English is so good.  Other congregants will ask him where he is from and he'll answer, "Los Angeles," and they will stand there obviously expecting a different answer.

Another of my students, a young white woman, said that when she was in the line at the back of the church after preaching a man approached her and said, "It's hard to think of an authoritative word coming from a small, blonde girl."  She handled herself well in the moment, but was rattled.  In my office later she was able to say, "I've learned that authority has nothing to do with size or strength."

Both of these conversations reminded me that many people have strong ideas in their minds about what a preacher should look like: white and male.  If the preacher isn't white, then we need to be able to classify him: "I don't really want to know where you're from, I want to know what race you are so that I can slot you in the right box."  If the preacher isn't male, we need to comment on her appearance so as to distance ourselves from the preached word: "You are a small, blonde girl, therefore I do not need to take you seriously."

My students are white, black, Asian, Latina/o, Hispanic, African, male and female.  There are students right out of college and a few who have grandchildren.  Some are married, some are single.  They are tall and blonde and short and dark and everything in between.

And they are preachers.

They will soon be your preachers.  It's a short few years before these men and women will be filling your pulpits as your pastors.  Is your congregation ready to hire a Korean man?  A white woman?  A black grandmother?  A white man with biracial children? A married couple who wants to share the preaching load?

The preachers of the church of tomorrow are going to look a lot more like the global church than the preachers many of us grew up with.

I think that is a very good thing.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Church, Worship