I did not intend to be a preacher. My plan was to be a veterinarian after college, but God had other ideas. I grew up in an African-American Baptist congregation, and by the time I reached high school, I only attended church occasionally, though I was committed to Christ and sought to live a life that pleased God. Upon entering college, I wanted to be involved in a Christian organization, and I joined the Navigators (a parachurch organization focused on discipleship).

Though no connoisseur of preaching and though I had no desire to serve as one of God's heralds, I knew what I liked to hear. My view of good preaching was basically anything that was expressed with appropriate intensity or enthusiasm. This changed radically in college.

My encounter with the Navigators was a paradigm shift. In attending Navigator conferences and special events, I learned about the Bible with greater depth than I ever had. I was excited by this kind of presentation, which was very didactic, logical, and unencumbered by excessive emotion in the presentation. It often ended with challenging life-application questions that caused me to take stock of your spiritual state. I could take notes on these messages and contemplate the implications that the Word held for your life. In addition to my Navigator group, I also found a white Southern Baptist church that featured the same kind of preaching. As a result of this newfound approach, I became more knowledgeable about the Bible, and I saw a direct effect on my life.

At that time, around the mid-1980s, I concluded that this was the only way that one could effectively present the Bible in a public forum. All of that emotional intensity that I used to admire was merely a mask to hide lack of content. Besides, how can you take notes on a sermon or message that is more like a pep rally than an in-depth Bible message? Though I failed to recognize it at the time, my enthusiasm for this didactic approach to preaching led to a categorical rejection of the entire African-American preaching tradition in favor of a more cerebral, almost Northern European approach.

It was during my experience with the Navigators that I became aware of God's calling on my life. I knew that one thing I wanted to do was to bring the kind of expository preaching and teaching that I discovered in college to the African-American community. "My people" needed the kind of in-depth approach that could only come through the emotionally cool, contemplative and challenging style that had captivated me.

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Upon my college graduation, I moved to Memphis to live with a Navigator representative for a few years before entering seminary. During this time, I became a pastoral intern at a Bible church, and I finally had my opportunities to preach. When I had the occasion to preach, I did my best to give expository messages that vigorously challenged the congregation. On one occasion, I even had the opportunity to preach at the church in which I was baptized. I remember going home to Maryland, full of excitement, knowing that here was my opportunity to show a traditional African-American church the kind of in-depth preaching that I knew it needed.

When I preached, it went very well, but I made sure that I did not give the audience a chance to get too enthusiastic about what I was saying. Every time it would seem like the audience was on the verge of an enthusiastic swell, I would rachet down my intensity in order to get people in a more contemplative mode. I was well received that day, but I don't know if my style and approach caused any shift in their expectations of preachers.

I went to seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1990-94, and while I learned a great deal about homiletics, I still maintained my view that there was really one general approach to preaching: mellow expository messages that teach and challenge the congregation. It is all right if people laugh at jokes during the message, but by the end, the congregation must leave with a sense of conviction and contemplation. Whenever I preached during this period, that was my objective.

Things began to change in 1995, when I moved (along with my wife) to New Jersey to pursue a Ph.D. in theology at Drew University. As we searched for a place to worship, we visited Calvary Baptist Church in Morristown, about ten minutes from my school. We enjoyed the service thoroughly, and then preaching time arrived. I was impressed with the homiletical skill of the pastor, and I really liked what I saw, but then I became very uncomfortable at the end of the sermon. A staple in many African-American churches is what one could call the "celebration phase" at the end of a sermon. As the preacher draws to a close, the point of the sermon is often articulated in a way that encourages and lifts up the congregation. As the preacher does this, the musicians (led by the organist or pianist) accent the preacher's phrases, and the audience responds enthusiastically with verbal affirmations (such as shouts of "Amen" or "Praise God") and some will even stand up and clap. As I said earlier, my view of this was that it would turn a perfectly good sermon into a pep rally. I did not consider the sermon to be ruined, but I thought it reduced the effectiveness of the message. In spite of my discomfort with this kind of sermonic crescendo, the Lord made it clear that we were to join this church.

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I soon became part of the ministerial staff, and began attending the monthly minister's meetings. The pastor decided that he wanted to help us to develop as preachers, and that became the focus of our meetings. I must say that these meetings were quite informative, but I still had the problem of dealing with the celebrative aspect of preaching. Either out of stubbornness, pride, or close-mindedness, I refused to engage in active response to sermons on Sunday, and I bristled at the idea of actually standing up and affirming the celebration that often came at the end of the message. Week after week, I would sit on the front row with all of the other ministers, and I would not join in the moments of celebration. On the one hand, I didn't want to feel like a lemming, following the actions of others, just standing up and celebrating because everyone else on my pew was into it. On the other hand, I did not want to stand up and enter the celebration because "that's just not me."

Well, things did change one day. One day in 1996, I had to ask myself, "What is wrong with people celebrating God's greatness and what is wrong with a corporate expression of thanksgiving and affirmation of all that God has done?" Are the proclamation and reception of God's word really spoiled just because every sermon doesn't proceed and end in a challenging contemplative fashion? Is it just possible that I had too hastily dismissed the richness of the African-American preaching tradition just because I had not experienced expository preaching that was as deep as any I had ever heard yet which had a cultural flavor that I had not really tasted and enjoyed?"

Another shift was in order. So the next Sunday came, and when the celebration phase came about, I slowly stood up as others around me entered into this act of liturgical exaltation. It was not easy at first, but it has become something I deeply appreciate.

What about my preaching? In my tenure at Calvary, most of my sermons through 1998 were just like all of the others I had preached before arriving in New Jersey: informative, challenging messages that were designed to make people sit still and think. I occasionally incorporated aspects of the African-American tradition into my preaching (such as "calling the roll," where a preacher recites Bible history, such as from Abraham through Christ, all the while accenting God's faithfulness or some common aspect about the lives of Bible characters), and I must say that when someone first stood up while I was preaching, my initial internal response was "what are you doing? You should be listening to the message and contemplating your response." I have had to learn that people are supporting my preaching when they celebrate as I preach, and that I should go with their responsiveness and lead the congregation toward exalting God for his multifaceted faithfulness. On the other hand, I do not think all sermons should end in a celebration (sometimes the people should leave with a deep sense of challenge). But I probably still need to add more celebration to my repertoire.

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As I look back on my journey, I can see that my worship life was quite truncated, especially in terms of preaching. I fell victim to a tendency that happens all too often in many Christian traditions: I absolutized one form of preaching, and shut out all others. What I have discovered is that in the same way that there is a diversity of spiritual gifts, there is a great range of preaching styles (many of which could be called expository as they do open the text for the people) and responses to the preached word. I am so glad that I now recognize the value in sermons which are contemplative as well as celebrative, sermons that are highly didactic and those that are narrative or dramatic in presentation, and so much more.

In retrospect, I was a kind of cultural snob who wanted to give the "abandon ship!" order to his tradition. I would be so much poorer if I had succeeded.

The bigger lesson in this is that the breadth of tradition should be appreciated rather than scorned, and as a preacher, I need to strive for effectiveness in all contexts. I cannot assume that God only wants to use me among cerebral, contemplative congregations, nor can I assume that it is my job to cool off "celebrative" churches when I preach in those. I do believe the church would be far richer if we learned the art of appreciating diversity. It is not even necessary to like other traditions, but if we can see the way that God is worshiped and glorified in liturgies low and high, cool and intense, Eucharistic and Word-centered, we will find ourselves deepened in ways we may not have imagined. For me, I had to learn this lesson in reference to preaching. For others it may be worship style or liturgy. Whatever it is, I encourage you to make your journey richer. Don't deprive yourself.

Vincent Bacote will begin as visiting assistant professor of theology at Wheaton College in January.

Related Elsewhere

Bacote, author of a chapter in The Gospel in Black and White(IVP, 1998) has written several articles forRegeneration Quarterly, including "Why I Want a Private Jet."