Letter to a future preacher

“How did you get into speaking and what do I do if I feel called to speak/ preach too? Where should I start?” 

This question is probably the most common thing I get asked by young people both face to face but most often via social media. It’s hard to reply to every individual message when they come in, but I didn’t want to overlook the fact that there are clearly loads of teens and students, especially young women, who have a sense of calling around speaking and are wondering what to do with it.

So, this letter is for you, anyone who has messaged me, spoken to me, or if you’ve been questioning and wrestling with where to start, male or female, younger or older. I hope this letter gives you some helpful and hopeful steps forwards on your journey. 

Dear future preacher, 

Before we get down to it, I just need to say, I don’t really know how this works. I didn’t have anyone to message and ask the kinds of questions you’re asking me, but I am glad you did! You ask me how I started out? Well I didn’t “aim” for what I now do, I didn’t have a plan, and I have never asked for a single speaking opportunity that I’ve been given. My advice around starting preaching won’t be a formula, it won’t be the ‘answer’ and it won’t tell you the only way to go about the journey of speaking and teaching. But I can give you a few things I’ve learnt, and I hope you find them helpful as Jesus coaches you along the road of your own story.

When I was younger I didn’t know that part of my story would be to speak in public about Jesus, to teach the bible in churches, and to be given a microphone and space to preach at conferences. In all honesty I didn’t know Christian conferences and festivals were a thing. I also didn’t see a woman teach in a national church context until I was 21 and in my local church as a teen we didn’t have women speaking up front unless they were visiting from overseas mission work or doing the kids slot. So, this is all only a decade old, but here's what I'd say to you...

Firstly, I am so encouraged that so many young people, especially younger women, are recognising that God might in fact have made your voices to be heard, your words to be impactful and your lives to be worthy of carrying the message of Jesus. Truth is, we are all called to represent Jesus, to have conversations covered in grace and truth, and to be messengers of the good news. It doesn’t matter if this is to thousands or simply the one person in front of you who is listening, whether online, face to face, or wherever Jesus invites you to be. For starters, don’t get too focused on whether you are “called to speak” and what to do about “your calling” but more, focus on Jesus, who is the one who actually gives us something worth saying anyway, and makes us into the kinds of messengers the world might sit up and pay attention to.

Secondly, make the most of any opportunity you can to communicate about Jesus and share something of what you think the bible is saying. And there are way more opportunities to discover and strengthen your voice than you will be given invitations. For example, I particularly want to talk about the online world because writing words that can be read by others is a kind of speaking, and so is filming short stories and messages too. Your keyboard, your thumbs, your phones, are mighty microphones of hope and truth and wisdom if you want them to be. 

So, here are some ideas to get your voice warmed up:

Start blogging. 500-word little speeches based on passages of the bible you’re wrestling with. Whether you set up a free blog for you and your friends or just save them up on your laptop, every blog is actually training you to write concise, clear sermons on scripture. They can be the spring boards into longer talks, or they are powerful to speak in their own right in the online space. When I started working for Fusion, we had a tiny team and we each needed to blog faithfully every week. It trained me and prepared me for what I do now, and many blog series became talks.

Craft social media posts that actually communicate something. Use your platforms to speak Jesus, ask questions, start conversations and learn how to pick beautiful words and create sentences that paint pictures and tell stories. Anything that helps you tell short stories with great impact will set you up well, so use what you’ve already got. Whether that’s insta stories, a YouTube channel for your friends, or just your regular posts. What if everything was a mini message of hope and got us thinking more about Jesus?

Take note of the world. Of stories you hear, situations you experience, human interactions you observe that remind you of Jesus, remind you of the stories of scripture. Take notes of preachers, try and notice what they do, and how they do it, whether you like their style and message or not. Be a brilliant observer of the world, of people, of the activity of the Kingdom of God, and capture it, note it down somewhere, retell what you want to remember. It’ll help the inspiration and insight that you get to stick. You might need it again one day. 

Scribble in your bible, your journal, your journal bible! Keep capturing what you’re learning and what strikes you and troubles you as you read scripture. I bet lots of what Jesus teaches you through his word could be useful for teaching someone else one day too. You won’t run out of content if you keep reading and wrestling with the bible.

It’s not just in written form that you have opportunities to speak of course. Where you have capacity and excitement (even though it’s often a mixture of nerves and excitement) try saying yes to any invitation you get to serve where you’ll have to communicate something. Whether that’s doing the bible reading in church (which, by the way, was how my church leader at university spotted I had a calling to preach) or giving a notice, leading a small group bible study (particularly good for learning how to teach) or even doing something in a school assembly. Any public speaking where you have to communicate a message will be a helpful learning experience and try to treat every opportunity as equally important. Prepare faithfully. If you are trusted with a little and you take care of what has been trusted to you, that’s how you are trusted with more responsibility and opportunity up ahead.

If you’re really brave, you could also ask a couple of trusted people who you know love you, to give you feedback on how you spoke and what you said. Even if it is just a notice about the church’s bring-and-share lunch next week... the more self-aware you can be about how you come across as you communicate, the more you can seek to grow into being secure, free and comfortable in your own skin using the gift of your own voice. 

I remember once early on in my preaching journey as a student, a good friend of mine told me after a talk, “you know you’re funny, don’t you? You need to remember that. You should be more Miriam when you preach.” I found this so helpful. A friend actually celebrating that I really love humour, connect with people through making them laugh, and that I’d be less Miriam if I preached utterly seriously without even cracking a smile! It was a great reminder to relax, not be so intense, and to trust that God didn’t make my personality by accident, but just as the books of the bible have different characters and tones of voice thanks to the different people who wrote them down, so we will have different accents and flavours and colours to our voices and preaching, as we are distinct and individual carriers of God’s Spirit too.

On the feedback thing, for me, whenever I am training a preacher up, I am always looking for teachability almost above anything else. A person who is teachable firstly to Jesus means they are open to growing and learning how to follow him and they know they are still on a life long journey of discipleship. Secondly, this actually helps them to be teachable to those around them, so they don’t think they’re amazing and have it all sorted already if only someone would recognise their God-given talent and hand over the mic! This makes me trust them to speak, almost if they don’t think they’re going to nail it. If you don’t think you’re quite ready, you’re probably ready to have a go! There’s something humble about understanding it’s a privilege and a joy and a challenge to preach Christ, not something easy, casual and obvious.

Finally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with actually telling someone (beyond me over Instagram DMs!) that you want to speak. Let’s say you’ve bitten the bullet and told your youth worker, student worker, small group leaders or church leader that you think God might be nudging you to try preaching, and could you be given an opportunity to explore this call and learn more. Well done! That’s vulnerable and brave but it’s also helpful because not every leader you have will automatically know how to spot, train and release other leaders in this kind of thing. Don’t blame them for not noticing what God is whispering to you, help them out and have a conversation on what you might be able to do together to explore this. 

And if and when you are given a three-minute slot to say something inspiring that leads the congregation into the first worship song, or you do get asked to read the bible out loud at the start of the talk, you absolutely, unapologetically go for it! Practice out loud. Time yourself so that you make sure you only take the time you’re given however short you might feel that is. Respect that someone has taken a little step of faith with you, and fill that step with preparation, prayer and then go ahead, and fully take the pass, catch the ball, step into the space, speak up and speak out of love. 

I’ve been preaching in the church for nearly a decade now, and I am still learning how to do it, as I follow Jesus and seek to say yes to his invitation to become more like him. And the biggest and best things I do to be a good preacher are all the things you’ll never see because they never happen on a stage and they aren’t uploaded to YouTube. My prayer is that our lives speak way, way louder than any sermon we might give. My prayer is that I’ll always speak and teach from a place of integrity, in that I won’t teach what I am not prepared to live myself. My secret life, my love for Jesus, my love for my neighbours, my commitment to making disciples, my honesty with how I’m really doing with my closest friends, all of this comes first. All the deep underground roots of my faith in Christ that are below the stage are what means I don’t lose sight of Jesus and who I am in him, on the stage. Even if on the surface I am standing in front of thousands, or standing in front of one, the focus is still Jesus, the roots are still what hold me and sustain the message of my little life, which is found in Him.

My final words of this letter to you, future preachers, is go and live a story with Jesus that is worth sharing. Take hold of everything he’s taken hold of you for. Go live a life in community that could be the extra gospel, the good news according to [insert your name here]. And keep the written word of God on you as you walk with the living Word of God, Jesus. 

You do this, and on the day someone hands you a microphone, I am confident that what gets amplified will be your beautiful messy real life of grace, as made and perfected by Jesus, because you’ve kept your eyes on him, and he’s the only one you really care about hearing what you have to say in the end anyway. And I hope one day I get to listen in, I reckon you’ll be brilliant.

Speak up, take courage, no rush,

Love Miriam x

Miriam Swaffield

Global Student Mission Leader

Miriam helps equip the church to share Jesus with students in Europe and beyond. She lives in Middlesbrough, loves her neighbours and thinks she can surf.

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