It’s said that learning to lead is like learning to play the violin in public. The same could be said of learning to preach--rehearse all you want in front of a mirror, but preaching is not a skill you can hone without an audience. Inevitably, there will be wrong notes, but practice makes perfect. So for York College Bible majors Christian Eggar, Jacob Gibson, and Cameron Merrill, getting out of the classroom and into the pulpit has been terrific preparation for their future careers in ministry.

The trio have been guest preaching and teaching Bible
classes in small congregations around Nebraska throughout the spring semester. While they are paid by the churches for their efforts, they aren’t doing it for the money. “We’re doing it for the experience. The money helps, but the experience is much more valuable and necessary at this point in my life,”said Gibson, a senior from the San Francisco Bay area.

Merrill, a junior from Oklahoma City, concurs. When he was first invited to preach at the Nelson Church of Christ, about 70 miles southwest of York, he jumped at the opportunity. “When Titus [Robison] talked to me about preaching, I was all for it because I wanted to get hands on experience. He said ‘don’t worry, they’ll pay you.’ I said, ‘They’ll pay me?! I’ve never preached before!” Robison, who worked in the York College Advancement Office, guest preaches in churches regularly and has coordinated the student preaching efforts this spring.

That first preaching experience at Nelson was positive for Merrill. He recruited seven supportive friends to accompany him, and in so doing nearly doubled size of the congregation that Sunday. Once there, the group of young men from York College was invited to do more than support their friend--they also jumped in to lead worship and pray. It was a learning experience for the students as well as the congregation, Merrill recalled with a laugh, as the students led several songs that were unfamiliar to the church members.

“The churches are welcoming and willing to accept whatever you have to offer,” said Eggar, a junior from Miles City, Montana. Eggar’s father, brother, and uncle are all preachers in small congregations in the North, so the experiences at the Nebraska congregations are nothing new for him. He’s been practice-preaching at his home congregation since he was 12 and has taught Wednesday night classes. He still has plenty to learn, though, as there are new challenges when you’re not preaching to your home audience, he notes. “Going to new congregations with new people and situations has been really good for my spiritual growth as well as theirs, I hope,” he said.

​​All three young men talked about the challenge of knowing what message to bring to the congregations. “It’s really important to know your audience, and I didn’t know them at all that first time,” said Gibson. “I didn’t know what their base knowledge was, or how deep to go with certain parts of the lesson, or how they might feel about issues.” Also, the churches tend to be comprised mainly of older people, which can be intimidating for a young preacher. “Picking a lesson that was going to be applicable to someone with a lot more life experience than me was challenging,” he said. 

Eggar was nervous the first time, too, “but it went better than I could have expected,” he said. “The best lesson you can give as a minister is one that is also good for your soul as well as the souls you’re trying to teach. I try to remember that every time I prepare a lesson.”

Belinda Genung has been a member at the Nelson Church of Christ since before these student-preachers were born. Her first experiences with the church was in the mid-80s, listening to David Reppart, a former YC employee, preach on Sunday nights. “He had a way of making the Old Testament really come alive,” recalled Genung. Reppart and his wife Nellie worked at York College in a variety of roles for 20 years. Every Sunday for 17 years, they would make the drive to Nelson so that David could preach at the morning and evening services. After he retired, their son Thomas took over, preaching regularly at the little church for many years. 

Today the Nelson church has a number of visiting preachers that take turns filling the pulpit. “It’s really nice to have the youth and excitement and variety the college students bring,” said Genung. “We get more of the experience and wisdom from some of the older preachers who come, but the young kids are a lot of fun. It’s really inspiring to see them maturing into that role.”

The churches often provide lunch for the college students--a gesture Gibson appreciates. “They make us feel really welcome. They take you in as family right off the bat,” he said. “People in Nebraska are ten times friendlier than people in California. I like the family atmosphere. I like getting to know everyone.” Gibson says he hopes to continue working in smaller congregations. He would like to return to the coast, but is open to going wherever the Lord sends him.

“The churches are a lot smaller than what I’m used to, but the people are very friendly and very open to hearing our messages,” said Merrill, who preached in Broken Bow, Columbus, and Norfolk during the spring semester. “They are very accepting of what we have to say. They do offer opinions and advice afterwards. It’s open and conversational. When they give good feedback, it really boosts my spirits.” Merrill is set to graduate in December of 2019 and would love to find a position in youth ministry. “My general idea is to stick with the kids as long as I can, shape and mold them the way my youth minister did for me and show them that there’s so much more out there than what the world sees the church as. I want to show them real christianity, what real Christlike love is supposed to be,” he said. This fall Merrill will be interning with York Campus Ministries, working under Dr. Sam Garner, vice president of spiritual development. 

Eggar is currently interning with the youth group at East Hill Church of Christ in York (pictured above during a service project at the local food pantry).  He plans to continue preaching and teaching wherever there is a need in the surrounding area while he’s a student. When he graduates in 2020, his plan is to look for a ministry position in Montana. “I have a passion for going back home. We don’t have a lot of churches in Montana but the churches that we do have are strong. I want to help cultivate the next generation in the church,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be the only ‘youth’ in a congregation. I want to encourage kids however I can.”

Dr. Frank Wheeler, professor of Bible and chair of the department, says that the practice these young men are gaining enriches their classroom preparation. “When we talk about ministry and the role of a minister after they’ve had these experiences, the conversations are not just theoretical. They can relate to the material in a new way. They know what questions to ask. It makes the classroom discussion much more meaningful, for them and for us.” 

All Bible majors are required to have at least one internship before graduating. “They come back from these internships and the experience has deepened their perspective,” Wheeler said. “It’s a beautiful combination of learning and doing. It’s fun to watch as a professor. It’s exciting to see them learning in the classroom and learning in the churches.” 

All of the student preachers agree, the chance to preach in area congregations has been beneficial. “I appreciate York for giving me this experience to try something new in a new place,” said Gibson. 

“I’m excited about the opportunity to preach at these small congregations,” said Eggar. “It’s definitely something I want to continue to do throughout my time here at York. I get something out of it every time I go.”