This article is reprinted by permission from The African American Pulpit, Winter 2002–2003.
I first heard the word “Flunk” years ago from one of my mentors. I was in seminary, and did not have much of a preaching calendar, but he was schooling me in some of the basics of preaching. I remember him saying about one of his preaching experiences something to the effect of,
Flunk came in and sat on the last row and would not leave. Flunk said ‘Amen’ while I preached. Flunk was bold and got down right loud and said, ‘Go ‘head Preacher!’ Flunk laughed, enjoyed himself, and had a wonderful time while I preached.
My mentor laughed a deep and hard laugh, and I laughed deep and hard too. While I was too young then in my preaching ministry to have met Flunk, it was interesting that he spoke of Flunk as if Flunk was a person.
Well, it was not too long before I met Flunk, and once I met him, we developed an intimate and personal relationship. As a matter of fact, I was sitting in a hotel room late one night after preaching at a prestigious seminary, and I decided that I knew Flunk so well that I wanted to write about Flunk. Flunk had just visited me. A few hours earlier, Flunk jumped up on me, had me by the neck, and no matter what I did, would not let me go. I rode home in the car with my host apologizing profusely that Flunk had showed up that night, especially since it was the last night of three nights of preaching. Flunk had not made an appearance the other two nights, but on the last night, Flunk came boldly in the door, and it was devastating. If Flunk shows up the first or the second night, you can redeem yourself and dismiss Flunk. But when Flunk shows up the last night, all you can do is go to the hotel and have a conversation with Flunk. I talked long and hard with Flunk that night. I want to share with you what I have learned about Flunk.
The place to begin the discussion is by defining Flunk. Every preacher worth his or her salt knows Flunk, but probably has never been formally introduced to Flunk through a definition. Flunk is both the experience of a sermon or sermonic design that did not connect with or meet the needs of the people, and the resulting emotional, physical, and spiritual distress the preacher experiences upon that realization. The layperson would say that Flunk is to give a sermon that did not preach. Flunk is to be on the sermonic journey, and all of a sudden discover that you are all by yourself. Flunk is to be lousy at preaching, not lousy every time, but lousy this particular time, despite your most intense efforts to be good. In short, Flunk is to fail at the preaching task.
Now I know that there are some who are reading this who will say, “The outcomes of preaching are up to the Holy Spirit, how can one know that one has failed? We do not know what God is doing in the human heart.” This statement is absolutely true. The results of the sermonic discourse are up to the Holy Spirit. All of us have had the experience of preaching some of our best sermons, but there is no response that we could discern and quantify. Then, we have preached a sermon that we thought was not up to par, but the response from what we could see was overwhelming. The Holy Spirit is ultimately in charge, but Flunk is a significantly different experience than mis-reading the outcome, or not relying upon the Holy Spirit for the outcome. To demonstrate my meaning, let me give you an example of one of my biggest experiences with Flunk that I recounted in my first book on preaching. (They Like To Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching, chapter six.)
I was the guest preacher at a church and had structured the sermon for celebration. The gospel resolved a complication of life and the people enthusiastically received the resolution. I joyfully reinforced the gospel truth and the church exploded in praise and thanksgiving to God. The church was literally in mass pandemonium in the Spirit of God. There was such an explosion of emotion that I was stunned, lost my equilibrium, and literally did not know what to do. To that point, I had received and accepted the conditioning that taught one to be afraid of emotion, especially free and spontaneous emotion. To handle my own anxiety, and re-establish a sense of control, I recounted the following quote to shut down celebration:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
(T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950, 145.)
Though this insightful quote fit with my theme, it had the effect of shutting down celebration because people had to go totally cognitive to process the ideas. People experienced this as an abrupt shift, and it had the effect of decisively breaking down the upward movement to celebration. Celebration was crippled beyond repair, and I was never able to recover. The celebrative sermonic design crumbled into ashes, and there was nothing to do but close the sermon, and lean on the tender mercies of God. I am sure that there were people who received the gospel from the sermon, but the gospel could have been so much more effective if the preacher had not shut down the celebration.
This was primarily due to mis-reading the effect of the sermon and not leaving the result up to the Holy Spirit. This was a fundamental flaw in the preacher that caused the sermon to collapse for the people. This was Flunk. Flunk jumped up on me, had me by the neck, and no matter what I did, would not let me go. Sometimes the sermon breaks down because of the preacher or the preacher’s response to what is happening around the preacher.
In my next blog post I will tell you more of what I learned in the intimacy of my relationship with Flunk.
Frank A. Thomas is the director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration and the Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Homiletics at Christian Theological Seminary.
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