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A search for preachers — reality TV style

A video quest puts a modern twist on efforts to inspire a new generation of ministers.

MALIBU, Calif. — “American Idol” for ministers?

“Survivor” with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit?

Welcome to the “Next Gen Preacher Search,” developed by Pepperdine University’s Youth Leadership Initiative.

Zane Witcher delivers a lesson during the “Next Gen Preacher Search” training at Pepperdine. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)The national contest invited students interested in preaching and teaching to submit five-minute videos for review and critique — and a potential opportunity to speak at a major event such as the Tulsa Workshop in Oklahoma or the Pepperdine Bible Lectures.

“I’m hoping idolatry is nowhere near, but we wanted to use an idea that young people would be kind of familiar with and something that would challenge them,” said Jeff Walling, the Youth Leadership Initiative’s director.

The ultimate goal: to inspire more young Christians to devote their lives to sharing God’s word.

“When we listen to folks in our Christian colleges, I hear them saying they have fewer and fewer students walking through the door saying, ‘I want to preach,’” said Walling, a frequent speaker at youth rallies and the former longtime preaching minister for the Providence Road Church of Christ in Charlotte, N.C.

No one was looking for a golden ticket to Hollywood, but 40 semifinalists were chosen to work with “mentor preachers” and fly to a recent two-day training event — either at Pepperdine or at Johnson University in Kissimmee, Fla.

Contestants were evaluated based on content, creativity, clarity and passion.

“I don’t like thinking about it as a competition because it’s all for God,” said Joel Duke, 18, a biblical studies major at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala.

Duke, whose home congregation is the Crescent Church of Christ in Murfreesboro, Tenn., was one of 21 semifinalists who presented lessons in Pepperdine’s stained-glass Stauffer Chapel, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

“I felt like, at a young age, I was blessed with the ability to speak publicly,” said Duke, who was baptized as a seventh-grader. “I felt like it was my calling, that I could make a difference by telling other people what I already knew about God.”

At Pepperdine, semifinalists head into breakout sessions with mentors. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

Half a dozen young women were among the semifinalists. However, Walling said “Next Gen” is not pushing any position on gender roles. Most Churches of Christ teach that the Bible limits preaching ministry to men.

“Whether they serve teaching as women’s ministry leaders, youth ministers, missionaries or in other roles at a local church, I am hopeful that teaching skills they developed by being a part of this program will be helpful,” Walling said of the female contestants.

Sunshine and the Son

In all, the judges received 127 submissions from more than 20 states.

Entrants ranged in age from 16 to 22 and came primarily from Churches of Christ and independent Christian Churches. Several Restoration Movement universities served as sponsors, including Abilene Christian University in Texas, Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City and Lubbock Christian University in Texas.

In a breakout session, Roman Ottinger from the College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, Tenn., practices delivering a lesson. Jeff Walling, center, offers feedback. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

Here in Malibu, the semifinalists focused not on sandy beaches, surfboards or stargazing — but on spiritual formation.

They worked on sermon delivery with Walling and other coaches, including Ohio minister Trevor DeVage, Texas minister Taylor Walling (Jeff’s son) and Pepperdine religion professors Greg Daum and Dan Rodriguez.

“You know, there are all these reality shows on TV,” Jeff Walling said. “But instead of judges, we have coaches because we are trying to say, ‘No winners and losers here.’”

Alexander Jamerison, 22, a Bible and preaching major at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., said he heard about “Next Gen” while working in the Bible college’s computer lab.

Alexander Jamerison preaches during the two-day training event at Pepperdine. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)“Next thing, I’m online looking it up,” said Jamerison, whose home congregation is the Ferguson Heights Church of Christ in Ferguson, Mo. “I submitted a video and prayed about it.”

Jamerison, who said his wife, Mercedes, was jealous of his trip to Pepperdine, plans to graduate in May. He hopes to pursue a master of divinity degree at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.

“I started preaching when I was 12 years old,” he said. “I really enjoyed it from that moment.”

Asked if he was surprised to be chosen as a semifinalist, Jamerison said, “I had a lot of people praying for it. I was more excited. I don’t know if I had a chance to be surprised.”

But Zane Witcher, 21, a biblical text major at Abilene Christian, said he definitely was surprised to be selected.

Witcher, whose home congregation is the Georgetown Church of Christ in Texas, said a desire to relate to the unchurched as well as lifelong Christians motivates him.

“I want to be a bridge,” he said.

His ACU studies have taught him how to open the Bible and write a sermon, he said.

The “Next Gen” coaching helped him improve, he said, in areas such as vocal expression and “how we paint pictures for people.”

And the winner is?

Witcher voiced appreciation for the “Next Gen” experience and said he wasn’t worried about winning.

“That part doesn’t even matter,” he said, emphasizing instead the personal connections he made.

But a few weeks after he returned home, Witcher received the good news: He was selected as one of the four finalists.

So, too, was Jamerison, along with Mitchell East, 21, an Abilene Christian student whose home congregation is the Round Rock Church of Christ in the Austin area. The other finalist: Jack Allen, 18, of Baton Rouge, La.

Don’t look, though, for a Final Four competition.

“‘Finalists’ is the word we are using,” Walling said, “as there will be no winner, except for the Kingdom, we pray.”


See videos of all the semifinalists’ presentations. The second annual Next Gen Preacher Search will launch this spring.

The video outside Pepperdine’s Stauffer Chapel, where semifinalists trained. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

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