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Jared Mayes, left, talks about sermon delivery with Zeke Colston in front of a class.
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Photo by Audrey Jackson

Kerusso Experience trains high schoolers to fill empty pulpits

Harding University camp teaches boys how to plan, write and deliver sermons.

SEARCY, Ark. — A whiteboard in the McInteer Bible and World Missions Center at Harding University read, “Jesus loves you, this I know. So does your mom!” 

The joke, scribbled hurriedly before a counselor returned, reflected the humor of the high school boys packed into the classrooms for the Kerusso Experience.

Clad in hats and T-shirts referencing various sports teams and superheroes, carrying water bottles, backpacks and Bibles, they looked like average summer campers.


Sacred Calling: Read all the stories in the series


Then class began.

Questions about how to engage audiences, plan sermons and relate Scripture to life followed. Students talked about their assigned biblical passages using words like “exegesis,” which refers to the critical explanation or interpretation of the text. They discussed intonation.

Counselors at Kerusso — the Greek word meaning to preach or proclaim — divided the 46 campers into focus groups for personalized feedback.

Kerusso Experience camper Jackson Otts, left, and counselor Spencer Furby, right, work on sermon preparation during a focus group session.

Kerusso Experience camper Jackson Otts, left, and counselor Spencer Furby, right, work on sermon preparation during a focus group session.

The weeklong camp, organized by Harding’s Center for Preaching, began in 2013 with a simple premise, said Jared Mayes, who helped found the Kerusso Experience. 

“We’ve got all kinds of camps on planet Earth,” Mayes said. “The question is: Do we actually believe in ministry? And if so, how do we encourage people to do it? Sending them off to college is one thing. But if we encourage our kids to do soccer camp, baseball camp, golf camp, football camp, band camp, choir camp, the thought was, ‘Well, let’s give preacher camp a try. Let’s spend a week of the summer studying the Bible in good, godly company.’”

‘A brotherhood’

Preaching camps have personal significance for Mayes.

The lead minister for the Southside Church of Christ in Rogers, Ark., knew he wanted to go into ministry at 5 years old. But without direction from his parents, he was unsure how.

Then he attended the Preacher Training Camp hosted by North MacArthur Church of Christ in Oklahoma City.

Kerusso campers write their sermons in the Brackett Library at Harding University.

Kerusso campers write their sermons in the Brackett Library at Harding University.

“I realized, ‘Oh, not every teenage boy just wants to play football and tell dirty jokes,’” Mayes recalled. “‘There’s actually other people out there like me, who want to be preachers, who want to follow God’s call to ministry.’”

Finding those relationships was particularly valuable to Jonathan Nobel, a first-year camper and an incoming freshman Bible and ministry major at Harding. 

“Connections, peers, ministry buddies — that’s important,” said Nobel, a member of the Friendly Avenue Church of Christ in Greensboro, N.C. “Though they may be few, those are the guys God has put around me.

“There are a couple other guys who are also coming here in the fall as Bible majors, so I’ve been able to connect with them a little bit and build those relationships,” he added. “We were already talking about getting a study group for Greek in the fall.”

Joel Storment looks up during a prayer circle after the evening keynote lecture.

Joel Storment looks up during a prayer circle after the evening keynote lecture.

Often, relationships with peers and mentors from the Kerusso Experience have lasting legacies.  

For Mayes, one such former camper and counselor is Max Aubel, who died from cancer in early June. Aubel attended eight sessions of Kerusso, preaching passionately to peers and professors each year in an assortment of bow ties. 

“We planned this program, and then we truly formed a brotherhood,” Mayes said. “And that’s so important to having longevity in ministry — having not just friends but confidants. People (to whom) you can say, ‘I am going through this hard thing at church. I have no idea how to deal with this. What would you do?’”

‘We need you’

More than 100 students who attended the Kerusso Experience have majored in Bible and gone into full-time ministry, said Devin Swindle, director of Harding’s Center for Preaching.

The camp is limited to males in ninth through 12th grades.

“Because of the way we interpret Scripture, that’s why Kerusso is for boys,” Swindle said. “We are training people, we’re training men to fill pulpits in mainline Churches of Christ because that’s who we are, and we have every right to do that.”

The preaching camp cycles through Scripture — James, Jonah, Philippians, Minor Prophets and the Sermon on the Mount — so repeat students are exposed to new texts each year. The leaders added 1 and 2 Chronicles to the rotation this year. 

Kerusso Experience campers and counselors stand in the McInteer Bible and World Missions Center.

Kerusso Experience campers and counselors stand in the McInteer Bible and World Missions Center.

Each year’s theme includes excursions and guest speakers related to the topic. During the Book of Jonah, campers met “Duck Dynasty” TV personality Jase Robertson — a member of the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La. — for a group fishing trip. 

The featured speaker this year was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who worked as a Southern Baptist pastor for 12 years before his political career.

“I’m confident that wherever he puts you, he will put you there to serve him,” Huckabee, who talked about leadership and character, told the students. “And so if you are going to be the proclaimer of the word — the word kerusso, the proclamation, proclaiming — if that’s what he calls you to do, do it with all that he puts within you.”

“We want campers to know whether you’re a fisherman or a politician, a business person, a doctor or a teacher, you have to serve the church.”

The goal of the camp is not only to encourage a career in ministry but to empower boys going into all professions, Swindle said.

“We want campers to know whether you’re a fisherman or a politician, a business person, a doctor or a teacher, you have to serve the church,” Swindle said. “We need you. So we want to give them visions for what’s possible.”

Tapping the next generation

Part of sharing those visions includes the program’s expansion.

The Center for Preaching recently applied for the Compelling Preaching Initiative, a $1.25 million grant offered by Lilly Endowment Inc. The foundation anticipates awarding approximately 60 organizations that present the strongest proposals. 

If awarded the grant, the Center for Preaching would expand the camp into the Kerusso Community, which would consist of a preachers conference for ministers, the Kerusso Experience camp for high school boys and a website with preaching resources and a digital community. 

Every aspect of the proposal is meant to address the growing shortage of ministers in Churches of Christ. 

“If there’s this massive preacher shortage crisis, who is going to tap these young students on the shoulder and say, ‘We need you to consider this?’” Swindle said. “If the church is not going to do it, we will.”

The Kerusso Experience persuaded Sawyer Neal, like many other students, to consider ministry. 

Sawyer Neal, a Kerusso camper and incoming freshman at Harding University, preaches in class.

Sawyer Neal, a fifth year Kerusso camper and incoming freshman at Harding University, preaches in class.

Neal, a member of the Griffithville Church of Christ in Arkansas, is a fifth-year Kerusso camper and incoming freshman at Harding. He plans to double-major in Bible and finance. His first two years at the camp, he dismissed the idea of ministry.

But by the third year of camp, he felt compelled to serve.

The friendships he found in other campers encouraged him spiritually. His home congregation’s youth group had essentially just consisted of him and his older brother.

The wisdom of ministers and older men inspired Neal, just like they had Mayes at the Preacher Training Camp in Oklahoma 13 years before. 

“The lessons are valuable, but I think the most special part is the connections we make together,” Neal said. “You can always find commentary on your own. You can always do your own self-studies. But being with these people — these guys — and learning from the older professors? … It’s the biggest impact Kerusso offers.”

SACRED CALLING is a special project by The Christian Chronicle exploring challenges — and opportunities — facing ministry in Churches of Christ. Read all the stories.

Filed under: empty pulpits Harding University Kerusso Experience National News Partners preacher training preacher training camp Sacred calling The Kerusso Experience Top Stories

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