ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) — For a liberal arts university focused on Christian values, Milligan University leaders said a chance to expand those values with a Center for Preaching fits right in with their mission.

The university was awarded about $1.2 million from the Lilly Endowment Grant to “help strengthen and expand the preparation, support and development of engaging and effective preaching.”

“And we feel that preaching needs to get better,” said Ron Kastens, Academic Dean for Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan University. “Everyone appreciates that when preaching gets better, both the preachers and people in the congregations.”

Kastens said the university plans to use the grant funding to strengthen and create new programs for students in their undergraduate and graduate seminary programs.

One program is to develop a group of younger minsters, with five to seven years of experience to be paired with a student as a mentor.

Dr. Ron Kastens is the Academic Dean of Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan University. (Photo: WJHL).

Another, Kastens said, is to have a retreat once a year where seasoned and younger preachers come together.

“Get them together for a couple of nights on a retreat to learn from each other, how each of those groups can better preach to people in their congregations who might be of a different generation than they are,” said Kastens.

Ethan Magness pastors First Christian Church in Johnson City and said the grant and the creation of a Center for Preaching will fill a very important need for a several reasons.

One is that “cultural needs and opportunities change,” and preaching needs to adapt to that.

“Not the message, but the methods and the modes of preaching adapt to the realities of our culture,” Magness said.

For preachers, the need for support and ongoing training is always crucial.

“Even within the life of a minister the specific needs and requirements of the preaching moment have changed,” Magness said. Pointing to his several decades in ministry, he said he’s seen that reality up close, with the arrival of the digital age being a major factor.

“You need to preach not just live in the room but then it’s got to live on in social media and live forever on YouTube, and this requires better education and better training for more equipped preachers,” said Magness.

Compounding those factors is a current era of declining church membership. A 2021 Gallup poll showed church, mosque or synagogue membership had declined to 47% in 2020, continuing a dip that began around 2000. From 1937 through 1999, annual Gallup polls showed the number of Americans belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque varied little – with a peak of 76% in 1945 and a low of 68% in 1987 and 1995.

In a Pew Research Center poll that asks Americans, “what is your present religion, if any,” the answer of atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” rose from 16% in 2007 to 29% in 2021.

“We’re in a season where it’s falling,” Magness said of church affiliation. “However, what we’ve discovered is that whenever the church has kind of resurged in influence, and engagement has risen, it has always been coupled with a rise in the effectiveness of preaching.”

Magness pointed to the country’s previous “Great Awakenings” as times when church membership has risen.

Ethan Magness is the minister at First Christian Church in Johnson City. (Photo: WJHL).

“I expect engagement to rise and it will be coupled with a rise in the effectiveness of preaching,” he said.

Magness said a search for meaning is often at the root of people’s choices about everything from what jobs to take to what form of spirituality to pursue.

“We’ve seen different generations look for meaning in different places and perhaps the younger generations today have grown up in a world that didn’t supply them very much meaning,” he said. That can leave them on a “more intentional quest for meaning” than previous generations may have been.

 In recent years, polls show the number of people 30-34 raised in the church and still identifying as Christians has also declined. In 1990, a full 90% of those raised Christian still identified that way in their early 30s, but that number had dropped to 65% by 2020. Of those raised with no religious affiliation, 44% aged 30-34 identified as Christians in 1990, compared to just 21% in 2020.

“I think all people are on a quest for meaning and lots of us find that the ways we engage with the communities of our childhood, kind of there’s a disconnect as we enter an adulthood and we’ve got to find a way to reengage with those communities or perhaps new communities as we enter adulthood,” Magness said.

The grant money is also going to developing a director position for the Center for Preaching. Kastens is working to fill that position now. He said funding from the grant will be available to the university in January 2024.