Mahalia, Martin, and Lessons for Preachers

I love this story of how one of he greatest moments in history almost didn't happen.

After she had given an amazing performance in front of the crowd of 250,000 people, Mahalia Jackson was sitting on the stage when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr came to the podium.

Pastor King began to read from his prepared remarks. If you watch the video you can see it. For the first 12 minutes of the speech, King looks down from time to time - checking his manuscript.

And then, Mahalia Jackson shouted to King "Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!"

This was not the first time that King and the Gospel singer had shared a stage. In fact, they had developed quite the friendship. And this was also not the first time that King had talked about his dream. And so Jackson called out, "Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!"

And then, according to Clarence Jones, King took his manuscript and set it to the side of the podium and set his hands on the side of the podium. Jones said to those standing nearby, "These people don't know it, but they're about to go to church."

And from that point, from when he says "I still have a dream" (12:13 in the video) to the end of the speech, King does not again look down to his prepared remarks. Like a jazz improviser, King weaves together ideas from other speeches, images from Scripture, and the mythology of America to create a masterpiece. It seems clear that he is sharing his heart and his passion with the crowd.

As preachers, we are taught to prepare. We are taught how to do exegesis and how to shape a sermon and how to craft language. But I wonder how many of us have learned to improvise?

As preachers, we step into the pulpit and we pray that God would give us the Word that our community needs to hear. But more often than not, there is an asterisk on that prayer. "Give me the words," we pray, "As long as they are the words on this manuscript. Let your Spirit move through me, in exactly the way that I expect it to."

I am not saying that manuscript preaching can't be Spirit-filled. It absolutely can.

But there comes a time when we have to set the manuscript off to the side and share our passion with the crowd. There comes a time when we are called to tell them about the dream.

Fellow preachers, share your passion with the people whom you serve.
Tell them about the dream! 

Clarence Jones was an advisor to the Rev. Dr. King, and the author of Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed America.

Watch the full version of King's speech from the March on Washington: