Among the recent tributes to the late comic genius Robin Williams was a story he told about the time he preceded Bob Hope on the Johnny Carson show.
For reasons unknown, Hope was late arriving. Instead of Robin Williams following him, which had been the plan, Williams went on stage first and did his hilarious knock-em-dead routine. People were beside themselves with laughter.
Bob Hope arrived and had to follow that.
Robin Williams said, “I don’t think he was angry, but he was not pleased.”
As Bob Hope was introduced and settled into the chair to the right of Carson, Johnny said, “Robin Williams. Isn’t he funny?” Hope said, “Yeah. He’s wild. But you know, Johnny, it’s great to be back here with you.”
No one in his right mind would voluntarily follow Robin Williams on the program.
Sometimes preachers find themselves on the agenda in a meeting where multiple speakers are doing their thing. Woe to the one who has to follow the most popular preacher in the land.
As a college student, I participated in a speakers tournament against six or eight outstanding young people with a great deal to offer. The young man who preceded me, however, had an unfortunate thing to happen. In the middle of his five-to-seven minute piece, a train went by. The building shook and the noise drowned out his voice. Not knowing what else to do, he kept talking. (Clearly, one of the judges should have stopped it and allowed him to start from the beginning after quiet was restored.)
The train went by and the fellow finished his little speech. Then, as though nothing had happened, the leader introduced me.
I hit it out of the park.
It was hard not to do a great job because of what I was following.
(And, yes, I do recall the name of that unfortunate young man. We became seminary classmates and some years later, I stayed in his home while preaching a revival for him. We never mentioned the time the train plowed through the middle of his speech.)
A generation ago, Houston’s John Bisagno and E. V. Hill of Los Angeles were featured speakers at a conference I was attending. Hill, an eloquent fiery preacher in the best tradition of African-American stemwinders, blew the windows out of the church with his message and left the congregation of a thousand on their feet cheering and shouting. As order settled in on the auditorium, our host introduced Bisagno.
Brother John walked to the pulpit and softly related a little story that suited that occasion perfectly.
“Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Linus were lying in the grass gazing at the puffy white clouds. Lucy says, ‘If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud formation…What do you think you see, Linus?’
“Linus said, ‘Well, those clouds up there look to me like the map of the British Honduras in the Caribbean….That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor…and that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen…I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side….’”
“Lucy says, ‘Uh huh…That’s very good… What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?’ And Charlie Brown answers, ‘Well, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind.’”
Bisagno looked out at his audience and said, “I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but after that sermon from Dr. Hill, I don’t think I’ll say anything now!’”
The audience erupted with laughter and applause–and, may I add–complete understanding. Not one preacher in the house would have wanted to follow E. V. Hill that day.
If anyone could do it, however, John Bisagno was the man. (This great Houston preacher is still with us, in retirement mode now, and still blessing churches far and wide with his powerful preaching. E. V. Hill has been in Heaven for a decade or more.)
When a preacher is slated to speak on a program along with others, he would do well to get there early and listen to the fellow who precedes him. He might discover, for instance, that the speaker uses the same story he had been planning as his piece de resistance! That has happened before, and has caused some mighty fast reconfiguring of the planned sermon!
Question: What is the preacher to do when the fellow just before him hits a home run and leaves the audience standing on their feet, calling for more?
What you do not do is try to top that speaker.
What you do not do is try to imitate that speaker.
Hope for a song or a choir special in between you and him. And, don’t be surprised if a lot of people leave during that little break. The previous speaker has left them wrung out and some are deciding their cup is full and cannot take any more.
It’s not about you, so don’t take it personally.
Speak softly at first. Acknowledge the outstanding job the previous guy did. And, if you know a great story that fits the occasion, this is the place for it. (I have meant to ask Dr. Bisagno about that Peanuts comic strip. Did he plan that in advance? Or did it come to mind on the spot?)
Do not apologize for your limited abilities and let’s have no false modesty. You and that brother are not in competition for anything, but are fellow team members. His success will almost guarantee that you will be effective if you know your business and do this right.
Just ease into your message while giving the audience time to adjust to your more subdued style.
Soon, you are doing what you do best and love most: proclaiming the good news of the glorious Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
If, when it’s all over and as you leave the building everyone is still talking about the preacher who preceded you, do not take that personally either. God used you, just as He did that fellow, but in different ways.
When you recover from the experience, you might decide the program committee paid you a high compliment by scheduling you back-to-back with such a powerful preacher. They knew if anyone could handle it, you could.
So, give yourself a little pat on the back. Now, go take a nap. You need one.