Preaching to youth is a wonderful responsibility and all youth workers should be about improving their craft. What weight you give to preaching within your ministry, the importance of prayerful preparation, how you handle scripture, what you understand about the Grand Narrative and contextualisation, and moving from a captured audience to a captive one, are all important aspects to consider.
These insights are certainly not exhaustive. I pray that they may make for a helpful re-ordering of your approach to preaching.
God is always preaching
This first thought is one I learnt only in reflection on the earlier part of my journey in youth ministry.
Before you speak remember that God has already. God is at this very moment and will after your meeting, be speaking into the lives of those filling the seats. Your sermon, your message, simply joins this existing, ongoing chorus. From the moment God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden, a perpetual eternal voice has been calling ALL back home in the most creative and imaginative ways. God has an active presence in the lives of all. Including the young people in your community.
Without the correct perspective on the part your preaching has in the unending chorus of God’s voice to all of creation, you will make more than you should of the gift and platform entrusted to you. Accepting that you are part of a choir rather than a ‘soloist’ should prevent you from clothing yourself in pride. It may prevent the belief that you are centre of stage.
In my opinion, this is a much-needed realisation in today’s world, where preachers endure an intolerable notoriety.
You should give more weight to the sermon your life is preaching than what you say in 30 minutes on a Friday evening.
Pray longer than you preach
I picked up this focus on prayer from the ‘prince of preachers’ Charles Spurgeon. It has served me best of all.
We know prayer is important and that we should pray. In fact, we often do pray. But, sadly we pray little. And often just before as a precursor to the ‘main event’ of actually delivering our message.
Prayer is not a precursor. Prayer is the thing.
Praying for longer than you preach is not a formula. It is not a ‘how to become a better, more successful preacher.’ Praying for longer than you preach is a simple understanding that the ‘power’ of your message does not rest or come from you but from the Holy Spirit.
It is an understanding that there are things happening in the spiritual realm, in the unseen, that you are participating in whether you signed up for it or not and the only way to ‘overcome’ in this realm, is to suit up with the power of prayer.
Praying longer than you preach will also turn you into a better listener. Listening more for what’s on God’s heart, hearing what you should emphasise or let go. It is allowing the Heavenly Gardener to tend the tree of your message and prune away.
Prayer will help you remember that your message is simply something you ‘hear’ (from God) and let come ‘through you’ to the people God so loves.
Without proper prayer you will always be unprepared no matter how good you sound or well your message is received.
It is my experience that those early in their preaching journey tend to spend more time on ‘the colour of the model’ than in the engine room of any talk – prayer.
Coming under scripture
The idea of ‘coming under scripture’ was a gift from writer Eugene Peterson.
Eugene Peterson (amongst others I’m sure) makes the distinction of either standing ‘above scripture’ or ‘sitting under scripture’. Those who ‘stand above scripture’ begin with themselves and find scriptures that re-enforce, illustrate or justify their teaching. When you choose (and is it a decision) to ‘sit under scripture’, you teach the whole story of the Bible, letting God’s Word have authority over your life (and teaching) as the preacher.
When you are new to preaching, as many youth pastors often are, and giving ‘topical’ teaching, which is mostly the case with young listeners, it is a real temptation to only ‘tag’ scripture as part of the message. God’s story is easily lost when you choose to offer only a highlights package of your own conclusions in the name of relevance.
God is telling the story (and the whole of it). The role of the preacher is to retell that story (the whole of that story) not to give a consumer-friendly version of truth.
The Word of God is not a commodity. Don’t sell it in the name of popular preaching.
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
Know where to start in the story
This is a little something Rob Bell taught in the series Poets/Prophets/Preachers which I actually found to be quite true.
We all lean towards either being a Genesis 1 or Genesis 3 speaker. Let’s see which one you gravitate towards.
As you know, Genesis 1 is the creation poem. It gives us the beautiful picture of how it all was once ‘good’ with the world. Genesis 3 is about THE FALL and describes Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God’s will.
When we preach (whatever we’re preaching on and whether we are super aware of it or not) we all frame our talk within the greater Grand Narrative of the Bible. Either making Genesis 1 or 3 the beginning to story.
Genesis 3 preachers see sin as the problem (which it is) and focus on how to solve it. This is what’s wrong and this is how you fix it, pretty much sums up the flow of the message.
A Genesis 1 preacher is all about restoration, the returning to how things were in the very beginning. They are all about capturing the hopeful imagination of young people by painting pictures of who teens really are created to be and what the world is meant to be like. Sin is part of the story but not the story.
It’s all about where you start in the story.
From my experience young people are not a problem to solve but rather a young life in need of a captivating vision to follow. Jesus offers that with the simple invitation of ‘Come, follow me.’ Not a bad place to start a story.
Earn the right to speak
I’m not sure of the seed of this thought but suspect it was born from speaking often to hundreds upon hundreds of young people who didn’t know me and whose ‘attention’ I was given for 10-15 minutes.
It is important to differentiate between a ‘captive audience’ and a ‘captured audience’.
A ‘captured audience’ has to be there. Think assembly, class lesson, even Friday night where lots of teens endure the talk but are really there for the games and social times. A ‘captive audience’ (whatever led them there, forced or not), are actually listening to what you have to say. Are engaged with you, as you journey together through your message.
The use of ‘with’ is purposeful. Talking ‘to’ youth sounds like a lesson of sorts but with is Jesus-like.
Understanding what ‘earning the right to speak’ actually means, will give you a great chance at moving from ‘captured’ to ‘captive’.
So, earing the right to speak is about accepting that it’s not ‘your right’ that youth listen to you. Sure, you may come from a position of authority and they ‘have to’ listen but then that’s not really listening is it? By earning, you accept that you need to begin with something that says, ‘Hey, what I’m about to share with you has value, is important, is not something you want to miss out on.
‘Earning the right to speak’ is not about getting people’s attention or doing something cool (although it may end up a part of it). It is about a posture of the heart that begins all the way back in your preparation. It begins with asking questions.
Who am I speaking to? What is their context? What are they most likely going through? Where have they just come from and where are they going to next? It’s less about ‘what I want to say’ and more about ‘what they need to hear.’
Earning the right to speak begins with acknowledging and knowing the story of the group you’re speaking to and discovering the most excellent way to begin sharing with them. It is the hard, hidden, empathetic work of starting a talk.
It says, ‘I have prepared something special in advance for you to hear because you are of eternal value.’
Let it be your voice when you preach to young people
This one may take some time and is woven into your personal walk with Jesus.
Learning from others and incorporating good preaching practices that you observe will always be important but not when it comes at the cost of your unique offering as a youth worker.
Preaching and teaching will always have some ‘Rock Stars’ to mimic. We should give thanks for these ministries, but not idolise and certainly not try to become mini-versions of them every time we speak to a group of young people.
Coming under the direction and authority of elders and church leadership is important. Understandably, often the content of the talk may be given but what’s important here is to not just share the words of others without having truly understood them for yourself. The words may sound right and true, but they will lack authenticity, and for this generation that’s like blood in the water.
Don’t just learn the teaching. Digest it.
It may be a strange comment to make but we need to remember that we live in South Africa, not America or the UK. Contextualisation is vital and an important step towards the sharing of your (local) voice as a youth worker.
Bring your journey to the talk. Have the confidence to believe that it’s you God wants standing in front of those young people, not some ‘higher profile’, ‘better’ preacher.
Your life journey is a message, let it speak when you preach.