6 Things We Need to Learn from Youth About Preaching

Rarely seen, never heard is how many churches prefer to treat teenagers, confined to separate ministries. But I also know of a traditional church where teenagers sat front and center each week. It’s no coincidence the senior pastor had been a youth minister and often addressed those teens specifically.

If we’re serious about passing the gospel to the next generation, what do we need to learn from youth about how we preach? Here are six suggestions youth would offer to their pastors.

1. We don’t know what sanctification means, but we know about the process of growing in grace.

I’m a word person. I majored in Latin and English and enjoyed SAT prep vocabulary flashcards. (Yes, I was a really cool kid.) I like big words, especially in the realm of theology. A mentor listened to a talk I gave to students and had a list of about seven theological terms the kids probably did not know. Kids mentally check out when they hear abundant, arcane jargon and the presumption that everyone knows what it means. Students need to learn how to define terms like justification, sanctification, imputation, and substitutionary atonement. Preachers should not shy away from using Christian terminology, but they should make sure to explain the terms in a way that is not condescending toward those who do not know it.

2. If you are personally vulnerable, we will listen to what you have to say.

In homiletics, many debate the level of vulnerability pastors should exercise. If you share too much, you risk sounding self-absorbed. If you never share any personal stories, you may appear aloof. Regardless, I can say with confidence that teenagers of this generation embrace people with a willingness to share their story, particularly those parts that reveal the preacher is an imperfect person with whom students can identify.

3. We can’t hear you when you’re yelling.

One week in Sunday school we discussed how we relate and minister to those of other religions. I showed video from a cable news network debate about whether Christians should participate in a certain exercise. The program featured a conservative pastor, with a penchant for yelling, and a somewhat liberal pastor with a mellow demeanor. Before showing the video I asked students about their view on the topic. For the most part, they sided with the the conservative preacher. However, after showing the video, most said they agreed with the liberal preacher. Upon further cross-examination, the students admitted that they generally would reject what the yelling preacher had to say because of his tone and volume. Meanwhile, they would be inclined to agree with and embrace a person with a calm, gentle, controlled tone.

Keep in mind that we get yelled at more as teenagers than any other season in life. Whether it is their parents, their football coach, or the store-owner at the mall, teenagers receive much static from adults (and sometimes provoke it). They naturally reject a strident voice without even considering the validity of the statements, while they give a “nice” tone the benefit of the doubt.

4. Sometimes you talk as if we are not in the room.

Kids often say they feel as if the sermon exclusively addresses the adults in sanctuary. But the truth of God’s Word and the gospel have universal relevance and applications, regardless of the age or context of the audience. Rarely, though, when listening to sermons online or in person do I hear a preacher make life-application examples that appeal to adolescents. Usually, pastors evoke examples related to adult matters, such as financial insecurity, marital conflict, job loss, anxiety over children, and so on. A pastor can win serious rapport with his teenage audience by using a life-application example that relates to teenage experience, such as the stress of exams, conflict with parents, or fear about seating arrangements on the first day of school.

5. We are all postmodern, unlike many of our pastors.

The greatest disconnect I see between older pastors and the teens in their pews relates to the massive difference in cultural worldview under which they have been socialized. Many pastors (including me) were raised with a modernist mindset. We moderns think in terms of evidence, logic, and proofs. The evidences of the resurrection along with some Josh McDowell sold me on Christianity.

The teenagers to whom I minister do not think like most of my preacher friends. While volumes can (and have) been written about the difference between postmodern teens and their modernist neighbors, I would say simply that pastors must engage the postmodern kid in heart and mind. Biblical exegesis and doctrine alone edify and feed me. For postmodern teens, they need stories and questions that appeal to experience and emotions and that illustrate the biblical truth being proclaimed.

6. Tell me how this affects me right now.

Instant gratification may be the worst trend in this generation of teenagers. They evaluate everything on how it immediately affects them. By contrast, most pastors grew up in a world where we had to wait for mom and dad to take us to the movies (or the movie store) to watch a flick. We had to wait our turn to use the phone. Not these kids. They can watch a movie . . . on their phone. They can dial up whatever they want on demand. While this trend has deleterious effects on teens, we cannot ignore their context. Insane it may sound, but offering teenagers salvation and eternal life when they die does not hardly resonate with them. To connect to their teenage constituency, pastors also must explain the realized benefits we enjoy in this life from following Jesus in addition to the deferred ones we enjoy upon death.

  • http://markblock.wordpress.com Mark B.

    Great advice, I teach a Sunday school class to junior high students and high school students. These are all things people who minister to youth should keep in mind.

  • David

    Concerning #6, how do you balance giving into the “give it to me now” mindset and training them to walk in patience, circumspectly, thinking of the future, etc. I do think that the fact that they need to know what it means now comes with, or perhaps is the result of, some baggage. What is a good way to confront this? It no doubt requires consistency in whatever it is that needs to be done.

    • http://www.rootedministry.com Cameron Cole

      Great question. What is particularly challenging is understanding how to express the immediate implications of the Gospel without overselling Christian experience. If we push this too hard, we can set up an unrealistic expectation that Christian life is this trouble free, marvelous experience and set kids up for disappointment.

      One word I may offer is this. Many times when I teach, I will say, “Now I know you think that a concept like the sovereignty of God / glorification / or imputed righteous has no relevance in your life, but understand that the anxiety you feel when you are getting ready to take a standardized test is a direct reflection of……..” (I explain what those terms mean. :-) ).

      We need to confront the idol of demandingness so many kids have as a product of the instant gratification culture, and I also think we need to meet them where they are and pay special attention to the present implications of God’s truth.

  • http://spencercamp.wordpress.com/ Spencer C.

    From a youth’s perspective (since we’re learning from the youth these days) I understand the good intentions in this article, but I just have a couple of questions/inputs:
    1.) Why are you learning from us (the youth) how to preach? That’s probably not a good idea to learn anything from teenagers… I’m a teenager and I know that.

    Nonetheless, I agree with the terminology, vulnerability, the mellow voice (but aren’t those public speaking 101? to communicate clearly…)…I don’t want to be too bold or anything, but this article has kind of missed what youth ministry is all about, in my (youth’s) opinion.

    You’ve accurately described the youth of this generation, but you’ve falsely described what the youth want in their youth pastor. Few will admit it, but the youth want the youth pastors to stop watering down the message of the Gospel. The youth want true truth, just like it’s taught to anybody with a mind and a soul. The youth want FAITH & REPENTANCE and the GOSPEL explicitly defined and communicated, with NO reservations and apologies. The youth want to be challenged to meet God’s standard of truth and not whatever the youth pastor thinks we can handle at the time. We’re already vastly underestimated by the school system, that treats us like a bunch of hormone filled, terrible, rotten kids, and that it’s inevitable that we will make the mistakes we do because that’s just the nature of who we are. We hate that false gospel. And we want God’s Gospel.

    Honestly if youth pastors stopped doing these two things, youth ministry would cease to be bad and it would change the churched youth of the world:

    1.) Stop Watering Down The Gospel. (We Can Handle It Even If You Don’t Think So) (no ‘ask jesus into your heart, and raise your hand a recite a prayer nonsense, that’s not real change)

    2.) Stop Lowering The Expectations And Please Challenge Us To Live Up to the Standard of God, not the standard you think we are capable of meeting. (We Can Handle It Even If You Don’t Think So)

    3.) (this one’s extra) Stop Listening to Us and Start Listening to The Bible because the biggest sign of a weak youth pastor is the one who is willing to compromise his message to tickle the ears of teenagers. Honestly, I’m leaving the room and never coming back if a youth pastor lowers his standards to meet mine. I want to hear a message from God not a message lowered to the fancies of men, much less, teenage boys.

    • http://www.rootedministry.com Cameron Cole

      Fantastic comments. How great to have an actual teenager weigh in on this issue. Your insights are spot on.

      I 100% affirm what you are saying about not watering down the substance and bringing the full, unapologetic truth of the Gospel and God’s Word. This article is not meant to in any way suggest that we dumb down things for kids; that method is what has created the crisis of students not sticking with the church after high school.

      I would say from my experience over the past eight years with students that kids need to be addressed both head and heart. I’m very intellectually geared and work with a student population that also is intellectually oriented (almost all go on to college). The feedback they give me is that when I go into “propositional doctrine mode” without connecting it to context and without including narrative that engages them at the heart level, that they check out. They want to be engaged on both levels.

      Spencer, do us all a favor and comment on article often. We want and need to hear what teenagers think about these matters, especially one as mature as you.

    • Mark

      I’m not that far removed from my teenage experience. I always felt a passion for doctrine as it relates to real life. Talk about head and heart but frankly, they aren’t two separate entities. There’s really no reaching the heart without the head. I believe this more strongly than ever. I agree empathy is key. But empathy isn’t an act where you try to come with a good hook based on an experience that is foreign to you. That’s just an act. I’ve heard it. It is distracting.

      Sorry, this isn’t going to be very organized by the end.

      Regarding vulnerability: I agree with Spencer. What he says about communication 101 is spot on. Reaching an audience isn’t rocket science. The fact remains that many pastors aren’t good communicators. However, being vulnerable (which should simply be humility) shouldn’t replace the authority that should be apparent in the delivery of the message.

      I believe some pastors will get the wrong idea from this article and start trying to dig into the current teenage experience and then parachute those tidbits into sermons. That’s foolish and ineffective. Forget the explicit references. They don’t help us focus on Christ.

      The best way to apply theology is with more theology. What are we doing, after all? We are learning about God, the ultimate standard of love who has brought us into His family of his own free grace. Who wouldn’t want to learn more about a father such as this? If theology isn’t learning explicitly this, then it isn’t useful and probably is false to start with.

    • Pattie

      Thank you dear Spencer. I am sorry for the indignation of being pandered to. Please keep pressing on.

    • BK Smith

      Well said!

  • Jared P.

    Thank you for your article. It is always great to see ministers work towards the preservation of the future of churches within such a post-modern world.

    I have a comment from experience, which I am not intending to be derogatory since I do not want to discourage you with negative comments from an anonymous blog commenter. This comment is pointless if all that it does is destroy others in Christ. This is coming from a perspective of one who has been accommodated much to by preachers and youth leaders and with that I struggle with leaders adjusting so much to accommodate to youth. I do not have the experience as a Youth Pastor or Pastor, but as a previous youth intern and Christian hoping to enter into ministry eventually with very haunting experiences from time spent with Youth Pastors and Pastors who steered away from all Theology, I see it as problematic for Christian maturity and independence.

    First, the importance of digesting what God is saying through the exposition of his Word seems to be downplayed when the pastor is trying to adjust to youth so much. With that, the more that preachers focus on what Youth can understand, there is a tendency by some to avoid portions of Scripture which God has ordained to be part of his revelation. I do understand that this is cannot be universally applied to all Preachers and Youth Leaders.

    Second, I have seen and experienced problems when youth enter into their collegiate years. College students seem to find churches that align with their previous experiences of Christianity from Youth group settings or adaptability, you tend to have the appearances of many “Youth Groups” that function as churches in college towns. These churches seem to only attract college students because of their focus. I see that as dangerous to the future of churches in all aspects of local church life and explains why an entire generation seems to be missing from many multi-generation churches.

    Thirdly, I think the best way to approach pure philosophical post-modernism is to identify it, confront it head on, and replace it with a biblical world view, not accommodate.

    I present these with a bit fear and trembling because of the impact words can have in such an environment as this and honestly because of a lack of leadership experience. I thought I would add a couple thoughts. I just hope that as preachers adapt to the Youth in whatever teaching environment, they do not accidentally cripple the maturity of their youth and the future of church through such tactics above when I know that they are only trying to help.

    • http://www.therootedblog.blogspot.com Cameron Cole

      Wow, what great comments. So much gold in your comments. Appreciate you sharing. To affirm what you said:

      1.) You are absolutely right. Preach the Word. Don’t dumb it down by any stretch. Bergler’s book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, affirms this. One of the messages that youth ministries and churches alike need to hear is to expect more from kids. They can handle more than you think.

      2.) Totally agree. Segregating youth group from the broader church is a huge problem. I think at times in “big church” when the youth are not acknowledged it plays into this dynamic. It sends a message that “big church is time for adults; you guys will have your time during Sunday school or Sunday night.”

      3.) I agree with what you are saying about confronting, deconstructing, and correcting postmodernism. I also would say that an entirely intellectual approach to teenagers will not land with them. They, by all means, must be engaged intellectually, but the heart often times in the gateway to the mind with postmodern kids.

      Again, awesome comments. Very valuable contribution to this conversation.

      • Jared P.

        Thanks for getting back,

        I appreciate your response and your attitude towards this topic. One blog is not going to address every aspect of a Biblical Christ Exalting approach to Youth Ministry. May the Lord continue to bless your ministry for His own glory!

  • Paul Janssen

    Thanks. This is very helpful.

  • Vic

    I would agree that pastors need to be real, but I disagree with the rest of this article. We, postmoderns, need to be taught real truth. We need you as a pastor to answer questions like “Why should I even believe there is a God?” (and why is this universally true not just true for me, especially if you are going to exhort me to “share my faith with others.”) If I’m going to sit in classes on daily basis that undermine everything you say and give me more seemingly satisfactory, well-thought answers to the big questions of life a fluffy, emotional, over-applied sermon is not going to give anything to on which to stand. I don’t need more application. I need more instruction. What does the bible actually say, in context? Who was whatever portion you’re dealing with written to? What can I learn about God and/or what he expects from me as a follower based on this text that is so far removed from me in time, culture, etc. What should I expect from an interaction with the text? Should I expect some warm emotional experience every day to validate my faith? NO! This is not realistic! But in seeing real truth I can have emotions that are rooted in reality. Emotions can flow from truth, but not the other way around. I am begging you pastors give us truth!

  • http://www.growinginworship.com Paul Ellsworth

    I am not a teen, but I’m still fairly young (20s). Just for general information’s sake. :) Also, I realize that it’s hard to be exhaustive, to cover all your bases, to say anything perfectly and explain your position perfectly… so the below are not necessarily responses to what you actually think but to, somewhat, how I read it… and perhaps (e.g., the “yelling” one) just agreeing/expounding. :)

    — 1. We don’t know what sanctification means, but we know about the process of growing in grace.

    This seems like a balance issue. I actually don’t think “sanctification” is talked about enough – the topic, not the word. It’s not that it’s a big word and kid’s can’t learn what it means; it’s that it’s not taught. Same with other “25 cent words.”

    I’m in a strange boat in that I know all the words, but some of them … well, weren’t really practically talked. I know what sanctification IS … but actually preaching about how it works, how it goes on, examples, what it “practically” means? That was less prevalent.

    — 2. If you are personally vulnerable, we will listen to what you have to say.

    This seems to basically be humility and “real”-ness. Paul was very real in his epistles. He talked about his weaknesses, his circumstances, his joy, his pain. I think, to some extent, we have more of a “professor” mentality than “pastor” mentality currently.

    — 3. We can’t hear you when you’re yelling.

    Oh so true. The “angry, white, conservative Christian” is annoying to more than “liberals.” Even dealing with pretty spectacular issues, the epistles seem to rarely “yell.” John keeps saying “beloved children,” Paul keeps saying “brethren,” etc. Their tone was harsh, at times, when dealing with pretty bad things IN the church. I find it interesting that it doesn’t seem like Paul and Peter, in the few recorded “witnessing” type preaching incidents in Acts, got particularly angry at “their” culture. They seemed to – shocking, isn’t it – have compassion on the lost. As Christ did. In the “yelling” types, I don’t detect compassion, I detect hatred and disgust. “But it’s sin, it should disgust us!” And yet Christ looked on sinners with compassion; can’t we, too, even while being and desiring to be disgusted by sin? If anything, the “angry” or “yelling” preacher seems to be arrogant, not compassionate. They’ll know us by their love; not by our anger. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control… if the fruit of the Spirit aren’t manifested in the way we preach (ostensibly in the Spirit’s power!), there’s something horribly wrong.

    — 5. We are all postmodern, unlike many of our pastors.

    Without making the assumption that “modernist” is correct (is it? biblically? as in, part of our “conversion” from the “world” includes a conversion to modernism?), I don’t think it’s just an issue of post-modernism. Cold, hard facts of Christianity seem to often accompany cold Christians. It’s certainly not unbiblical to use stories to illustrate. And emotional and experiential language is certainly not unbiblical either. No, conversion is not *based* on experience and emotion, but we DO experience it and it SHOULD affect our emotions. The “anti-emotion” knee-jerk that causes conversion to be a cold, intellectual, heart-less non-experience is not biblical either… nor, in fact, is the idea that we are simply convinced by logic and facts. We are “convinced” by the Holy Spirit working in our hearts, and belief/faith/trust is more than simply knowing things. If post-modernism is too emotional/experiential, I wonder if modernism is too intellectual in some ways (say this prayer and you’re saved!). :)

    — 6. Tell me how this affects me right now.

    This is more than “instant gratification” culture, I think… if the gospel *doesn’t* affect my life right now, then it’s being preached wrong. The gospel is “life changing,” right? And that doesn’t just mean “because when you die, you don’t actually die!” Paul said that to LIVE is Christ and to die is gain. So if our preaching of the gospel does NOT show how the gospel makes a difference in their lives *right now,* it’s not their fault – it’s our fault – because it SHOULD make a difference… right now.

    If we preach that we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and that Christ is always with us and that we boldly come before the throne of the almighty God and call Him “Father” … and if Paul talks all over about living for Christ, dieing for Christ, about doing EVERYTHING for God’s glory (“whether we eat or drink”) … well, I guess I would just say that if our gospel presentation is only future-oriented, there is something wrong with our presentation of the gospel, not the instant-gratification culture.

    Perhaps the instant-gratification culture is actually teaching us about a facet of the gospel that has been lost.

  • Zach Bradley

    Great article, and a great reminder for those of us who forget to contextualize material for every soul in the congregation. Also, with the exception of number 4, it seems like all of these apply equally well to almost anybody under the age of 35. Thanks!

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  • http://www.edrinwilliams.com Edrin Williams

    Really appreciated the article…thanks for writing it! I think the observations can be useful for preachers, teachers, and also for adults who have not grown up in church and are steeped in the culture of the day. I’ve seen that much of what we do to make the Scriptures understandable for youth in the church can be applied to adults in the culture, as well.

    I’d add the to conversation, though, that we need to have an expectation and strategy to intentionally mature young people to the place where they can handle the richer truths of Scripture and eventually teach others themselves. We definitely need to make the gospel accessible, but you also want to move young people from milk to meat.

    Thanks again for the post…it is music to this Youth Pastor’s ears!

    God Bless!

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  • Geoff

    Am I wrong or is #5 saying that postmodernists don’t think logically? Is there a better take on that?

    #6 is fine as long as part of the message is “take up your cross and follow Jesus NOW”. “You may need to suffer now”.

    Frankly, if a teenager doesn’t want to think logically and doesn’t care about Jesus unless it benefits him in the present, maybe the teenager is unconverted.

    I would suggest sticking with law and gospel bathed in prayer. Law to drive them to the cross and to convict them of sin. Gospel to save them.

  • http://Propreacher.com Brandon

    I can definitely attest to #3. I once took a group of teenagers to a summer camp. The main speaker cancelled last minute and the backup preacher was a yeller. The students hated it. After every sermon we met to debrief, and there were always comments about why he yelled so much or why he was so angry. Youth immediately tune out yelling.

  • http://Www.corinthtoday.org Paul Cummings

    Also, on the vulnerability issue….
    Work and pray to find the “sweet spot” as too little vulnerability makes it seem like you as a pastor aren’t in need of grace and too much vulnerability/disclosure of personal struggles often makes a student say in their hearts- “oh my youth pastor struggled with _______ himself as a student and still turned out ok… So I can dabble in it too and I’ll be ok.” Often cautionary tales end up as simply giving rationale to kids (unintentionally of course)
    Bless you, I appreciated your points!

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  • http://lifeandbuilding.com Kyle

    This was very helpful. Thanks! I think number 5 is more important than most people might realize, especially if you’re over 40. I’ve noticed, like you pointed out, that although we often present the facts clearly we can fail to win the point because we rely on an outdated paradigm. Thanks for including this point!

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  • http://www.ecxc.wordpress.com Thoughts of A Welshman

    Excellent article. There’s a great book on the related topic of why young adults are leaving church today. I believe it’s called “You Lost Me” By David Kinnaman (president of the Barna Group). You may be interested in checking it out.

    Sort of building off what your article talked about I think sometimes we as Christians can be stuck in a certain structure of doing things because we feel like that’s how it’s always been done. It may not be the best way to engage all generations though. I don’t mean to suggest that we resort to entertaining young generations, but we must find a way to make the gospel relate-able in a way that promotes and encourages growth among our teenagers.

    One of the downfalls of the current way of doing church is that there is very little cross-generational interaction. We separate the “youth” in our church from the young adults or the adults. Although these can be extremely beneficial programs, we must not forget the value of treating youth with similar respect as we do the older generations in our churches. Don’t underestimate their ability to handle deep discussion. They are hungry for meaningful, sometimes controversial, lessons. In a society of Relativism, they need teachers grounded in the Word with the ability to guide them through scriptures truth; offer them a foundation for their lives. Great article, appreciate the thoughts.