Preaching to Young Adults

September 19th, 2011
Image © Sean Choe | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

When it comes to preaching to young adults, no one is an expert. Anyone who claims otherwise should not be trusted, and probably should be smacked upside the head.

This is no feigned humility on my part. My considerable experience as a campus minister has included more than a few sermons that qualify as abject disasters. Even on what I thought were my most brilliant nights, my words have done little more than remind students of an urgent text they need to send off during worship, or given them a chance to catch up on sleep they missed the night before.

That is not to say that a preacher cannot or should not try to reach young adults with the gospel from the pulpit (or music stand or cafe table, as is the case in an increasing number of less liturgical settings). I’ve also had my share of gratifying successes when it comes to sermons on campus.

The problem is that I can’t really predict when I prepare when sermons will be home runs, and which will be three-pitch strikeouts. I suppose this is true in any preaching setting, but I feel it more acutely with young adults, who don’t always possess the filters of nicety that soften the blow in more mature congregations.

That being said, I have found a handful of things that a preacher can do when addressing a congregation of young adults. These don’t guarantee success, but they do make success much more likely, and so are worth the effort.

Be human.

Today’s young adults have been raised on multimedia entertainment. They take it for granted, even in churches. Plus, many of our rock-star preachers—the ones who look trendy and attract trendy followers—incorporate media into their sermons. So anyone preaching to young adults faces the imperative of using media, right?

In a word, no.

That’s not to say that movie clips or MediaShout slides are bad, only that they are a tool. By themselves, they will do nothing to enhance interest in the scripture or the sermon. Used poorly, they may in fact do the opposite.

Regardless of how saturated our culture is with media, the fact remains that almost nothing is more interesting than a real, live human being with something interesting to say. Our most important interactions are still human interactions. We—even those of us most in tune with media—are still captivated by conversation with real people.

So use media as you like and as it fits. But be a human preacher, first and foremost. Even if that means you have to . . .

Preach without notes.

Preaching is an act of communication that takes place amidst conversation among God, the preacher, and the congregation. Any such endeavor is bound to carry some risk.

No matter how long one has been preaching, almost every preacher has at least one story of the conversation breaking down. Some of these are funny or embarrassing or both. Others feel like enormous defeats, signs that we are not worthy to speak in this conversation.

Accept the risk anyway, even if it means you will sometimes lose your place or say something dumb. Young adults want to know that you are speaking to them, not just delivering a manuscript. The essential thing is to communicate to them—nonverbally, but clearly—that there is nothing more important to you at that moment than they are, and that you’re willing to risk some pride to connect with them.

And while you’re at it, remember that . . .

Communication is a two-way street.

Preaching as we know it usually involves one person delivering one message to a congregation, which is in turn expected to receive the message and respond internally. Author Doug Pagitt derisively—and quite accurately—refers to this as “speeching.”

But true communication requires both parties to listen, and gives both an opportunity to be heard. Sometimes, it’s worth a sacrifice in flow and unity to give the congregation a chance to respond with insights or questions. It takes practice and patience to help people learn to do this, but young adults are quick studies. Once they get used to creating the sermon along with the preacher, some wonderful things can happen.

And finally, when preaching to young adults, keep one word in mind . . .

Narrative, narrative, narrative.

The day of the three-point linear sermon is dead. Power-point organization or fill-in-the-blank notesheets are relics of the pastor-as-CEO era. Linear preaching should be buried along with Palm Pilots and desktop computers.

In order to connect with young adults—with any congregation, really—a sermon needs a plot, an internal logic of its own. One paragraph must build upon the next, which in turn builds on the next. A good sermon keeps both preacher and listener anticipating what is to come.

Of course, that sounds much easier than it actually is—especially if you try to both preach without notes and incorporate real-time dialogue with the congregation. But an experienced preacher can still guide the sermon from launch to landing without reducing it to a checkpoint list.

Will doing all of these things guarantee deeply spiritual worship encounters with your congregation of young adults? Not by a long shot. But they will create more opportunities for the Spirit to move. They will give us the best chance to capture the magic, or at least to be worthy of the magic when it arrives upon our worship events.

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