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Preaching with Teenagers in Mind

Monday, 27 May 2024  | Joshua Millard

Young people need adult help in transitioning from one age group to another. In most churches, a transition from Sunday school to the mostly adult church gathering occurs. To take a child out of their experience of Sunday school is to ask them to do church in a way they have never done before. They leave behind the only communal engagement with God they may thus far have known. Here, they need adult help.

In this transition, it helps for adults to debrief the sermon with young people or provide some kind of structure for them to learn this new format. This cannot be left to a youth team to convince young people that there really was something worth listening to for the last 20 minutes! Preachers must preach with teenagers in mind. This does not change the essential task of preaching (articulating the meaning of this part of Scripture as it meets us here and now), but it does means that preaching should address everyone at church — young people are a part of that ‘everyone’.

Paul gives these directions for preaching:In your teaching, show integrity, gravity and sound speech that cannot be censured’ (Titus 2:7–8). How do preachers fulfill these directions? What distinctives will we need to consider in preaching to ‘everyone-that-includes-young-people’?

Integrity means that our words, actions and motivations line up in an undivided unity under the word of God. For preaching to show integrity, we must demonstrate the plausible liveability of the word of God. We paint a picture of bringing our words, actions and motivations to align with God’s words. The life of the preacher cannot be allowed to erode that plausibility by selfishness or duplicity. The message of the preacher must likewise not be allowed to erode this plausibility of a unified life by dishonesty or glossing over its applicability to human life.

To help everyone follow the way of Christ, preaching must remain exegetical. We must educate young people in the logic of how we arrive at the shape of the Christlike life. However, exegetical preaching on its own is not enough: it must be applied so we can follow it in 21st century Australia. Application is not merely the last part of our sermon. It is ease of access into living the passage.

Integrity requires clarity so that everyone can follow what this means in living God’s word. Adults have sat through higher education lectures and in tedious work meetings, or at least have had time enough for full brain development. With adults, a preacher can take the time to explain and re-explain they will get it in the end. Teenagers can pay attention for most sermon lengths, but they may be unlikely to follow a long argument with the point only at the end. They need easier access to the main idea of a Bible passage, with one ‘big idea’ clearly put. That big idea needs repetition.

Integrity also requires not assuming adulthood as the place of action. If ‘everyone’ includes teenagers, then we can speak to adults about a younger time in their lives: university, school, the basketball team. They can then translate this upwards to their current age; after all, they have been in that younger setting before. Teenagers, though, cannot translate the ‘older’ setting of workplace and finance because they have never been there.

To preach with integrity is to provide a unity of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But that praxis must be available to everyone present. We all have relationships, so application can be relational rather than in the workplace. We all have obligations, so exegesis can be applied to how we fulfill our obligations. We all have hopes, so a congregation can be taught how the word of God affects our hearts and longings.

Gravity is seriousness giving weight to the task at hand and treating it with the dignity that God has given to the office of teaching and the task of preaching. Exposition and application are not everyday tasks, no matter how familiar they are to preachers.

Teenagers do not want preachers to be fun, easy-going or relevant. There is no biblical direction for preachers to be these things. They do not need to make passing references to artists and icons they think youth are following. Attempts to do so will backfire, no matter how relevant the references are. Youth do not require slogans, inclusion of teenage slang or shorter sermons (although that might sometimes be wise). Youth do not need a message that is only a margin above Sunday Club or a sidebar in the sermon that is a youth-friendly conviction or challenge. Integrity calls preachers to know young people’s shape of life, but gravity calls preachers not to water down this setting into an unserious ‘relevance’.

It is more often young people rather than adults who are drawn to the great costliness of following Jesus. They have not yet wrapped up their lives in careers, achievements, loans and relational obligations. Youth would like to find something to give their lives to that is rich in meaning and sacrifice whatever they have to do something worthwhile. If they find in Christ a reason to lay down their lives, sacrifice what they have and give all to this cause then we have offered them what Jesus offers them.

Preachers ought never to shy away from both what this passage would cost us to live and what joys of Jesus we might find in there. The opposite of preaching with gravity is vacuousness. We fall prey to that temptation when we don’t believe in young people as decision-making agents who can genuinely make their own choice to give their lives to Jesus. The ‘everyone-that-includes-young-people’ needs real content. Without gravity, what is keeping us here above anywhere else?

Sound speech. The awkward grammar of Titus 2:8 may obscure the fact that Paul directs Titus to be irreproachable regarding the doctrine he teaches. We may call this ‘apostolic’. The church was to avoid giving the opposing world any opportunity to criticise them, apart from for the actual message and living the Christian faith, which would be found in what was preached.

If Paul warned Titus that apostolicity was a non-negotiable feature of preaching, preachers should make the conscious effort to include the whole counsel of God. This means publicly reading all the Bible, facing the hard doctrines and admitting the high hurdles.

Young people have a particular sensitivity to falsehood. They know when adults are not telling the whole truth, even when they don’t know how they know or how to articulate their suspicion. They can and do notice what isn’t said in a sermon and what isn’t said in church at all. Adults may have an anxious tendency to paper over perceived weak points in the Christian faith. They may wish to set others at ease in the task of preaching by giving overly simple answers about complicated matters or never mentioning culturally inconvenient doctrines. We should not expect that youth are fooled by this brushing-off or papering-over.

We may call the product of this adult anxiety ‘spin’ (see Graham Stanton, Wide Awake in God's World: Bible Engagement for Teenage Spiritual Formation in a Culture of Expressive Individualism, 2020, 189). Spin is when we distort the passage in order to make everything seem easy and in order. It is where one might say, ‘Don’t worry about that right now, it isn’t important’. Youth ministry is tasked with aiding young people to face the Christian faith as it is and resist this temptation to put spin on the hard or difficult parts of the Christian faith. To put spin on our message, on a Christian claim and/or on a passage of the Bible is to sacrifice soundness in preaching.

When the passage is confusing to the everyone-that-includes-young-people, study! Read so that we can declare the learning of the church throughout the ages for us in the here and now. This requires time. To do so for young people requires greater articulation, which requires greater understanding, which requires greater study over the long haul of ministry.

When the passage is challenging to the everyone-that-includes-young-people, rejoice! Don’t water down the challenge of Jesus to his followers — followers who include teenagers. Let the hard be simply ‘hard’. A challenge that is really hard is a point of interest to most young people, not an inconvenience.

When the passage is confronting to the everyone-that-includes-young-people, pastor! Preaching pastorally is the very shape of the New Testament. Work with youth ministers, youth ministry volunteers and parents to follow up on young people’s questions and be available to youth supporters who are left with those questions.

There is much more to say, for youth ministry is full of happy complexity. Preachers who at least think about these directions to Titus can only benefit everyone. But this isn’t just about young people: it is about the church. Everyone will benefit when we really mean everyone.

Joshua Millard is a Youth Worker at St Thomas Burwood in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.

Image credit: Man standing in front of group of people by Priscilla du Preez. On Unsplash.


This article first appeared in Equip 44: ‘Following for You: Rejuvenating Youth Ministry’ (April 2024), 18-19. Subscribe here to receive your copy. Republished with permission from the author.

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