Over the past decade, I have had many opportunities to open the Bible and preach to young people in a huge range of settings and cultures. While I have previously written on some of the most common ways I have bombed a sermon (and seen many other young preachers do likewise), I have also learned some helpful practices along the way that can help your message stick.
The Gospel Is the Power
These practices are intentionally pragmatic, but they are of little use if the message being preached is anything other than the gospel. Only the gospel—the good news of the finished work of Jesus, on the cross, in our place, for our sins—has the Spirit-propelled power to make dead hearts live.
In all our ministry to young people, the gospel should never be assumed, but declared boldly and repeatedly. Your church is only ever one generation away from extinction, and the high calling of every parent and preacher is to faithfully pass on the baton of faith to the next generation.
So what follows are five practical “sermon-wins” I strive to remember when preaching the gospel to a younger crowd.
1. Be Interactive
If you’ve been in student ministry for more than seven seconds, you know that keeping the attention of a room full of teenagers can feel like herding caffeinated squirrels. A vital part of preaching to students is repeatedly engaging and involving them in the sermon. There are many ways to do this, but two of my favorites are:
a. Ask questions. Short bursts of dialogue and well-placed questions throughout a sermon both challenge our minds and engage our attention. When speaking to a crowd of young people, I tend to use a mixture of rhetorical and literal questions that involve them in the message. For example, I might say, “The Bible is not a book about many heroes, but one hero. What’s his name? That’s right, Jesus!”
b. Encourage note-taking. The person who just listens to a sermon will never retain as much as the one who listens and writes down what they hear. Writing down your big take-aways from a sermon greatly increases your likelihood of applying them to your life. I encourage our volunteer leaders to sit among their students (rather than sitting with other leaders or standing around the back) so that they can model this to their students.
2. Be Simple
Simple doesn’t mean shallow. May youth ministries be done forever with watered-down sermons that merely entertain, share, woo, intellectualize or abbreviate the Word of God! A simple sermon is one where the Bible is preached in such a way that its truth is understood and remembered.
For me, the hardest part of preparing a sermon is not working out what to say, but what to leave out. Let me particularly address those who learned to preach in seminary or Bible college: The goal of a sermon is not revealing what you have learned about the Scriptures, but imparting what you have learned to your listeners (2 Tim. 2:2).
You can take your young people much deeper into the Scripture than you think; the key is doing it in a language they understand. You can teach a deep concept; just illustrate it. You can use a big Christian word; just explain it. Otherwise you might feel like you nailed your systematic theology, but your students will have mentally checked-out faster than a husband being forced to attend a birthing class. (This is a theoretical analogy and in no way related to that one time I fell asleep in the front row of our first child’s birthing class.)
Youth leader: Preach the deep truths of Scripture in a way that a 14-year-old will remember.
3. Be Repetitive
Memorable preaching hammers home the hook.
An important part of preaching biblical truth in an unforgettable way is boiling down your sermon to a one-sentence hook. This is the nail that gets hammered home again and again and again throughout the message. If someone only remembers one thing from the message, your “hook” is what you want them to remember. Memorable preaching hammers home the hook.
When people ask me what I am preaching on, my go-to response is, “Jesus.” Once I’ve sufficiently annoyed them with my Jesus-juke, my next response will be whatever the hook of my message is. For example, a sermon on sanctification and growing as a Christian might have the hook, “Fruit happens slowly, but fruit happens.” If you have finished writing your sermon, but you are unable to explain it in one sentence, you haven’t finished writing your sermon.
Make space in your sermon prep to craft, edit, meditate on and re-edit this line until it finally takes up residence in your head like an unwelcome Taylor Swift song. Why?
Because memorable preaching hammers home the hook.
4. Be One Step Ahead
Preaching to young people should not only communicate the truth of what the Bible says, but also anticipate and answer their resistance to this truth, much like a master chess-player or UFC fighter who sees several moves ahead and strikes accordingly. Tim Keller, a master of this kind of preaching, explains this further:
Just giving the what (for example, a vivid gospel presentation) worked in the days when the cultural institutions created an environment in which Christianity just felt true or at least honorable. But in a post-Christendom society, in the marketplace of ideas, you have to explain why this is true, or people will just dismiss it.
Now more than ever before, the place of apologetics in youth ministry sermons is critical if we are to equip our students to flourish in an increasingly post-Christian culture. My goal in preaching is to point them to Jesus and blow up every excuse I can think of that might keep them from him. Like an offensive lineman clearing a path for their running back, apologetics removes the debris of young people’s objections to the message of the gospel. I am constantly asking myself the question, “Why would they reject what I’m saying?”
Too many of our young people graduate from their Christian convictions when they graduate from high school, because their faith had been based on experiences and feelings instead of being grounded in timeless truth, with reasonable answers to the big questions of our day.
One of the foremost Christian apologists of our time, William Lane Craig, speaks to youth leaders on the importance of apologetics, writing:
It’s insufficient for youth groups and Sunday school classes to focus on entertainment and simpering devotional thoughts. We’ve got to train our kids for war. We dare not send them out to public high school and university armed with rubber swords and plastic armor. The time for playing games is past.
If the discipline of apologetics is new to you, I recommend the following books to get you started:
a. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, by Timothy Keller
b. Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction, by John Frame
c. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, by William Lane Craig
5. Be Sincere
Martyn Lloyd-Jones famously described preaching as “theology coming through a man who is on fire.” What our generation needs is preachers who not only possess the truth, but who are possessed by the truth.
George Whitefield was such a man, and is widely considered one of the greatest preachers of the past two thousand years. At the age of 24, Whitefield quickly became known for the earnestness with which he delivered his sermons. Over the next few years, he would often preach to crowds of up to 30,000 in the open air without amplification, and then afterwards go backstage to spit up blood because of the strain on his voice. This self-professed “fool for Christ” once said,
Oh that ministers would preach for eternity! They would then act the part of true Christian orators, and not only calmly and coolly inform the understanding, but, by persuasive, pathetic address, endeavor to move the affections and warm the heart.
John Stott recounts the story of when the agnostic philosopher David Hume was seen rushing off to hear Whitefield preach:
A friend met him hurrying along a London street and asked him where he was going. Hume replied that he was going to hear George Whitefield preach. "But surely," his friend asked in astonishment, "you don’t believe what Whitefield preaches, do you?" "No, I don’t," answered Hume, "but he does."
Sincerity goes a long way in preaching the gospel. A sermon to young people should never be flippant, cowardly or boring, but branded with the earnestness of a messenger who has been captivated by their message. If we have the greatest news that history will ever record, then the sincerity of our tone should reflect the majesty of our truth.