Preaching to the Younger Unchurched

By Ed Stetzer and Jason Hayes

We know what you are thinking:  How does one go about preaching to the unchurched, much less the younger unchurched?  Since preaching is most commonly practiced within a church, it might seem counterintuitive to consider how we might preach to connect with people who aren’t there.  Is it even possible to preach to the unchurched?  And if so, what does such preaching look like?

Let us begin by saying that not only is it possible to preach to the unchurched, it’s quite probable you’re already doing so, perhaps weekly.  Just because someone has awareness of your church or has attended a service at your church does not make them churched.  Consider those that show up for their annual visits on Easter and Christmas.  They may have sat through the last 20 years of your holiday cantata, but that doesn’t make them churched. Entertained? Sure. Inspired? Maybe. But certainly not churched.

Next, think about the guests (hopefully) visiting your church.  For all you know, your service could be the first religious gathering of any kind that they’ve ever participated in.

Finally, note that we are more than a decade into the Internet age. Think of all the ways your services and sermons are available to the general public–churched or not.   An unchurched individual doesn’t have to step one foot onto your campus to be exposed to your preaching, if they are interested. Churches that are effective in reaching the unchurched are leveraging mediums like the web, radio, and television to introduce themselves (and their preaching) to the world.  All things considered, it is hard to deny that in some fashion most of us have the opportunity to preach to the unchurched.

Convincing each other it can be done is one thing. It’s yet another to reflect on how we can do it effectively. In our book, Lost and Found:  The Younger Unchurched and the Churches That Reach Them, we address this very question.  While the research that we share in the book discusses a broad scope of issues related to young adults and their opinions, we will focus in this space specifically on preaching and teaching.  We’ll leave specific stats for the book, but we hope you’ll be encouraged as you read through the provided recommendations we’ve drawn from our research.   Take note especially that so much of what the younger unchurched are looking for lines up directly with the biblical instruction we’ve received as teachers.


Examine Your Approach

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It is not length of life, but depth of life.” Interestingly enough, our research shows that young adults agree.  The survey data confirms that the younger unchurched maintain a high level of interest in theology, apologetics, worldview, and other religions.

Many churches have chosen to lessen their emphasis on depth in order to complement their inaccurate stereotypes of this generation.  This isn’t working now, and it certainly won’t in the future.  In fact, most young adults are turned off by shallowness and are beginning to walk away from environments (including churches) that foster it.

The days of spiritual clichés and cuteness were never wise, but we can afford to engage in superficiality even less today. No matter your worship or preaching style, study the Word deeply and seek to communicate it thoughtfully.  We know you’ve heard the common wisdom to “make it simple,” “make the application your points,” and “make it simple to apply” —and these are not necessarily bad approaches—but many young adults are finding simplistic communication less helpful than their Baby Boomer counterparts.

What young adults are interested in, however, is preaching that engages on several levels, provokes deeper thoughts, and reveals complexity. This doesn’t mean watering down the truth; it means teaching the truth in all its challenging fullness. Preaching that engages the younger unchurched is deliberate preaching crafted with depth of thought and delivered with conviction. Think and rethink. Evaluate and reconsider.


Encourage Struggle

Directly connected to the younger unchurched’s aversion to simplistic preaching is their aversion to “tidy” preaching. The Church has somehow forgotten that life is not always about having a neat, pat answer.  Almost nobody is living “The Brady Bunch” any more, least of all the unchurched, and as much affection as young adults may have for retro entertainment, they instantly recognize when someone is trying to pass off a sitcom as real life. God gave us Jesus, and He gave us His Word.  However, He did not give us all of the answers.  Too many sermons imply that God and His plan can be wrapped up with a pretty bow in 30 minutes, just like “Diff’rent Strokes.”

Young adults are looking for something real – something that issues real challenges, reflects real struggles, and prompts real examination. This level of depth, as described by young adults, is characterized by a continual pursuit of knowledge, experience, wisdom, intellect, understanding, and exploratory learning.

This means that the moralizing of our preaching past is out like the 80s. Our preaching should encompass more than do’s and don’ts.  It should reach to the why and the how behind our proclamation. Great preaching requires mining truth down to its deepest core and assigning it to resonate within the hearts of our listeners. As a result, our preaching must go beyond appeals to behavior modification, beyond pithy platitudes on being happy and living well. Our preaching must wrestle with the meat and marrow of human existence, because this is what young adults are already doing. Otherwise it becomes like tossing a fortune cookie to a man starving in the desert.


Be Authentic and Transparent

We must remember that preaching is not just about what you say; it’s very much about who you are. One of the reasons so many young adults think negatively about churches is because they see very little authentic struggle from their leadership. Indeed, a large majority of the younger unchurched believe the church is full of hypocrites.

Consider the “foolishness of preaching” from the perspective of an unchurched young adult. They see a pastor standing up and presenting the message in a way that implies the pastor already has everything figured out.  When pastors relate no doubt, no struggle, and no experiential element, they just begging to be tuned out. But preaching is not just about the level of intellectual content; it’s also about the teacher’s relationship with that content.

Leaders who know the value of speaking to people, not over people, are leading churches that are reaching young adults.  There is no substitute for authenticity. Preaching with transparency has to do with being open and honest with a purpose that is redemptive and developmental. A preacher who is being transparent opens a window for the divine and pure purpose of helping others change in positive ways, without hidden motives or pretense. This is the kind of transparency that will connect with younger adults.


Prepare Effectively

We realize very few Bible teachers set out to provide shallow teaching. No sincere pastor desires to develop biblically ignorant Christ-followers, and none deliberately set out to disseminate false teaching.  But it’s happening.  Our hunch is that these things aren’t happening because of bad motives but, instead, are the result of weak and inadequate preparation. If this is the case, we each must look long and hard at our approach to studying God’s Word and evaluate our need to improve in this area.

As with most things, great preaching takes commitment, and connecting to the younger generation takes even more.  Are you willing to evaluate your methodology and approach in preaching?  Are you committed to being authentic and transparent as an example for others? Are you willing to go beyond the surface and challenge your people to do the same?  If your answers to these questions are no, then it’s time to start making changes. If you can answer yes, then your preaching is ready to engage this generation.

Ed Stetzer (Ph.D.) is author of Breaking the Missional Code, Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too and Planting Missional Churches. For the second consecutive year, the LifeWay Research team led by Dr. Stetzer has contacted churches, gathered data and produced the OUTREACH 100 lists. Stetzer’s upcoming book, Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and Churches that Reach Them (B&H), tackles the 20-something trend he explores in this report. He currently serves as the President of LifeWay Research. You can interact concerning this article at

Jason Hayes is a speaker, author, strategist and church consultant for Threads, a movement from LifeWay Christian Resources connecting young adults to God and the Church. Jason is a prolific blogger, and his work has been featured in numerous websites, articles and magazines across the U.S. and internationally. In addition to co-authoring Lost and Found with Dr. Stetzer, he is also the author of Blemished: How The Message of Malachi Confronts Empty Religion. Jason is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.