Six Steps for Preaching to the Next Generation
I have had the privilege of preaching to high-school and college-aged students for a decade. I find it both challenging and rewarding, and perhaps, to some, overly mystical. Young people need to hear the Bible. I’ve found myself gradually leaning on the Bible more - not less - as I’ve breached the college campus. One particular conversation stands out to me. After an hour of speaking to a very bright girl on a sensitive moral issue, she acknowledged my right to my opinion and feelings on the topic. It struck me, at that moment, this is precisely what I’d offered her! I quickly opened the Bible, and it altered the course of our conversation.
That being said, I think there are helpful and unhelpful ways of teaching the Bible to the next generation. I’m not interested in wooing young people into the church. Yet I am interested in presenting the truth of the Bible in a way that translates accurately to whomever I preach. I want to be sure what I am saying about the Bible is what they are hearing. Unfortunately, many of us have little idea how to bridge the gap, particularly with the next generation. As technology accelerates our acceleration of change, the gap is widening. Admittedly, I have yet to preach a sermon where no student checked their phone!
Yet I do have a radical number of students who do not check their phone while I preach. Nor are they snoozing in their seats, or staring off into the fluorescents. This isn’t because I’m a particularly entertaining personality - it’s because they understand what I am saying. What I am saying is what they are hearing. And that is the only goal of preaching: to translate the Bible in such a way that the listeners present hear what it is saying.
To that end, I’ve constructed a template I’ve used on and off again. The template itself isn’t magical. It is a tool which enables me to ensure I translate the Bible accurately. I won’t go into detail about why it resonates with students, except to say that it leans more heavily on a narrative structure than a formal, didactical structure. As the TEDx talk speaking guide articulates well, modern talks need to have a “clear but hidden structure.” A 3-point sermon is clear, but it is not hidden. An essay-type sermon’s structure is hidden, but unclear. Students scoff at both, for various cultural and sociological reasons. But my purpose here is to present the structure, rather than justify it. Use it as a tool for any teaching opportunity - and feel free to mold it in a way that fits your personality.
Here it is:
1. My Story. I try to begin every talk by sharing some way way in which I’ve experienced failure or confusion in my life. There was a time when I resisted this. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that I am not the good news students need to hear. Rather, they need to hear of a Savior who frees them to fail. Confession, I think, is something which distinguishes Christians from every other voice in our culture. Authenticity is an idol - this means we need to correct it as an be-all-end-all virtue, but it also means we need to exhibit it clearly.
2. Our Story. After sharing a bit of my story, I widen my purview to include the world we share together. “I struggle with this,” leads to “maybe you struggle with it too.” In order to preach this portion, you’ll need to know students. Some students are prodigals, discovering themselves through themselves. Others are straight-laced religious types, attempting to use religion to achieve the good life. All students share these tendencies in differing degrees. Broadly speaking, these tendencies lead to hurt and brokenness in three fields: 1. Personal brokenness (anxiety, anger, confusion, depression, etc). 2. Societal struggles (families, church, school, friends, politics), and 3. Missional brokenness (vocational issues, justice issues, issues of Christian witness, etc.)
3. Their Story. I try not to wait too long to get into the Bible. These first two movements need not take more than 5-7 minutes. Now it is time to open up the text, with a goal in mind: bridge the gap from “our story” to “their story”. Obviously, in exegesis this process is reversed - we begin with the original audience, and work outward to our world. In a sermon, however, we begin with our world and walk from it to the text. Having named our issues, we show how the original hearers struggled with the same dilemma. The goal is not merely to announce an answer - from a narratival perspective, these first five movements are building tension.
4. God’s Story. The principal I teach to every Bible study leader is: God is the main character. Answer the question, “What does this passage say about God?” and you are well on your way to understanding a text’s meaning. So it is important that we preach God as the protagonist in each story. How do we do this? Obviously, we must understand the theological point of the text. But we must also understand the competing theologies students embrace. We must not only present God as the solution, but we must present competing worldviews as false solutions (returning to the two broad narratives of “prodigal identity” and “religious identity”). Deconstructing these to make way for the Bible’s answer is the goal of this movement.
5. Your Story. After we have disassembled the competing narratives, and presented the true theological solution, we distill this theological solution into a single phrase. This is your “one point”. All of your applications in this section will be applications of the theological principle. Return to movement 2, and apply the reality of God presented in the text personal, socially, and missionally. Yet acknowledge that you are still building tension. Without the solution of the gospel, students cannot properly respond to the theology of the text. Their idolatries prohibit it - at the end of this section, I normally build the tension to a climax with a question: “But do we behave this way? No - even though we can see from this text that this is the correct way to respond to God’s work/character, we do not respond this way, because we don’t truly believe this is the way God is. We trust in _______ instead. So, how can we change?”
6. Christ’s Story. Here is where we get to the crux of all preaching - the worship of Christ. To keep this from being a gospel-tag-on or a Jesus juke, the main thing is to demonstrate the way Christ fulfills, illuminates, exemplifies, establishes and proves the theological point. There is no need for theological shenanigans. Simply show Christ exemplifying and fulfilling God’s character and work established in your passage. It’s that simple. This proclamation of Christ is what moves and regenerates students' hearts, and enables them to fulfill the law. Borrow from their favored cultural narratives. There is an increasingly obvious Christ figure in modern films especially. Speak their heart language. Find a single, crystal-clear picture which drives past those watchful religious dragons. Use the stories they cherish to draw them into the true story of the gospel.