I know that a title like this is a little presumptuous. I could just as easily switch the title around and it would be equally true. But I was thinking about how I preach, and I realized that my style was developed from speaking to teenagers for the last ten years. Talking to a large group of teens is a very different experience from talking to a group of adults sitting quietly on Sunday morning. When it comes to being trained for public speaking, I am a complete novice. I have never taken any public speaking courses, and I really haven’t read any books about communication. But I have learned many lessons the hard way. Any I have applied many of those lessons to my preaching. So here are a few things I have learned from teens about preaching.
1. It all starts with preaching truth, but it has to be understandable.
Yes theology is important and doctrine is important as well. But when you preach, you must present the truth of the Bible in a way that people can understand. Preaching is not about showing off your knowledge, it’s about presenting truth so lives can be changed. So always think about what you are preaching, if teens can’t understand you, then you are probably obfuscating (if you don’t know what I just said, then how can you expect people to understand propitiation or justification without explaining them in everyday terms).
2. You have to be prepared for distractions.
In youth ministry you have constant distractions. It might be a kid seeing how many bodily noises he can make or it might be constant talking and laughing or it might be people getting up and moving around. I had to learn to just take it in stride and not take myself too seriously. Sometimes, the distractions need to be addressed. You can do that with humor most of the time, although sometimes more directness is needed. But when preaching to adults, you have to learn to let your sermon flow with the distractions. Sometimes distractions are an indication that you are losing their attention, so you need to change how you are communicating.
3. It has to be a conversation.
When speaking to teens, I am amazed at how often they raise their hand or blurt out something as you are speaking. Sometimes, their comments are right on the money. But the majority of time, their comments are way out in left field. I learned over the years that you can’t become frustrated with their behavior. They learn by asking questions and interacting as you teach. With adults, my teaching style has changed some, but it is still very interactive. I usually don’t have adults blurting out questions, but I still can sense when they are struggling with something I talk about. Even though they aren’t talking back, it is still a conversation. I try to ask a lot of questions and I pay close attention to their body language. Are they nodding their heads, smiling, or do they just look confused? I then try to adapt what I’m speaking about to more clearly communicate the truth. If they are confused, then I will slow down and describe what I’m trying to say. If they are bored, then I try to get them engaged through personal examples or humor. If they are listening to every word, then I try to really drive home the main point. I don’t want my messages to be a long boring message. To really engage your congregation you must understand how they are processing what you are saying.
4. You have to know when to shut up
With youth, it is easy to talk too much. When you start losing the whole group and everything you try is not working, then you have probably said too much. I fall into the trap of trying to communicate too much. When you go on with point after point after point, the end result is that the students remember nothing. And the same is true of adults. Sometimes you get halfway through a sermon and realize that you are close to the limit of what people can digest. Sometimes I feel the Holy Spirit leading me to share personal stories and illustrations and sometimes I feel like I should add a point or go in depth about something that I wasn’t planning on. When that happens I need to remember that too much information leads to the retention of nothing. There is nothing wrong with calling an audible and postponing part of your message to the next week. Although I’m all for planning ahead, if you let your sermons be dictated by the calendar then you have limited what God can say through you. We must listen to the Holy Spirit and be willing to change our plans for the sake of communicating His plan.