by Mike Langford

Hearing sermons that deal with contexts and concerns of other members of the community will help adolescents to realize that they are part of a larger Body, a realization that is key if they are to remain in the church.

In many churches, youth are not present in Sunday morning worship services, often called “big church” (though I will also refer to it as “community worship”). Sometimes, there is an alternate worship service (often just called “Sunday school,” or perhaps a more catchy one-word title) designed specifically for adolescent sensibilities and occurring in another room somewhere. It usually features more contemporary music, the atmosphere and “liturgy” is more informal, and the average age is much younger. But another difference is the “sermon” (usually just called a “talk” in the youth context) preached in each location.
Youth ministers sometimes justify this separation using words like “relevant” and “practical” and “dynamic.” In short, they feel that youth will not connect with the sermon preached to the rest of the church, and instead adolescents need the Gospel communicated in ways that speak to their particular life situations and to the issues that they are facing each day, contexts and concerns that will not be addressed in “big church” in a way they can understand.
This is a legitimate gripe. I wouldn’t like sitting in a church where I didn’t feel that the Gospel was ever addressed to me, either. But, all the same, I don’t think that this separation is good for the Body of Christ, nor does it encourage lifelong faith. Also, I wonder if it properly understands the nature of preaching or its context of worship. So, how might we think about preaching and youth ministry?
To isolate the matter, what is preaching? Preaching is, in short, communicating to a community the good news of Jesus in such a way that it helps the recipients to embrace their salvation.[1] Obviously, this is a very general definition. Preaching includes different kinds of communication. It extends to different sorts of communities. It communicates different facets of the good news. And it produces different effects in its recipients. That’s four different aspects that interrelate in lots of different ways: communication, community, Gospel of Jesus, and effect of salvation. Let’s look briefly at each of these aspects.

First, how should we think of the communication of the Gospel in terms of adolescents?

It is true that certain types of communication are given and received differently by different sorts of people. So it shouldn’t be surprising that adolescents, too, will respond in diverse ways to different styles of preaching. We must be careful not to lump all adolescents together; their experiences, personalities, and particular needs will mean that different students will respond to different styles of communication. Not all adolescents will enjoy “narrative” or “postmodern” or “dialogical” preaching, though some will (just like adults). In fact, even the same student will respond differently at different times. So it seems that we ought to offer adolescents many different styles of communication, including those present in the larger community worship. And there is one other danger we must mention. Youth ministers must beware that they are not imagining that adolescents need a form of communication that is merely a form with which they, the youth ministers, are more comfortable or have more affinity. That’s a danger any preacher faces.

Second, how should we think of the community who receives the communication of the Gospel?

Sometimes, youth ministers work to encourage students to attend the community worship service only to hear a sermon that is clearly oriented toward their parents. However, this is not a failure of community worship, but rather it is the failure of the preacher to acknowledge the diversity of the congregation. If sermons are preached only for adults, then it is no wonder that adolescents would dread listening. Instead, sermons should be oriented toward the whole community, including students. That means sermons–some more than others–will be directed toward adolescent contexts and concerns. However, the reverse is true as well: adolescents, just like adults, should not expect every sermon to be tailor-made for them. Hearing sermons that deal with contexts and concerns of other members of the community will help adolescents to realize that they are part of a larger Body, a realization that is key if they are to remain in the church. And, of course, many sermons are meant to draw communities together by speaking to common concerns and contexts; ultimately, there is no concern- or context-free sermon.[2]

Third, how should we think of the Gospel in terms of adolescents?

Because the Gospel is so universal, it is powerful and all-encompassing, meant to affect every sort of people and every aspect of existence. And because the Gospel is so particular, it is pliable and practical, meant to wend its way into each context and each concrete circumstance. Therefore, we need the whole Gospel preached to the whole person. This means that we need to preach on many different subjects and Scriptural texts from many different angles. Relatedly, this also means that we need to have different people preaching. In order to present the whole Gospel to the whole person, it should be preached by the whole community.[3] This means that we need the perspectives of adolescents, too. In short, adolescents ought to be preaching–not merely in the youth group, and not merely on “Youth Sunday.” Age should not be the determining factor of suitability to preach, but rather spiritual maturity, willingness to listen to God and to the text, and ability to communicate to the community. There are plenty of adults who attain the pulpit who lack those qualities!

Fourth, what is the effect of preaching?

Ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit that uses the sermon, like all parts of worship, to create holistic salvation. Therefore the “outcome” of preaching is unpredictable. It is dangerous to determine the effectiveness of preaching by looking for specific metrics; to do so is to claim to understand exactly how the Holy Spirit works. Therefore, the youth minister must be careful in her or his judgment that the preaching in community worship “does nothing” for the youth. Who knows what it is doing? If the preacher is faithfully communicating the Gospel to the community, then we can be sure the Holy Spirit is doing something![4] The key in any ministry is to know and love God and to know and love those to whom you are ministering. So, to preach to adolescents, we must seek to submit ourselves to the Gospel and allow it to inform us of what it may have to say to the community that we know and love. If that faithfulness to knowing and loving occurs, then the preaching is worthwhile.
Preaching is communicating to a community the good news of Jesus in such a way that it helps the recipients to embrace their salvation. This means that diverse means of communication will need to be employed. It means that youth must hear preaching addressed to their concerns and context, and also to those of the wider Body. It means that the whole Gospel should be preached, and that the perspectives of youth are needed if that whole Gospel is to be heard. And it means that we must be humble enough to admit that the Holy Spirit will use lots of different sorts of faithful preaching to deliver salvation.
If the preacher is connected to God through the text, and connected to the community through love, then the Spirit will move.

Michael D. Langford, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry and Coordinator of Youth Ministry Education and Training at Seattle Pacific University and Seattle Pacific Seminary. He is also an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He and his wife, Kelly, live in Seattle with their kids, Hannah, Seth, and Caleb.

[1] One of the greatest preachers ever, John Wesley, once said that “wherever I was desired to preach, salvation by faith was my only theme…” (Letter XXXIX to Mr. John Smith, dated December 30, 1745, Section 16). But by salvation, he meant something quite expansive. “By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven: but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth” (“A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” Part 1, Section 3).
[2] “Effective preaching has an invested local flavor because the preacher as witness participates in the mission of a specific community of faith, goes to the scripture on behalf of that community, and hears a particular word for them on this day and in this place.” Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989), 46.
[3] “For most of us, the majority of our preaching will occur in the context of the community of faith at worship. This means, in part, that preaching becomes woven into the dramatic structure of the larger service of worship, which itself is a witness to the gospel…. More basically, however, it indicates that preaching is not merely a deed performed by an individual preacher but rather the faithful action of the whole church.” The Witness of Preaching, 47.
[4] “[T]he Word of God preached means … [our] talk about God on the basis of God’s own direction, which fundamentally transcends all human causation, which cannot, then, be put on a human basis, but which simply takes place, and has to be acknowledged, as a fact.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, 90. Preaching is effective only because God miraculously uses it. To remember this keeps us humble! “If there is proclamation, if the attempt does not fail, it is just at the point where success is achieved that it can and will be understood, not as a human success, but as a divine victory concealed in human failure, sovereignly availing itself of human failure. God then makes good what we do badly.” Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, 751.