Every time parents (or grandparents) tell me how much their (grand) children love to listen to their preacher, I can visualize prayers of thanksgiving flowing from that home. Preaching that blesses children and teens provides a wonderful gift for ALL the generations that make up the listening community.
If ever we lived in an age where that kind of preaching is called for, we are in it now.
But I know from experience how difficult it is to prepare and deliver those kinds of sermons. I’d suggest three approaches for preachers and their support communities to strengthen such intergenerational preaching.
1. Cultivate relationships with children and teens.
More than a decade ago, Group magazine surveyed more than 10,000 teens concerning what they long for in a church, and two of the top four things on the list were “a senior pastor who loves and understands teens” and “interesting preaching that tackles key questions.”
That’s not surprising; we’re created as deeply relational beings, and these statements are really two sides of the same coin. Research reveals that most people listen to sermons through the lens of the type of relationship they have with the preacher, and that’s true of children and teens too.
Here’s some ideas for strengthening these relationships:
- Learn their names. A survey asking middle school students what they appreciated about their church evoked this response from a 12 year old boy, “the preacher knows my name!” Being known is a relational cornerstone.
- We often have annual services which focus on the boys’ club, the girl’s club, the youth group and/or the Sunday School. Drop in on the group’s meeting the week before that worship service and have a 10 minute conversation about it. Find ways to build a bridge from that drop-in chat to the Sunday worship.
- Once a year spend an entire evening with the youth group. First, share with them candidly what it’s like to be a preacher. What gives you life and joy? What is challenging? What’s it like to prepare sermons every week? What sermon are you working on right now, and what in particular are you wrestling with? (It might be a good idea to appoint two teens ahead of time to serve as interviewers.) Second, have a Q and A with the teens about the Christian life. Give them five minutes to write down questions, and then walk through answering them.
This sounds weird, but steps like these transform the face behind the pulpit into a real, down-to-earth human being with a greater capacity to bless children and teens.
2. Cultivate an intergenerational preaching mindset
Preaching to all generations is a mindset that one very gradually grows into.
Here are some suggestions for encouraging this growth:
- Place small pictures on your desk of the youth group, the Sunday school students, the seniors’ coffee group, and others as visual reminders of the listening community that you are preparing a sermon for.
- Form a sermon feedback team that includes a parent of young children, a teen, a 20-something, a senior, and others that will represent your community. Be very intentional about cultivating a posture of honest teachability so that the group has permission to be much more helpful than cheerleaders. Tell this group what experimental steps you will take in response to their feedback.
- Exhibit a learning posture in all that you are and do so that the community recognizes and celebrates your eagerness to grow.
3. Experiment perseveringly with small steps in sermon preparation
We all have our sermon prep defaults that we have come to trust, and once they are in place they can be difficult to change. Commit to one step, and experiment with it for several months.
Here are some steps to consider:
- A sermon is an aural medium in a visual age. How are you navigating this paradox? Learn to use powerpoint judiciously and evocatively to supplement the spoken word, or create a youth/child-friendly printed outline. Find a prop that you can hold up that embodies something from the message.
- Create a simple check-list after the first draft of a sermon is done which includes these questions: are there enough real-life stories and illustrations in the sermon? What age groups are mentioned in these stories/illustrations? Is this message for the most part understandable and applicable to 11 year olds, 88 year olds, and the folks in between?
- One preacher told me that every week she asks her catechism class to name one thing they’d like to see mentioned in her next sermon, silly or serious. She always finds a way to work it in (sometimes in a very light-hearted way). Regardless of how meaningful it is, the step sends a message: I want to reach you because this matters. And that message strengthens the blessing.
I know how easy it is for us as preachers to say to ourselves, “I don’t have the skills to preach to children and teens like colleague X down the road does. I am who I am.” But this is not a YES/NO skill. We all have the capacity to improve in this area, one tiny step at a time. Our kids and teens need this from us.
What approaches have you found helpful for preparing sermons that reach people from different generations in your church? Leave your ideas in the comments section below!