Picture this scene from a local youth room near you: A group of teenagers are sitting in rows listening to a speaker. Well, some of the teenagers are listening. The rest are sleeping, playing on their phones, listening to their iPods or getting up to go to the bathroom for the fourth time. Though it's clear to any casual observer the speaker has lost his audience at some point during the past 40 minutes, he presses on to his conclusion as though every person in the room is begging for more PowerPoint slides bursting with informative bullet points and state-of-the-art transitions and animations. When the speaker finishes, he or she asks if there are any questions. When no hands go up after five seconds, he collects his notes and sits down.
For many youth workers, this scene is proof that teenagers can't sit through a sermon that lasts more than 10 minutes. In fact, some contend the sermon is a traditional means of communicating that is too outdated and ill-suited for youth ministry. I would conclude this: Most bad talks in youth ministries aren't bad because sermons are bad. They're bad because we don't always understand how to use sermons or talks in youth ministry to their fullest potential. Sermons are great tools, but when we misuse them, we subject teenagers to the kind of boredom described above and give the impression Jesus is boring, too.
Call me old-school, but I believe sermons still have a place in youth ministry. Unfortunately, when a youth worker gets up in front of a group of teenagers, what often ends up occurring in the next 20 or 30 minutes is a lecture. Compounding this problem is the fact that for many time-strapped youth pastors, far too little time gets devoted to crafting and developing their talks or sermons. When there isn't enough time to prepare, we tend to revert to default mode, which is treating up-front speaking as simply a mind-dump of information, often accompanied by PowerPoint presentations described above.
The solution to this problem is not to abandon all up-front teaching in youth ministry. Instead, perhaps we should rethink and re-imagine how teaching and preaching look in youth ministry. I understand that for many (especially part-time) youth workers, the idea of putting more effort into your message preparation stresses you out because you barely have enough time to do your job as it is. I've got two answers to that objection: First, if teaching is an important part of a youth pastor's job (and it is), we need to find ways to put in the time and effort required to do a good job. Second, most of the suggestions below don't necessarily require more of your time. They just require a shift in how you approach your up-front speaking.Teaching as Jesus Taught
Jesus' teaching was different from His contemporaries. When He began His three-year public ministry, people were astonished at His teaching. What set Jesus apart? Flashy PowerPoints? A fantastic haircut? We're told in the gospels that what impressed people the most was the fact Jesus taught "with authority" (Mark 1:22
). You might say, "Of course He taught with authority. He's Jesus!" Of course, you'd be right. As the Son of God, Jesus exercised authority over demons and disease. He was intimately connected with the Father, and He was sent by the Father to do the Father's will. In case it's not already obvious at this point, you and I are not Jesus. However, there is still much to be learned from the way Jesus taught, because what made Jesus different as a preacher and teacher was not simply that He was God.